PRINT March 1980

Ulrich Rückriem: The Monumental Ritual

IN 1955, HERBERT READ GAVE A series of lectures under the auspices of the National Gallery of Art in Washington which became a book about sculpture. In thinking about the origins of sculpture, he seized upon the ancient story of Jacob in Genesis, Chapter 28. In the course of his work as a mighty progenitor, Jacob “went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place and tarried there all night, because the sun was set. And he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.” Then he had a dream in which he saw a ladder “and the top of it reached to heaven.” And the Lord addressed him in his sleep and willed him the land where he was. Jacob woke up with a fright and said, “How dreadful is this place! This is none other but the house of God and this is the gate to heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. . . . And this stone which I have set up for a pillar shall be God’s house.” Thus it is that Sir Herbert surmised that temples were developed out of monuments and not as elaborations of dwellings.

I am brought to these rather fundamental observations by the work of Ulrich Rückriem which is very little known in the United States. I met Ulrich during the run of his recent solo show in New York and I immediately liked him enormously. As my companion on the occasion remarked, he is like a great big little boy. Although such observations may seem to be strange to art journalism, I permit myself this exorbitant image because Ulrich’s work, I think, is very clearly a vast ritual which he performs all the time and from which his stone sculptures and other things are souvenirs, quite literally reminders of the ritual activity. Rückriem makes monuments. Beyond that, he engages society directly as an artist. Of course all artists do this somewhat. But in most cases (and Ulrich is not the only shaman—“he who knows”—in the art community) the ritual of art is so formalized into a series of telephone conversations and appointed meetings that it loses its original ritual value and takes on the appearance of everyday busy-ness.

Ulrich Rückriem is famous for his elusiveness, for his bombast, for his hard drinking, for his vulnerability, for his insecurity, for his steadfastness and for what I might call the clarity of his confusion. Especially during times when he is opening an exhibition, I’m told, he behaves extremely erratically. Nobody can find him, and he can’t find anything. It isn’t at all a joke or an idiosyncratic trademark. It’s really a ritual, as is Ulrich’s whole life.

In 1909, the English stonemason Eric Gill, 27 years old, took a piece of stone and began hitting it with steel points and chisels until it resembled the body of a naked woman. Masons could still turn out classic friezes, capitals, columns and so forth, but they merely exercised a craft. Artists all worked with clay models which were than reproduced in whatever material they wished. Stone carving, which had certainly been a fine art in Ancient Greece and Renaissance Europe, had been forgotten. In his autobiography, Gill recounted his experience:

. . . my first erotic drawing was not on the back of an envelope but a week or so’s work on a decent piece of hard stone . . . I don’t think it was a very good carving . . . but there it was; it was a carving of a naked young woman and if I hadn’t very much wanted a naked young woman, I don’t think I should ever have done it . . . I was responsible for her very existence and her every form came straight out of my heart.2

He showed it to some friends in London—Count Kessler and Roger Fry.

To my innocent astonishment they took it extremely seriously and what I . . . thought a very amateurish piece of work they instantly hailed as a sort of baby angel announcing a new incarnation. All this was right over my head. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I wasn’t an art critic or an art connoisseur. I knew nothing about the art movements of Europe. In my own opinion, I wasn’t even an artist . . . So all without knowing it I was making a little revolution. I was reuniting what should never have been separated: the artist as a man of imagination and the artist as workman.3

Although there is no relationship that I would press between the stone work of Eric Gill and the stone work of Ulrich Rückriem, there is in their lives a remarkable parallelism. Gill was a Socialist in search of Catholicism; as far as I know, Rückriem has no such overt concerns. But both came to monument making through religious stone carving on tombstones. Some of Ulrich’s pieces, those in which the edges or some edges are chipped away carefully, remind one slightly of life monuments, as I suppose tombstones should properly be termed. Ulrich had an additional fillip of experience. In the late ’50s, he was employed as a mason in the shops whose work it is to continuously repair and restore the cathedral at Köln (Cologne to us). At this time, and through his succeeding period of work on life monuments, he came to know stone and stone carving.

I worked as a stone mason for two years but I didn’t only cut stones, I rebuilt figures for the Cologne Cathedral. It was a very special skill, you had to have a feeling for the material . . . I was really proud that I could do it but I was never satisfied.

Was that art to you?

No, not at all. But people . . . would say to me “you are an artist.”

Did you start believing you were?

In the beginning, yes. And then I became less and less sure about what I was doing and . . . I decided to leave the Cathedral and I made a trip to Africa, all around the Mediterranean. Just to look around. And that was perhaps the first cut, the first break with what I did before.4

Rückriem never had any schooling, let alone any art training. When he got back from Africa, he found a castle at Nörvenich and there he began making portraits in stone, direct stone carvings. After doing these for about two years, he grew bored because he was satisfied with them. Always questing, but uncertain of what for, he started making some wood beam sculpture that somebody said looked like the work of Mark di Suvero. This stopped him. “Now I know it wasn’t the same, but at the time I was very unsure, a little wind could blow me away.” I believe he also made some welded metal sculpture that was painted, but I have never seen any of it. After vacillating for a while, he hit upon a good idea. He decided to cut up a stone.

“I made my first split piece in stone in 1968. It was a rectangular cut block of dolomite about three feet high which I split by eye into five rectangular slabs.” This piece, in the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Krefeld, has a rather industrial look and is dominated on its “front” by the eight large cavities created by the chisels with which the rock was split. Unlike most of Rückriem’s work, this one has a slight air of furniture about it although the cuts are obviously rough. Another work, made this year in upstate New York, is a column in two parts which, when I saw it in a gallery situation, was often used as a spot about which people would gather and talk, and it also occasionally operated as a stand for objects.

Rückriem also came to New York in 1968. He had met the sculptor Bill Bollinger in Germany and Bollinger invited him to visit. He was curious about American art, having seen a bit of Carl Andre’s work and having heard of a few others. “What I saw in New York, what perhaps helped me a lot, was not the art but the extreme living conditions . . . It was like a shop for dying. I think it’s very important for doing things directly. You’re always in danger.” After a desultory summer in the city he returned to Germany and made a great deal of new work. The stone pieces were first shown in 1969 in Düsseldorf. Since then, although he has also done other work such as cut steel circles and bent steel plates, Rückriem has consistently produced a large body of stone works in which the stone is sawn, split or wedged into pieces which are then reassembled.

Whenever the concept of ritual is mentioned, we have the sense that “You must be talking of someone else, not me.” Following in the byways of cultural anthropology after Sigmund Freud, we see such things as outside our orbit. Everything we do is either rational or irrational, or, as Corneille remarked, it is logical for the illogical to contradict the logical. My conviction has always been, however, that our rituals are so fully integrated into society that we can’t notice them. Even modern social anthropologists such as René Girard seem comfortable only when speaking of distant, unindustrialized communities.

Behind the pagentry of the African monarchies lurks the spectre of the sacrificial crisis, suddenly resolved by the unanimity arising from the generative act of violence. Each African king is a new Oedipus obliged to play out his own myth from beginning to end, because ritualistic theory sees in this enactment the means of renewing and perpetuating a cultural order that is constantly on the brink of destruction.5

Surely such considerations could have nothing to do with modern art—or might they? Without writing the boring book which would be required to legitimize the idea academically, I think that, with a few changes, the preceding paragraph could be adapted to many things in our own lives, including modern art production. Try it and see. My idea is that some artists—those who one might think have a true vocation rather than just a trade, skill or craft in art—go through life performing a clear ritual which in most cases gives rise to products that are then called “art.” I think it is, strictly speaking, a classless ritual—the shaman is a free being—but of course, in our society particularly, it tends to get associated with upper-class mores and more or less effete intellectuals. Ulrich Rückriem is to me a paradigm of this kind of artist, by no means the first or the last, by no means the best or the worst, but solidly in the center of an unrecognized tradition. Walking through the streets of SoHo with him, he’d say, “Let’s go find the real people,” usually in the two working-class bars on the outskirts of art-town. However, it is not the specific behavior of an artist that is of interest in this connection; it is a ritual process which all real artists profess and in which we can see the renewal and perpetuation of a cultural order that is constantly on the brink of destruction.

Rückriem breaks stones and occasionally other matters. He sees his work as going into the center of mass, in a way, like passing through the stone. He makes several kinds of marks on the way to the heart of the matter. First, there are the even, smooth cuts made by the electric stone saw. In blocks which are either sawn, finished blocks to begin with or rough blocks found in the quarry, he makes three or four cuts along different straight lines so that the stone is easily fitted back together. It is difficult to refer verbally to Rückriem’s individual pieces, because he has done many that are very similar to each other over a period of ten years, although I don’t think any are exactly the same, even if only the type of stone or the dimensions vary. They are all untitled. His first sawn piece, I believe, was made in Vermont out of slate. Slate, being soft, is easy to saw.

Dolomite, on the other hand, is porous and hard. It is very suitable to cut it with chisels. As he remarks, the porous quality leaves holes for the chisels to pass into the stone. When sculptors break dolomite in this manner, they later remove the characteristic marks left by the wide chisels, really wedges, which are used to part the stone. Also, you get a very irregular cut following the structure of the stone. In Rückriem’s work, you see the marks left by the chisels like his very first stone piece of this type. They look like handles, and in a way they are handles, a way of getting inside the rock.

Granite is the hardest stone with which sculptors normally work. It is very hard to chip it, and the steel points and chisels and hammers for working granite and marble are larger than they are for limestone, a much softer stone. A special tool, a spiral wedge with the lovely name of “plug and feathers,” is employed for cutting granite. Along the line which you wish to open, you drill holes a couple of inches deep and the width of your own plugs. The steel plug and its two steel “feathers” are inserted into each of the holes—a stonemason will probably own 18 sets of plug and feathers—and these are hammered by hand, each in turn following the other. Gradually they are hit with harder force. “After a length of time, usually anything between ten to twenty minutes, the note of the hammering that echoes from the stone goes dead and suddenly the piece of stone jumps off.”6 It is not necessary to use the technique in granite only—Rückriem has used it in sandstone and bluestone as well. You get an irregular cut, and there are round holes in Rückriem’s pieces where the plug and feathers were set—all other sculptors remove these tracks of the stonemason’s craft.

A further kind of work which Rückriem has shown are those which are broken in pieces, being rather thin slabs, but this is not his normal technique. He did use it when, in about 1971, he found some cast iron circles in junkyards. With the enormous cranes bearing electric magnets which are usual in junkyards, he had these circles picked up and then cast down by shutting off the magnet. The force broke the brittle fittings, and the few parts thus achieved were reassembled.

One of the most interesting type of work has examples throughout his pieces.The basic type is that part of a single stone is finished, the other part is rough, and there is a break or cut between the parts which fit together perfectly, showing that they are of the same rock. Probably having some similarity to unfinished or abandoned works or scraps in masons’ yards, they neatly demonstrate the hand of man on stone. There are also wooden pieces of this kind, usually using an old found piece of wood and a new milled piece of wood, fitted carefully together. (It is strange that in wood he would do this while two different materials would be unlikely in his stones).

Rückriem is an artist of great fecundity and fine sensibility but he is not highly inventive. His ideas follow sensibly and he moves back and forth in his ideas, not abandoning all old ideas the way some artists feel they must. Like Brancusi and Andre, the ideas keep reappearing, in a new size, material, or even color, in the midst of doing other ideas which may or may not reappear. Of course the work has a certain minimal quality, but it escapes the feeling of being “reduced” from anything because of the charm of the stone itself. I say charm, and mean it, but this must come from massiveness, not only massiveness, but penetrated, articulated massiveness. It has the same charm as the great classical sculptures in stone without being as tedious to construct or to sightsee.

In 1971, Robert Grosvenor returned from meeting Rückriem in Germany and convinced his New York dealer to show the work. She did in the spring of 1972. He made the pieces in a stone importer’s yard in Queens. Possibly because of the limited selection of stone, the works of this show are very thin and lack the strength of earlier and later work. The remarkable thing in that show was the piece which included a really sculptured aspect: the edges of a square yard of bluestone were removed with a chisel. It was at this time that Rückriem was most involved with American art, and the works he most admired were the sculptures of Carl Andre and the paintings of Brice Marden. There is, however, little or no similarity among these artists. Using a métier familiar to him for many years, stone masonry, Rückriem cuts up pieces of stone. As he correctly points out, Andre invariably adds things together to form wholes; Rückriem is always cutting things apart and putting them back together. Concerning paintings, it is not as clear. But one can see, for example, in some of his most recent works made at a stone yard in upstate New York (East Branch), that in respect to design and even possibly in regard to color, there is a sense in which Rückriem makes stone “paintings” on the floor. I am always impressed when the arts cross-pollinate each other, although I can sense the affinity with Marden in Rückriem’s work better than I can see it. Perhaps it doesn’t exist, but in any case, one still sees blocks of stone with a certain texture and a clear color which the artist only chooses and splits or cuts according to an interior logic he need not share.

In 1978, Ulrich Rückriem was chosen to make a work for the German Pavilion at the Biennale di Venezia. This is possibly his most important work, really a group of four pieces designed to be in a certain room in Venice but now installed outdoors in the Black Forest. Of dolomite, one of Ulrich’s favorite rocks, this work was the subject of a catalog by Rudi Fuchs, the director of Eindhoven’s museum. In a modest way, I think, Rückriem’s work in Venice demonstrates that even simple sculpture can be as quietly intellectual as anything else—as intelligent as a treatise on linguistics, may God forbid it. Having skipped practically all the school experience which so highly socializes us, Rückriem nevertheless achieves not only intelligence but also wit in his work which, in my opinion, approaches philosophy in the medium of stone.

Ted Castle is a free-lance writer who lives in New York.



1. Herbert Read, The Art of Sculpture, New York, 1956, p. 7.

2. Eric Gill, Autobiography, London. 1940, p. 159.

3. Gill, pp. 160–162.

4. Willoughby Sharp, “A Conversation with Ulrich Rückriem,” Avalanche, Fall 1971 (Number Three), pp. 42–51. I am highly indebted to this interview.

5. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, Translated by P. Gregory, Baltimore, 1977, p. 106.

6. Mark Batten, Direct Carving in Stone, London/New York, 1966, p. 112.