New York

Ulrich Ruckriem

Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery

Ulrich Ruckriem is a German sculptor who has also worked as a stonecutter at the Cologne Cathedral. Recently he showed nine works, mostly slabs and blocks of quarried bluestone, into which he cut geometric forms. In each work the fine lines of the cuts counterpoint the rough contours of the given shapes.

Obviously Ruckriem the stonecutter is important to Ruckriem the sculptor. In effect, the pristine stone that is worked in the quarry into slabs and blocks is worked further by Ruckriem, but not toward a product that is to become an element in a conventional piece of architecture or sculpture. The work stops short of these ends and thus, oddly enough, is able both to qualify and to transcend them. In a sense, Ruckriem “detours” them into a work of art. The work seems a stern refusal, as pronounced perhaps by its sheer inertia.

The work is crude but it is a refined crudeness; it refines one’s notions of the “natural” and the “cultural.” At first, the geometric forms that are cut into the stone seem like a violation of its nature; but very quickly such notions recede into abstraction. (The stone, even as it is given to the sculptor, left alone to us in the gallery, is a “cultural” entity.) One comes to think about the work less in terms of “natural” versus “cultural” and more in terms of cultural orders; specifically the hierarchy of “containers” and “contents.”

Take the piece reproduced here. If this were conventional sculpture, the rectangular block that is cut into the slab would be the raw material from which the sculpture would be hewn; it would be the given format to which the final form of the sculpture would refer. The block is conventionally the given, the “container.” In the Ruckriem piece, however, the block is the invented (i.e. the cut or “drawn”), the “contained” or content. At least almost. For so strong is the connotation of the block as a container that it makes the rest of the stone (the “outside”) seem like the content of the sculpture (the “inside”). This is ironic in that the rest of the stone would be discarded in the usual sculptural or stonecutting procedure.

The work does not just invert opposed terms like container and content (or even sculpture by subtraction, or cutting or chiseling, and sculpture by addition, or molding or constructing); rather, it seeks to deconstruct or at least rethink such oppositions.

A similar thing occurs in a few paintings by Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Mangold, where an irregular format provokes the viewer to “ghost” a regular form (like a square) in the center of the work to act as the conventional format or container, so that the outside (i.e. the irregular format) becomes the form or content of the work—in a sense, the “picture” to the ghosted square’s “painting.” There too this is more a de-definition than an inversion of terms.

Come to think of it, maybe I have read the work wrongly. Robert Smithson once said that one man’s materialism is another man’s romanticism. This may be true of Ruckriem. Perhaps the work is not at all about a de-definition of natural and cultural categories but, rather, about a romantic desire to transform the one into the other, the natural stone into a cultural object, in the conventional way of art-making. But the work deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Hal Foster