Fort Worth

Ulrich Rückriem

Fort Worth Art Museum

Last fall, the Fort Worth Art Museum brought Ulrich Rückriem to Texas, found him a quarry in the small community of Fredericksburg, north of San Antonio, and told him to go to it. Ten days later he had completed the ten red granite sculptures that compose his latest show, and his first solo exhibition in an American museum.

It is difficult to imagine 27 tons of red granite looking subtle, but Rückriem’s new work is precisely that—subtle and straightforward. The museum gallery looks like an ancient archaeological site, where fragments of crumbled buildings have just been unearthed. In one corner four hip-high columns lean tentatively toward one another, as though anticipating another tremor. Nearby sit four squat blocks that look as though they were cracked from the same piece only moments before. Scattered around is an assortment of squares, cubes, rectangles, and triangles, gathered from who knows where.The stones have no surface embellish-ments; they are simple, silent, and humanly scaled. What you see is what there is.

The power of this work—like the power of the stone circles in England and Ireland—comes partly from Rückriem’s respect for his material and the traditional ways of working it. In Fredericksburg, he selected stones that had already been quarried, and then he and his assistants cut them in halves, and cut them again, and sometimes again, so that the finished pieces contain an even number of sections that are in precise relationship to one another. Each piece retains chisel and wedge marks, which sometimes fall across the surface in delicate patterns, somewhat like line drawings. These gouges and plug holes are like fingerprints reminding us that the raw stone has been altered by the artist’s hand. The natural surfaces and contours of the granite are set against this human element, in delicate balance.

The shape of each piece emerges from the stone, the way Michelangelo’s slaves appear to emerge from deep inside the blocks of marble. On one horizontal floor piece, for example, the outer edges are naturally jagged while the interior edges, where the individual sections would join, are machine smooth. The reverse is true of a companion piece—smooth outside, rough inside. The entire exhibition could be viewed as a network of subtle exchanges between roughness and smoothness, mass and movement, balance and apparent imbalance, hand and machine, nature and art.

This is demanding work. Demanding on the building, which had to be jacked up to accomodate the weight, and demanding on the viewer. It is single-minded, obsessive work that rewards those who appreciate an intense, laser-like focus, and frustrates those who insist on variety and change. Although Rückriem sings more than one note, the tune is always familiar, too familiar for some. “Too bad Peter Sellers isn’t alive to make a movie of this,” wrote one irate visitor. “A public museum exhibiting a bunch of dumb rocks.”

Dumb, yes. But if you are patient these dumb rocks begin to speak.

David Dillon