New York

View of “Ulrich Rückriem,” 2015.

View of “Ulrich Rückriem,” 2015.

Ulrich Rückriem

Koenig & Clinton

View of “Ulrich Rückriem,” 2015.

For his first solo exhibition in New York in almost twenty years, Ulrich Rückriem quietly confounded the expectations of those familiar with his monumental sculptures. After all, it would not have been unreasonable to expect a spectacle like the one Michael Heizer presented at Gagosian earlier this year, that of an aging artist (now in his late seventies, Rückriem has been working consistently since the early 1960s) going bigger and brasher than ever before. But though Rückriem, like Heizer, is known for massive stone blocks, permutative methods, and an uncompromising, even contrarian personality that has perhaps impeded the institutional recognition his work warrants, he has proven that his impulse to create is radically different than that of his fellow Earth artist. The centerpiece of the exhibition, The Last Fifty Years, 2015, is a single work composed of seven individual sculptures, each a diminutive version of his standard materials, processes, and tools: There are timber beams placed perpendicularly, rows of steel rebar with their edges neatly wound, stone plates that have been polished to varying degrees of luster, and an iron pipe hammered flat. They are flinty and implacable and resolutely beautiful in their simplicity.

This impeccable arrangement of sculptures was echoed by a suite of forty-nine drawings Rückriem produced for the show. These modest works (only 8 by 11 3/4 inches each) were hung in two grids—one with four rows of seven, the other with three—that were installed on opposing walls, preventing the viewer from taking them all in at once. For each, Rückriem started with seven points, then joined the lines in a number of different ways, shading in various shapes that arose. One row in particular was remarkable for its elegance and its welcome confirmation that permutation can still be surprising. Here, the same pattern of holes, like the points of a constellation, had been punched in seven pieces of matte-black Dibond. Each was hung from a different opening so that the paper draped in different ways, the only moment of irregularity in the show. The pierced pages call to mind the holes in Rückriem’s stone monoliths left by the rotary hammer saws used to cut the rock at the quarry, but they also evoke the pinhole projectors children make to look at a solar eclipse.

The main component of The Last Fifty Years—placed literally in the center of the gallery—is an iron ring that does not quite close, with a small gap where the final weld should have been. Some of Rückriem’s past works have been weighed down by heavy symbolism, and this almost-closed circle is no exception. But Rückriem’s decision to forgo monumentality for intimacy—each work is only a few feet wide and no more than six inches tall—opens the work to a level of melancholic honesty that had been hard to find before, and with it a concession to old age. Shipped to New York and uncharacteristically installed without the artist’s direct supervision, the show was an attempt to secure a legacy in a future that will be without him. It was Rückriem’s Boîte-en-valise, his ruminative history of production in miniature. And we are lucky to have it.

Rachel Churner