New York

Ursula von Rydingsvard, OGRÒDEK (Garden), 2022, cedar and graphite, 54 × 37 1⁄2 × 13 1⁄2".

Ursula von Rydingsvard, OGRÒDEK (Garden), 2022, cedar and graphite, 54 × 37 1⁄2 × 13 1⁄2".

Ursula von Rydingsvard

Tree after tree, each stripped barren and leafless: not the proverbial tree of life, but something else—a symbol of death, a memento mori of suffering and pain, its “bark swollen,” and “obscene,” akin to the chestnut tree that revealed its nothingness to Antoine Roquentin, the hero of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938).

Why does Ursula von Rydingsvard make art? “To survive,” she said in a 2019 interview, “because it’s a place to put my pain, my sadness.” Born in Germany in 1942 to a Polish mother and a Ukrainian father, she endured, alongside her family (her parents, four brothers, and two sisters), the horrors of the Third Reich as they were held captive in several German refugee camps over the course of five years. Von Rydingsvard is a displaced person, and her trees are displaced entities, uprooted from the ground and left to rot—in much the same way that the artist was extracted from Europe and brought to the United States. In her adopted homeland, however, she managed to flourish by using decaying trees to create sculpture, in effect repairing them, as in psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s theory of the emotional purpose of art. Her gruesome wooden behemoths paradoxically epitomize her paranoia—a hangover from the misery and persecution she experienced as a child—as well as the depression and sadness that are its aftermath. One might say that von Rydingsvard’s trees are restored by what Klein calls depressive mourning.

Art-historically speaking, her works are compactly Expressionist, Sturm und Drang in an oddly streamlined form, possessing a totemic presence, as ZGINEŁA (She Died), 2017–19; CISZA (Silence), 2020–21; GÒRKA (Small Hill), 2021; and VODOVA (Widow), 2022, here made clear. Some of these vast abstract sculptures symbolized people, making then ingeniously human. Each piece could be perceived as an actor in a tragedy, especially the spirit-beaten NABOŻNY (Devotional), 2019, an anxious pockmarked heap that calls to mind violently gnarled flesh. Many of the sculptures’ titles were in Polish, her mother’s native tongue.

Von Rydingsvard uses cedar to make her art, but it is not the biblical Lebanon’s evergreen cedar—a symbol of loftiness and righteousness, a material that was once used to treat leprosy—and it is not the stuff that King Solomon employed to build a house for his beloved. Her timber is crippled and morbid, often covered with dark, greasy graphite. It is as though the artist is embalming the wood like a corpse, declaring to us that it is no longer green with life but black with death, and as such hateful. Strangely, and on the rarest of occasions, we can detect moments of the subtlest humor: Take OGRÒDEK (Garden), 2022, a rectangular wall-mounted object with a row of opened podlike shapes that line the bottom of the composition. These shapes called to mind comically limp phalli, the gaping mouths of drunks, or even cockeyed yet featureless faces. Unfortunately, the work does not drive us to laughter, as any trace of absurdism or joy is thwarted by gloom, an inherent pessimism. These grim and heartrending sculptures were, ultimately, triumphs of death; any flash of brightness was only a minor form of compensation for the dark years the artist spent in the camps.