This August, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) oversaw the installation of a sculpture by Ursula von Rydingsvard in the courtyard of the new Unified Science Center. The sculpture, commissioned by the museum to coordinate with the opening of the Science Center, is one of a planned edition of three bronze castings of von Rydingsvard’s Bowl, an original work in wood belonging to a collection in Cologne.
Although technically not a site-specific piece, the 12-½-foot-high sculpture was chosen particularly for its ability to complement the surrounding landscape and architecture. Towering up from the center of the circular drive on the south side of the Science Center, Bowl echoes the building’s strong vertical lines. The dark surface of the bronze provides a dramatic contrast to the lighter materials – red brick and concrete – that predominate in the building complex and the nearby walkways.
The museum’s Acquisitions Committee selected von Rydingsvard for the commission after considering an extensive list of contemporary artists known for outdoor sculpture or public art. Eventually, the pool of candidates was narrowed to two: von Rydingsvard and sculptor Elyn Zimmerman, whose proposal consisted of a square brick plaza supporting concrete benches.
In determining its recommendation, the committee ultimately favored a work that would complement, not duplicate, the architectural character of the Science Center. Zimmerman’s proposal, which deliberately incorporated the materials used in the Science Center buildings, was rejected in part for its failure to provide this desired contrast.
The medium of Bowl is somewhat uncharacteristic, as von Rydingsvard usually works in wood, but the formidable scale and vessel-like form of the sculpture typify her work. From the beginning of her career, von Rydingvard has consistently produced massive outdoor pieces, and although her sculptures verge on abstraction, they often allude to everyday objects and elemental forms: bowls, tools and utensils; cones and columns; houses and trees. The distinctively irregular surface of the Science Center sculpture is another von Rydingsvard trademark, deriving directly from her methods of construction.
Starting with untreated cedar planks, von Rydingsvard assembles her works according to a laborious piece-by-piece process, first cutting and manipulating individual lengths and chunks of wood, then progressively larger sections, as the original pieces are stacked, clamped and glued together. When working with wood, von Rydingsvard then subjects the exposed planes of cedar to a unique treatment, scraping and rubbing the surfaces with graphite to impart a rich color and texture. Although the cast bronze version of Bowl necessarily lacks this signature surface treatment, its faceted silhouette clearly preserves the detail and assiduous craftsmanship of the original wooden construction.
The sculpture will be dedicated during the Fall Convocation ceremony on Sept. 23, in conjunction with the dedication of the Science Center.