Meanwhile, DeCordova is also showing a major survey, organized by New York's SculptureCenter, of two decades' worth of art by New York sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard. Born to Polish refugees in Germany in 1942, she began exhibiting her wood sculptures in the US at the height of the Minimalist 1970s. Minimalism was focused on spare industrial materials and manufacture, but von Rydingsvard emphasized elaborate handcraft, much like her contemporaries Martin Puryear and El Anatsui. And she became prominent for her towering columns of groups of cedar beams gouged and otherwise roughed up with circular saws until they resemble canyon walls or caves or massive stalactites. An example here is Bowl with Fingers (2007-08), which is wider at its 5 1/2-foot-tall top than at the bottom, and somehow makes the cut-up 2x4s look like a cracked and craggy column of old stone. It's handsome and rugged, but somehow feels not big and monumental enough.
Better is the cedar Droga (2009), which looks like an 18-foot-long petrified tapeworm. The center is hollow, so light coming in openings at either end makes it seem like a mysterious cave that you could crawl into. Von Rydingsvard's sculpture is about ancient, elemental, sublime forces. It has to be big enough to bowl you over, or it just feels like shtick. And this one is just big enough. But then come her housewares for giants — a 130-foot-wide cedar bowl, or and nine-foot-tall spoon — which are a gratingly off-key blend of whimsy and rugged seriousness.
And this highlights a problem in DeCordova's plan to become a national force. Before Kois arrived, the museum suffered from focusing on traditional craft, cheesy whimsical work, or second-rate pieces by big names (Jim Dine, Nam June Paik, Mark di Suvero). DeCordova's recent acquisitions of work by Antony Gormley, Sol LeWitt, Rona Pondick, and von Rydingsvard, and the loan of a Roy Lichtenstein sculpture have not dispelled that feeling.
But an institution's personality comes into focus as it gets away from the big established names, away from the Lichtensteins and Goldsworthys. In that regard, DeCordova's taste for traditional craft as well as whimsical work gave it a stodgy reputation. And this taste continues to be evident in exhibits over the past year of Chakaia Booker, Leonardo Drew, Martha Friedman, and von Rydingsvard. Sometimes it works — as in Drew's rusty constructions and parts of the von Rydingsvard show — but it still leans toward the fuddy duddy.
Despite this, Kois has successfully created an air of excitement and possibility around DeCordova. But to put the institution on the map nationally, it needs to become a place where exciting new things happen, where new ideas debut. It needs to figure out how to put itself at the center of the sculpture discussion — and then begin to lead it. You can see a sharper, livelier vision beginning to develop at DeCordova over the past few years in shows like "The Old, Weird America," the 2010 DeCordova Biennial, Rachel Perry Welty, and Drew.
>> SLIDESHOW: "Andy Goldsworthy and Ursula von Rydingsvard at the DeCordova" <<