YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


This Minimalist Has a Massive Attitude

German sculptor Ulrich Ruckriem scours Europe to find just the right stones for his huge works. It's part of a process he wants you to see.

September 21, 1997|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

Minimalism is generally thought of as an American innovation. With Carl Andre, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin leading the charge, this austere, largely geometric style marched alongside Pop during the late 1960s, and together they brought an end to the reign of Abstract Expressionism. This episode of history transpired in Manhattan for the most part, but Minimalism also had its representatives in Europe; prominent among them is German artist Ulrich Ruckriem, whose work is on view through Nov. 1 at Ace Contemporary Exhibitions.

Working in quarries throughout Europe, Ruckriem selects massive stones and has them cut into squares, then fits the pieces back together so the cuts create a grid of lines on the stones' surfaces. Ruckriem's insistence on drawing the viewers' attention to all traces of his intervention with his materials made him, along with American artists Richard Serra and Robert Morris, a key figure in establishing Process art as an outgrowth of Minimalism.

Ruckriem's work isn't widely known in L.A., but it has been seen here before, in an exhibition at the now-defunct HoffmanBorman Gallery in 1988.

His show at Ace hasn't exactly been smooth sailing, however. It was originally conceived for Ace Gallery in New York, but plans changed when the Guggenheim Museum waved a check at Ace owner Doug Chrismas for the use of his gallery, which they needed to display Robert Rauschenberg's "The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece." They wanted to include that massive work in progress begun in 1981 in the Rauschenberg retrospective, which opens this weekend in New York, and it was too large to fit in either of the Guggenheim buildings.

"The change of venue has been hard on me," says Ruckriem, a spirited character who frequently excuses himself from a conversation at Ace to dart outside for a cigarette. "The stones were already on a ship to New York and they had to be rerouted to Houston, then brought to L.A. by truck. Then when I saw this space I almost canceled the show. When I'm invited to exhibit, my first consideration is whether the building can handle the weight of my work, and if I'd seen this space first I would've done a completely different show.

"I would never choose these big stones for a show on the second floor of a building because the weight of the vertical columns of stone is all concentrated on a single point," he explains. "I've never had a piece fall through the floor, but this is an old building and it gives me a funny feeling in my stomach to put this work on a second floor. It was hell getting it in here too. It took a crew of three men six days working with a forklift and a crane to install the show, and although I think it looks OK, it's been hard on my stomach."

The youngest in a family of six children, Ruckriem was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1938. "My parents were teachers who didn't make much money, but they were cultured people and we had a wonderful life," he recalls. "That changed, of course, during the war. People forget that Germans also suffered under Hitler, but the so-called intelligentsia--artists and so forth--had a difficult time. I remember spending entire days and nights in the cellar, and there was so much damage--Cologne was completely wiped out.

"The most difficult thing was that we didn't have enough to eat. We were living in hiding and my mother would go out to the fields and try to get food from the farmers, who would take your most precious possession in exchange for a potato.

"We escaped to the east, then along came the Russians and we had to flee from them. Finally the Americans arrived and gave us all chocolate, so of course we loved them--these decisions are easy for children."

Following the war, Germany's school system got back on its feet remarkably quickly, and by the time he was 16, Ruckriem had decided to become a sculptor.

"I was told I first had to become a stonemason--this was in the '50s when Henry Moore was a big deal, and that's how it was done in those days," he recalls. "So I apprenticed as a stonemason from 1957-61, but I had other things on my mind in those days.

"Writers were important to me then. When I was in school, I once got the job of driving Jean-Paul Sartre around when he visited Germany, and he made a huge impression on me. I also saw Alberto Giacometti late one night in Paris when he was out drinking. I was so in awe because for me his is the last great figurative work--the quality of doubt in his work is so moving," says the artist, who also cites Constantin Brancusi as an influence.

"Those people were relegated to the sidelines in the '60s because Joseph Beuys completely dominated German art then--his word was law, and he was a bit of a dictator. I felt his art was meaningless if you didn't understand the symbols he used, though, and I wanted to make work that didn't need explaining.

Los Angeles Times Articles