Ruth V. Zuckerman: A History


Ruth V. Zuckerman

The Spirit in the Stone
Ruth Victor Zuckerman (1923–1996)

The following has been excerpted from an essay that was first published in conjunction with the exhibition “The Spirit in The Stone” at Kennesaw State University in 1997, and later in the accompanying From Earth and Firecatalogue, by founding gallery director and Professor Emerita Roberta Griffin.

Ruth Zuckerman made of her life a disciplined work of art, and in the process drew from that life the determination and vision to create art of remarkable strength and beauty. It is no accident that she chose stone as the medium for her poetic and timeless expressions. She spent ten years exploring other materials however, it was the stone that spoke to her, that led her to Italy, and to the mature development of her art. In the process, she unlocked the spirit in the stone, and in her sculpture, her own spirit remains.

Ruth Victor was born and raised in New York City. Her father was an accomplished self-taught painter and her mother was an actor in the Yiddish theater and a published poet. Ruth’s family noted her artistic abilities at an early age, as she learned to play piano and violin with skill and sensitivity. As a mature artist, Ruth attributed the discipline of daily music practice to her success in dedicating time each day to her art making. By the time Ruth graduated from high school, the United States was engaged in the global conflict of World War II. Two years later, she joined the women’s division of the U.S. Marine Corps where she met Bernard Zuckerman, a young army lieutenant. They arranged mutual leaves to see each other over the course of several months and married after only four dates. Their wartime romance lasted fifty years.

After their honorable discharges from service, Ruth Victor Zuckerman and her husband made their first home in a Quonset hut village on Long Island, which had been hastily erected by the United States government to accommodate burgeoning numbers of ex-servicemen and their families. They then moved to a small New York apartment, which soon included daughters Rowann and Laura. It was an exciting time to be a New Yorker, especially for an artist. The city was the artistic heart of a newly confident nation. During this time Ruth turned her daily routine into her creative outlet, cooking gourmet dinners for company, designing and sewing beautiful clothes for herself and her daughters, and making art with them. She patiently waited for an opportunity to focus more intensely on her art. In 1961, when the girls were both in school, Ruth used her GI Bill to enroll in The School of Visual Arts. She continued her studies at several other renowned art schools, including The Art Students League of New York, The New School for Social Research, and The Educational Alliance of New York.

The 1960s became a ten-year odyssey of self-discovery for Ruth, in which she literally picked up wood scraps from trash barrels, as well as all the instruction she could absorb from classes in painting, drawing, fabric design, printmaking, ceramics, and sculpture. She experimented with the wood scraps on her own, perhaps inspired by the work of Louise Nevelson, who was finally receiving recognition in New York galleries after decades of obscurity. By 1966, the Zuckerman’s apartment was crowded with her art with little space to work, and no space where Ruth could carve larger pieces in stone. Thus she rented a huge, fourth-floor walk-up manufacturing loft in Greenwich Village bordering the meatpacking district. The studio was freezing in the winter (she never was able to get the pot-bellied iron stove to work) and hot in the summer, but it was affordable. Ruth scavenged stone from old buildings being torn down and replaced by skyscrapers in the building boom of that decade—fine chunks of neoclassical columns and pediments, fragments whose broken surfaces suggested new forms. Her husband participated in the hunt as well, climbing the three flights of narrow stairs to her loft, bearing a gift of newly-cut white marble from a construction site.

It was also during this time that Ruth began to show her work in New York and New Jersey. Initially she exhibited her drawings and paintings with her sculptures, and by 1968, had received several favorable reviews. Soon, her devotion to the taille directe method of carving precluded preliminary sketches, and drawing does not reappear until her later work, when she needed to sketchily refine the intersecting geometric planes and organic shapes of maquettes for large abstract works. She obtained interesting stones from all over the world, placing them around her studio, until the graceful veining, beautiful color, or odd shape of a particular piece commanded her attention. To carve stone intuitively means, to some extent, to give up control and grant power to the universal force of nature–to free "the spirit in the stone." Ruth spoke of her respect for stone with friends and in published interviews. "Not until the stone and I achieve rapport and it tells me what it wishes to become, do I lift the chisel to rid it of its excesses. Once this occurs, I do not in any way mark, revise or impose my will upon the initial concept but rather allow the sculpture to emerge. I merely assist."

In the summer of 1970, shortly before moving permanently to Atlanta, Georgia, Ruth travelled to the Instituto Allende in Mexico for a class in bronze casting, introducing her to the second primary medium in her practice. Although it wasn’t until the following year, at the age of 48, that Ruth Zuckerman found her true creative home in Pietrasanta, in the Tuscan region of Italy. Pietrasanta is an ancient hill town in the mountains, near Carrara where huge quarries have supplied marble to builders and sculptors since the Roman Empire. In the summer of 1971, and every subsequent year until 1993, she rented studio space in the sprawling workshops of the artigiani–the skilled artisans who have passed on their knowledge of carving and casting since the Renaissance. She boarded at a simple pensione, arose early each morning to the hammering of pneumatic drills, and walked to her studio to work. Each year, for twenty-two years, when her time in Italy was over, Ruth shipped home finished sculptures and roughly blocked out works ready for completion in her studio in Atlanta. She always returned to home with her collection of stones and would work all day in her studio in Atlanta as she did in Italy. Pietrasanta thus remained at the core of her creative being even when she was not there. It was the one place she could be totally free to focus all her energy on the fulfillment of her vision. She stored up Pietrasanta's spiritual nourishment to sustain her art until she returned each year.

Staying in Pietrasanta for a month every year enabled Ruth to work with expert artisans to create casts of her stone sculptures and to experiment in ways that direct carving in stone did not allow. Once she recognized the freedom and fluidity inherent in the medium–that practically anything can be used to create a mold, and that an object, no matter how perishable, could be captured permanently in bronze–she was inspired to make molds from surprising objects. She created a series based on a Golden Delicious apple, progressing from first bite to its demise as a core; an incredibly misshapen tomato of bravura proportions; a fennel bulb whose complex shape and textures denied its origin, becoming instead a mysterious icon; and a dead skate that had washed up on a Florida beach. Her husband noted her determination: "the terrible smell didn't deter Ruth from completing the mold."

By the late 1970s, she had developed her mature style: stylizations of the human figure, formed from a single stone that seem to flow from of its grain. These works conveyed universal themes of family, love, and protection. The figures may be gentle or regal, but all the sculptures have a strong physical and aesthetic presence because of their seamless union of image and material. Stone is perhaps the oldest and most enduring art material; each stone carries the history of our planet within its substance. This union of the organic with the geometric, figuration with abstraction, and tender human expression and “hard” stone are the basic principles of Ruth Zuckerman's sculpture. Zuckerman understood and respected the eternal nature of the materials she chose, and the eternal and everlasting statements in her work.

Roberta Griffin
Edited by Kirstie Tepper and Clare Timmerman
Revised April 10, 2013

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