Ursula Sax in interview with Cornelie Kunkat, consultant for Women in Culture & Media at the German Cultural Council
The sculptor Ursula Sax (1935) began her studies at the age of 15 at the Staatliche Akademie für Bildende Künste in Stuttgart. At the age of 21 she received her first public commission. This was followed by many successful competitions, in particular works in metal, wood and stone related to architecture and urban space for public buildings and squares throughout Germany. Her most famous work is the large yellow looping, which was realized in 1992 between AVUS and the Berlin Exhibition Grounds. In HELLERAU she shows at the festival “Appia Stage Reloaded” the Geometric Ballet as homage to Oskar Schlemmer.
I have to start with a compliment: you look incredibly fresh, and your age, 83, is definitely not to be seen. Of course, you know what it means to get older. But I don’t have the feeling that you are old.
Well, I realize of course that I am old, purely physically. When shopping or walking on the street, I’m not so fast anymore. But I also often feel ageless, for example now. Then I just forget how old I am.
And as an artist, do you have the feeling that you are approaching your work differently now?
Yes, more relaxed. I no longer put myself under pressure. I don’t have to prove anything to myself anymore. I would never have “had to”, but that’s the freedom with freelance artists, that it needs discipline, day after day. I was my own client and as such I was often merciless. I’m not that anymore.
Since when do you have this greater calmness?
Quite a long time. At least since I gave up my beautiful studio in Radebeul and came back to Berlin six years ago. So the pressure gradually decreased.
Let’s talk about the unusual beginning of your career. At the age of 15 you have already started your studies. How did this come about?
My father was a primary school teacher in a village in Württemberg. He was highly educated because he studied throughout the war. He did not have to go to war because of a stiff leg. When the war was over, he again became a primary school teacher in our village, where he impudently determined that I had to go to him in the primary school and not, like my older sisters, in the secondary school in the next town. At first I suffered a lot from this decision, but then I adapted and in the afternoon I drew with him in the fields, the village, the trees, the family members and what do I know. Finally the question arose: What will become of Ursula? By chance there was a Berlin painter who had been evacuated to the village and who suddenly sat on the meadows and painted – but with oil and easel. I became friends with him. He then reported on a transitional school in Stuttgart, the Steinbeis Gewerbeschule für Kunsthandwerker. I finally went there once a week for a year. The teacher was very impressed with me and gave me tasks for the week. Later I attended a nude drawing course. The teacher there also said: “They are very talented. My father-in-law is a professor at the art academy. Why don’t you show him your drawings? Due to a lack of telephone, I simply drove to the academy without prior notice. The professor in question was on an excursion, but I showed my work to someone else who was in charge of the preliminary sculpture class and he said: “Yes, I’ll take you as a guest for one semester. And then we show your work to our colleagues. If they agree, we’ll take you in.” That was a big exception, after all I was only 14.
So how did sculpture take the place of painting as a subject of study?
Yes, I actually wanted to study painting, because I didn’t even know sculpture. Everyone has pictures on the walls, painting, you know that, but you don’t have sculptures in your apartment.
But shortly before that I had been with my father at the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. The Lehmbruck exhibition there left a deep impression on me: there were life-size figures, bronze women to walk around. I was enraptured, so I spontaneously decided to do sculpture.
You were certainly always the youngest in your studies?
Yes, I was the youngest everywhere for many years.
How many women were studying with you at that time?
Many. But they didn’t get far, because many married a colleague pretty quickly and became mothers. At the same time the men constantly emphasized that women had no place in sculpture anyway, even if it was wonderful to have them as fellow students.
Did you know from the start that you didn’t want to get married?
I always wanted to get married. So had grown up in. But then I realized that we as women in the field were not taken seriously. That meant that from the beginning you had to do twice as much as the men.
I was married twelve years later, but children were out of the question for me. Because I was simply obsessed with my artistic work. In my opinion, art didn’t allow me to take care of a family at the same time. I have seen many examples of how colleagues who had a child could no longer devote themselves sufficiently to their art: The child cried a lot and the man refused to support her.
I, too, was influenced by the idea that intellectual work was a man’s business, that you had to do an awful lot to be recognized, and that men make fools of themselves when they change children. I had also internalized this idea at that time, as had my husband.
What was your mother’s attitude?
She accepted it that way. One of my two sisters, who was an actress, had my mother run the household for a long time so that she could combine work and marriage. But she has no children either. My other sister studied piano, but was the only one not to continue it, because she had children and travelled abroad a lot with her husband.
In 1957, when you were just 21 years old, you got your first job. How did you manage to keep your creativity and energy burning over this long period of time?
You can’t do something like that. It results. The first, but not well paid order I got in Berlin, a wall piece for the Studentenwerk. The 300 D-Mark I got was just enough for the material from the scrap yard to produce the model.
In the course of your career, you have worked with many different materials, and a wide variety of work groups have been created. How do you describe their red thread?
I am the red thread. I have always done what I wanted, what I felt inside me. But when a material phase came to an end – and I didn’t jump around without a plan, but worked through every material thoroughly – then there was a point at which I thought: no more. Or once the newspaper said: “The Berlin wood sculptor Ursula Sax”. So I thought it was time to stop. I never wanted to be put in this or any other drawer. However, my way of working made life very difficult for me. Because both the gallery owners and the public demanded that an artist stick to his last. A lifetime of stone, a lifetime of bronze, what do I know? Fortunately, that’s different today. If you look at Gerhard Richter, he’s allowed to do the most disparate things, and so are the less known artists.
Wasn’t it perhaps because you were ahead of your time that you were easy for gallery owners?
You can’t say that yourself. Perhaps so, as far as the language of forms and the use of materials are concerned. It was simply my thoughts that I followed.
Would you like to be forty or fifty again today?
Because that would be too exhausting for you?
I don’t have the feeling I missed anything either, I travelled a lot. Of course there is an infinite amount that I haven’t seen, but I don’t grieve for it.
What are your current projects? I’ve seen you do another competition.
Yes, that’s how it turned out. It was brought to me, but it’s not a big deal either. I’d like to do another really big sculpture like the yellow loop at the Berlin Exhibition Grounds. In Dresden I did a long ceiling work in the Albertinum in 2011, but unfortunately it no longer exists. I regret this very much because this work has always been close to my heart and I simply love large formats.
What exactly do you like so much about large formats?
That you can breathe a sigh of relief and that you can help shape a piece of the world. In this context, I hope that my work, which I don’t find sufficiently appreciated myself, will be seen more in public and given its place in the professional world.
How did you deal with these or other disappointments in your life? What gives you the strength to keep going?
The fact that I am still alive and feel is even more.
Spirituality has also kept me very busy over the years. I wasn’t aware of that when I was twenty, but it was already there. In a difficult time I finally began to meditate, and I have kept that up to now. I was also often in India, in an ashram with a group of yoga teachers. I looked around intensively, but I didn’t stay there.
How did you experience your time as a professor in Berlin, Braunschweig and Dresden?
It is a great pleasure to see and lead these young people. To see how they develop from the entrance examination to the end of their studies. To help them to discover themselves, to accompany them to their own individual character. That is wonderful. But of course it is also the task of the teachers to point out to the young people that they may not be sufficiently gifted. This is painful but often very helpful, because then they have to make a conscious decision to continue or to find something more suitable for them.
Would your life have been different if you had been born thirty or forty years later?
Surely I would have taken a different path. But that is not interesting. I am satisfied with the possibilities I had.
That is, you don’t look back with bitterness, but accept that you had to work harder than your male colleagues for your success?
I had to accept that. I even thought it was normal. Because through my father and other intellectual men for whom I was raving, I had internalized the feeling that as a woman I was not worth so much or that I had to exert myself unbelievably.
When did you have the feeling that you as a woman are on a par with your male fellow artists?
My self-confidence has grown steadily, for example, by winning competitions to my astonishment that otherwise only men took part in. And so, of course, I have slowly internalized that men are not superior to women per se in artistic or intellectual terms.
As a result of their long, prolonged creative time, they have to witness your sculptures being destroyed because some buildings have been demolished and the value of your art has been disregarded. How do you deal with it?
That was an astonishment the first time. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for the new buildings of an era to become obsolete within a few decades and for the art created in this context to be cleared away as completely worthless. Since I was familiar with a group of successful newcomer architects, I received large commissions for interior design, especially in Berlin until the 1980s, and won and realized art-in-architecture competitions. It saddens me that their houses and my works are no longer worth anything, are simply cut away and no one cares about art. Even the public sector does nothing. Of course, many things were tailor-made for the structural situation, so that it was difficult to use the sculpture, the fountain or the wall work anywhere else. But there was no regret at all on the part of the new owners or the administrations to destroy cultural assets. This is a testimony to the poverty of our time and frustrates us.
What kind of exchange do you have with professional colleagues?
I did my work on my own. But I have been in close contact with Eberhard Bosslet, one of my colleagues at the Kunsthochschule Dresden. Through my gallery owner Semjon, I also get to know younger female artists again and again, such as Ramona Zipfel, Birgit Sauer and Claudia Busching, who I find interesting because they dock with the natural sciences.
Do you also provide impulses for your own work?
Rather not. The inspiration comes from life. I like to visit salons very much. These are always stimulating encounters, when many clever people get together on a topic, listen to an expert and then discuss.
Of course I go to exhibitions and vernissages, and I also like to go to the theatre. For many years I was a close friend of stage designer Martin Rupprecht, who died some time ago. He was a very lively spirit. We did a lot, he advised me, a top friend, who unfortunately is no longer there.
Which moments have brought you the greatest happiness?
A real luck for me was the mentioned work in the Albertinum in Dresden. It was 21 metres long and really succeeded, and it was created out of sheer impossibility. Because there was not even the wish on the part of the Albertinum to have a sculpture in the large hall. In addition, there was no money or permission to install anything on the floor or walls. Bit by bit I had to work my way up – an uncanny satisfaction, even if I didn’t earn a penny.
How do you live now?
I still make art, but I sell it little. But I have a pension from the professorship, for which I am very grateful. And then I sold my house in Dresden – that’s my financial background. So I can lead a quite pleasant and free life.
Were there times when you sold a lot on the art market?
No, I didn’t sell much on the art market and I never had any luck with galleries, up to now at Semjon. Even if someone had exhibited me before, nothing was sold, and that’s why a second exhibition rarely followed. The fact that things went so badly with galleries is also due to the fact that, as I mentioned at the beginning, I had very different work phases to which they and their customers didn’t want to or couldn’t adjust.
But the commissions for public space, they fell to me from the very beginning. I had a very good relationship with architects, was a guest in their offices and had a say in everything, right up to juries, in which I was involved a lot after all. With great pleasure, because it offered me an interesting alternation to the isolated studio work.
Were you the only woman in the juries?
There were always other women in Berlin, but in Bonn I was often the only one.
Did you differ in your judgement from your male colleagues on the jury?
No, you can’t say that. We always had to judge the existing applications, and then it depends more on whether you have the same wavelength with the men and women.
What was always important to me was that the jury was really open-ended, discussed and therefore came up with a satisfactory result, which was not always the case.
Argument and counterargument, looking at things from a different angle and coming to a new result together – that’s the interesting thing about the exchange about art, whether at university or in juries.