Nadine M. Orenstein
Nadine M. Orenstein: Describe your early years and when you first became interested in art.
Janet K. Ruttenberg: My mother used to tell the story that I would stare from my crib at the Dürer print that was hanging in the nursery. Kindergarten is my first recollection of the struggle to express a visual image, something that has always stayed with me. For a drawing assignment, I drew what started out as a primitive stick figure, and it emerged, with much erasing and subsequent holes in the paper, into a fully articulated and sophisticated human body. The teacher, I remember, picked up the drawing and said: “This is absolutely amazing.”
JKR’s self-portrait engraving, 1949
NMO: You were interested in art from early on, but what were the early influences on your wanting to become an artist?
JKR: In 1936, when I was five years old, my uncle Buck Warshawsky, an artist, brought me a gift of a little box of oil paints from Paris—which I still have. Many years later, while visiting Paris as an adult, I discovered Lefebvre-Foinet, the best of all oil paints. I saw the label and realized that this was the same brand of paint that was in the little box that had been a gift from Buck so long ago. One of the distinctions of Lefebvre-Foinet paint is that as it gets older, it gets richer. The beauty of the colors alone is seductive.
NMO: What was your artistic training?
JKR: As an adult, while living in Chicago, I was lucky to have known the photographer Harry Callahan and to be in one of his classes. Also, at that time, I had a one-on-one lesson or two with a sculptor who taught me how to chip away at marble and weld. I also did bookbinding and paper-making with the Hungarian bookbinder Elizabeth Kner. Along the way I did a lot of work with Allen Saalburg, the great silkscreen artist. During my early years in Dubuque, Iowa, I took private art lessons after school each day from Sister Mary James Anne at Clark College. My grade-school art teacher, Miss Bechtel, and I would paint together out and about on the weekends. Throughout my childhood, I was trained by uncle Buck in the discipline of Old Master oil painting techniques. When I was about eight, I began to spend summers studying in advanced programs at the Art Institute of Chicago. One of the teachers, LeRoy Neiman, used to chase me around the bowels of the Art Institute. He scared me half out of my wits. I met him later as an adult and we had a good chuckle about that. I left Dubuque at the age of 14 for the Emma Willard Boarding School in Troy, New York, which gave me my first encounter with Picasso. As a child, I once said to Buck that I was an admirer of Norman Rockwell, and his reply was that he does not go far enough. After seeing Picasso’s work at an exhibition at the Knoedler Gallery on 57th Street, I understood. Picasso opened a door for me to the poetry that art can be.
JKR’s portrait of her uncle, Buck Warshawsky, was painted in 1944, when she was 13 years old.
NMO: And in college?
JKR: My father insisted that I go for a liberal arts and not an art school education. Mauricio Lasansky’s print workshop at the University of Iowa was my reason for going there. I had always wanted to learn intaglio. When I first registered, I was told that as an undergraduate, I could not study with Lasansky. But I went to see him and he said, “Show me a portfolio,” and when he saw it, he said, “You are in.” He took me into an advanced class, and that began one of the most exciting times of my life. I was the youngest in that class. They were all passionate. It was right after the war, and Marxism, Picasso, and Matisse were in the air. Coming from boarding school into that atmosphere of politics and art was really very exhilarating. It was 1949. The first thing that Lasansky did was give his students a burin and say, okay, use the burin and make a self-portrait. I still have the self-portrait that I did then. Printmaking had been a mystery to me, how it was made, but with a burin in my hand, I was in business.
NMO: How did you know to study with him?
JKR: He was renowned as a great teacher—his former students still revere him. Leon Gottlieb once said of him that he was like Jesus, with disciples everywhere. I had a couple of scholarships, among them, one to Scripps. Then I heard about Lasansky. I knew how to paint and draw but I was desperate to break into the seemingly opaque techniques of printmaking.
Drypoint and soft ground etching, 1981, a facsimile of In the Omnibus, an 1891 work by Mary Cassatt.
NMO: Was Lasansky supportive of women artists?
JKR: I had met my former husband on a weekend away from college. When I returned, Lasansky commented that I had changed. He sensed what was coming, and when I later told him that I was leaving to get married, he was angry, saying that he was never going to train a woman again and that I would end up arranging flowers and putting stuff on my eyelashes.
NMO: You later moved to New York?
JKR: My husband, our four children, and I moved to New York in 1965. My husband was a lawyer, and his career brought us to New York. Moving to New York from the Midwest in the 1960s was a culture shock, because abstraction had completely taken over the New York art world. Anything figurative was considered corny, and abstraction was synonymous with sophistication. After moving to New York, I spent 15 years equally painting and printmaking. I did printmaking with Donn Steward, who had been Lasansky’s assistant at Iowa, and was now the master printer for Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE). Donn and I collaborated constantly. Working so often with him, I turned into a master printer. Sue Fuller, Lasansky’s friend from their days at Stanley William Hayter’s workshop Atelier 17, and I became art comrades. She was an entrenched New Yorker and in step with the rhythm of the avant-garde. Her elegant soul can be discerned in her prints and string sculptures. Sue broadened my vision and deepened my understanding of the intellectual aspects of art. Under her tutelage, Mary Cassatt’s secret soft-ground technique became an inheritance for me alone to know. Coming to New York inspired my Park Avenue series on stainless steel as well as the Kenneth prints. “Le tout New York” congregated at Kenneth’s townhouse salon, which had been decorated by Billy Baldwin to resemble a fancy brothel. I intended to do one print of Kenneth cutting hair in this environment, but instead of the one print, I did 19.
NMO: What do you like about printmaking?
NMO: And were you at first working on a small scale that then got bigger?
JKR: Once, when I took an 85 x 47-inch canvas to the Sheep Meadow, I was so immediately inspired that I began to paint directly on the canvas’ cellophane wrapper. I did not intend to paint on the cellophane, but the play had begun and I had to start. So now the painting is all on the cellophane that covers the canvas. Because taking one enormous canvas out to the park was too much, I tried small canvas boards that together, laid on the ground, would compose one large painting. But that wasn’t working either, because the boards would move around. Then I began to take out two strips of paper, each 15 feet wide. Two of these strips together make up one study.
The Kenneth Series, colored etchings, 1980s
NMO: So when did you do the first one? How many years ago?
JKR: I don’t even remember. The trance of the experience has kept me at it continuously for all these years.
NMO: What is your experience when working in the park?
JKR: Working on such a large scale in the park is very rewarding. The most disconcerting aspect is the wind, but otherwise the paper is very at home, laid out in the moist grass. Some of the passers-by have become park friends and appreciative critics. The benefit of producing works in nature is the never-ending beauty and inspiration. The pictures that I have done of tango in the park at night were fascinating to do from life because of what I saw as the colors of the night. But to create them, one needs to rely not on illumination but on instinct. The paint in the dark looks different; sometimes I think it is pink and it turns out to be yellow in the daylight.
NMO: How many hours do you stay in the park at one time?
JKR: It depends. Mostly all day. Last August, I spent so much time in the park that I created an alter ego named August Parker.
NMO: So the shadows must move a lot.
JKR: Yes. You have to be selective. Each part of the day has its particular beauty.
NMO: How many paintings do you have going at one time?
JKR: Usually nine of the big canvas oil paintings. Some I have to put away and take out later. Otherwise it gets to be a forest in my studio. The large watercolor studies are done one at a time in progression.
NMO: Why did you decide to add videos to some of your paintings?
JKR: The video of the tango dancers provides movement around the Shakespeare statue, with the shadows moving all the time from the legs and the light. The video marries with the painting when it is projected onto the canvas. It was just natural. I was taking videos as well as drawing at the tango scene.
NMO: What interests you about Central Park?
JKR: My fascination has been the figures in a landscape. These figures present the scenario, and the landscape is the theater setting. When I go to Central Park, not only are there all those people and all those faces but each is on an individual island of grass. The figures create multiple vignettes that interlace, making a grand pattern of motifs. Today, New York is absolutely colorblind. When I first started working in the park, you would see a mixed-race couple together and it was sort of stylish. Now it is a regular thing and nobody pays attention. Also, now you see the children of that generation and it is a totally different world from when I began. The New York story is one of sophistication and worldliness—the mix of the nationalities of the world—and there is the play. The mix of people and the surrounding skyscrapers are just amazingly beautiful!
NMO: There is a new building going up on the skyline. Is that a problem?
JKR: Each new addition to the skyline seems to bring its own personality. The Time Warner buildings on Columbus Circle went up during my tenure. They reflect the sky and the clouds, which is lovely.
NMO: Are there any influences for your painting in the park?
JKR: I think about my uncle Buck’s oeuvre of plein air painting. And that is in fact what I do—it just occurred to me—except we differ in that he considered the plein air painting to be an end in itself, and I consider it to be a sketch for the subsequent studio distillation in the big oil paintings. Buck painted outside in Brittany. He would go out painting, like Monet. He went to France during World War I and stayed for a number of years, and then he left in 1936. When I studied with him as a kid, I remember him telling me: “Keep your brushes clean.” After a year, he would throw out the used brushes. That was against my nature, so I kept them. Now I have a lot of brushes, his and mine.
NMO: Have you ever had a moment where you think, “I have solved it. I am going to move on to another subject”?
JKR: No. But I think that when I get too old to do this, I’ll do portraits. I like portraits. The face is a source of unending interest.
NMO: Has your own collecting of artwork influenced your art?
JKR: No. I think that my art has influenced my collecting. In college I started collecting Old Master and modern prints. I love prints. I knew that Rembrandt’s Three Crosses in the fourth state was a great moment in the history of printmaking, and I sought to own a good one. Some of Rembrandt’s most important prints have a lot of faces portrayed. This is an incredible accomplishment! I try to draw every face in the park each day that I am there. How to do all those faces as he did?
Hunt Hill, oil painting, 1992
NMO: Do you look at the works in your collection from time to time as reference?
JKR: Oh, absolutely. In fact, I have some in the studio that I look at for reference and clarity.
NMO: You have used Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving after Raphael, The Judgment of Paris, which was also used by Manet for the positions of the figures in his Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.
JKR: The print after Raphael is masterful in its academic formality. Manet has none of that. He is looking at the print like an illustrator. He is telling a story but, at the same time, he leaves out the intricacies of Raphael’s intertwining of figures. I have been working on these figures for years and I realize how difficult that is to do.
NMO: Yet you included a picture of the Manet in your own painting.
JKR: As a theme it is appropriate, and Manet fascinatingly updated the image to the style of his time.
NMO: Did you see the George Bellows exhibition recently in Washington, D.C., and New York? I see some connections with your work there.
JKR: As a child I adored the Ashcan School. They tell a story. I am interested in telling a story.
NMO: Has your work always been this big? I look at the pieces and I feel like I could walk right in.
JKR: Yes. I did some large paintings when we lived in Scotland. Painting on a large scale is, as they say, an arms-around-you experience.
NMO: How is it different from painting on a smaller scale?
JKR: One can be freer to put so much into it.
NMO: It is almost like you are trying to recreate the scale of the park.
JKR: It’s a trick trying to get the buildings to feel as big as they are.
The Scottish landscape, Gannochy Shoot, oil painting, 1990
NMO: Do you always go to the same spot?
JKR: Usually. There is a geometric thing going on with the blankets and the buildings—Mondrian would have loved it.
NMO: You seem very true to what you are seeing, but you are also interested in the shapes and patterns, so you must be making decisions out there.
JKR: When I look at the park, one of the things that I am seeking to see is the underlying mathematical structure, but I don’t always see it. It is like cracking a code. If you see it, and once you see it, there is a truth. It is magic, but you have to see it. In a certain light, the crown of buildings turns purple, really purple. My last watercolor study is green, orange, and purple—complementary colors. The colors are there, just there. You don’t have to make it up.
The multi-colored oil painting Gannochy Garden, 1990, depicts a sunlit garden seen from the gate.
NMO: Have there been other places that you have sketched as much as the Sheep Meadow?
JKR: I did many of the General Sherman statue at the entrance to Central Park and, of course, the dancers around the Shakespeare statue at Literary Walk.
NMO: Tell me about the stranger who regularly walked by as you were painting and criticized your work.
JKR: He was very art-savvy. The first time he came by, he told me that I was doing it all wrong, including the perspective. He helped me enormously, and I was grateful for his input that clarified for me some problems with the composition. His view was that I should bring a canvas and set it against a tree and swish, swish, swish with broad brushstrokes. Forget the details and search for the truth—therein lies the art. And I said, “That is not what I want to do. I want to say it all!” He thought that was ridiculous. He said, “That is not art. You should be doing art, not illustration.”
NMO: Is this man an artist himself?
JKR: I think so. He showed me some of his work on his camera and he is confident that this is how it should be done—broad brushstrokes, without details. I understand that. I have done that in my life as well.
NMO: Do other people come and talk to you?
JKR: Yes, from the bums to the well-to-do. They all love the park and respect it. The park is really wonderful. It is a mecca for New York.
Nadine M. Orenstein is Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She received her Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts in 1992. She has written and lectured extensively on Northern European drawings and prints. Her exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum include Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints (2001), Hendrick Goltzius (1558 – 1617): Prints, Drawings and Paintings (2003), and most recently, Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine (2011).
© 2013 Janet K. Ruttenberg from the book Gatherings