Charles Stuckey

It was my brilliant friend, Picasso-biographer Sir John Richardson, who encouraged me two years ago to meet one of New York’s most formidable little-known artists: Janet Ruttenberg. John first met her in the 1970s in the Dominican Republic, when he came as the guest of her neighbor, Oscar de la Renta. He was amazed by her printmaking, and they began a longstanding mutual admiration society. When I met Ruttenberg she was about to agree, at long last, to a public exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York that would feature her paintings and watercolor studies of people lolling in Central Park, some of which had been recently expanded with video projections. Ruttenberg, who has been completely possessed by art since her girlhood in Dubuque, Iowa, in the 1930s, has put aside her printmaking for the last 15 years in order to make these joyous, monumental paintings. Closely related to street photography, Ruttenberg’s obsession as a painter with scores of itinerant strangers resting and basking in the park comes as a surprise, since she seems rather private by nature.

Detail from the Park Avenue panels

An energetic workaholic perfectionist, Ruttenberg has never been obliged to exhibit her work commercially, so her art remains something of a secret, except to family members and a few lucky insiders. Her lack of concern for recognition from the mainstream art world in New York at first prompted me to consider her as a sort of 21st century version of the modernist Florine Stettheimer, who kept her own vibrant paintings of urbane New Yorkers to herself and her closest friends. I was simply overwhelmed when Ruttenberg opened the door to her studio, and I suddenly encountered a lifetime’s work all at once, utterly sophisticated, always experimental, with contagious exuberance, no less evident in her informal studies than in her fully orchestrated paintings—15 feet in length.

Left: Detail from watercolor Study 4.
Right: Detail from
Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, by Claude Monet, 1865-1866

She began to make these monumental paintings a few years after she moved into her current Central Park West studio in the early 1990s. The studio’s proximity to Central Park acted as a powerful catalyst, despite the fact that its dimensions scarcely provided room enough for the scope of what she had in mind. Something like a cornucopia, Ruttenberg’s outlook regarding these works is panoramic and encyclopedic. No matter how much attention she gives to every tiny detail, what matters most is the overall fullness. Like so many artists since Monet, Ruttenberg works serially, returning to the same inexhaustible compositional theme with variations, and in her studio the separate variations constantly interact with one another like family members, with ideas in any one painting seeming to anticipate or reiterate those visible in others.

Left: Detail from watercolor Study 10.
Right: The central panel from
The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch, 1490-1510.

These park paintings are a far cry from the series of enormously complex prints that preoccupied Ruttenberg throughout the 1970s and 1980s, showing cars streaming along Park Avenue, the sculpted metallic bodies and glass windows of each sedan reflecting the passing buildings and trees as exquisite distortions of themselves. Observed instantaneously under these shifting conditions of reflected light, the drivers and passengers visible through the windows appear a bit like ghosts, strangers to the artist and, except for those seated together, strangers isolated from one another. One version of her print involves sixteen different interconnecting panels of the basic passing car image, each five feet wide, each with its own mysterious figures, resulting in a sweeping, 80-foot-wide overall image.

Left: Detail from Roller Blades.
Right: Detail from
Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, by Edouard Manet, 1862-1863.

So full of colors and uninhibited figures, often informal mixtures of highly resolved sections really located well to the north of where Ruttenberg was standing to observe everything else. This fountain adds a touch of classical grandeur to her painting as well as a hint of feminism, considering how the fountain’s bronze angel (1868-1873) by Emma Stebbins was the first work of art commissioned from a woman in New York.

Left: Detail from Roller Blades.
Right: A newspaper clipping was an inspiration.

There are lots of references to famous paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago, a collection Ruttenberg learned by heart when she raised her family in that city during the 1950s. With its misplaced Bethesda Fountain, for example, the first of her Central Park paintings is a 21st century counterpart to Puvis de Chavannes’s Sacred Grove (1884-1889), which depicts an imaginary park from antiquity with a classical shrine nearby where women and children, half-clad in togas, suggest some perfect ancient harmony of life. More specifically, at the far left edge of Ruttenberg’s painting she includes the silhouette of the man in a high hat who famously appears facing the other way as the tallest figure in Seurat’s Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-1886).

How could Ruttenberg avoid thinking of her own painting in relationship to Seurat’s famous icon of modern art devoted to Parisians in a park, celebrated in the 1984 Stephen Sondheim musical, Sunday in the Park with George.

Left: Detail from Roller Blades.
Right: Detail from the
Open-Air Concert, by Titian, painted around 1510.

Her many references to famous works of art are anything but gratuitous, since all her park paintings belong to an art tradition dating back to around 1500, when Raphael, Giorgione, Titian, and Bosch all made paintings of ancient Greeks or Romans in harmony and peace with nature. By the 18th century, Watteau modernized the idea by showing the figures as aristocrats in their elaborate gardens, and Gainsborough went so far as to show pedestrians out-of-doors in a tree-lined London street. Beginning with Manet and his images of living Parisians in public gardens or on a picnic, the theme of park relaxation, whether imagined in some Golden Age or documenting modern life, became a favorite theme for both Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists dedicated to capturing light and color above all else.

Left: Detail from Roller Blades.
Right: Classical detail from
The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and the Muses, by Pierre Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, 1884-1889.

Indeed, last year, the Philadelphia Museum of Art presented Visions of Arcadia, a survey of these early modern “park” paintings, culminating in Matisse’s Joy of Life. In a fundamental way, Ruttenberg’s park murals are a revival of this great tradition. It seems incredible, but Ruttenberg is among the first serious painters to make Central Park a major theme. As she told me once, people spend time in Central Park because it is absolutely the “in” place in New York, and she is obsessed with watching them as the collective soul of the city.

Left: Detail from Roller Blades.
Right: Detail from
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, by Georges Seurat, 1884.

Seurat needed to return to his park landscape on a daily basis to make dozens of portable studies, transposing these on-the-spot observations in his studio for the monumental Art Institute of Chicago painting. Roughly speaking, Ruttenberg is obliged to work this same way, but she has tools and art supplies unknown in Seurat’s time, with the result that, aside from countless small preliminary works, she has also managed to work at full scale on-site. To gather the stuff for her visionary large oil versions, for her daily park sessions, Ruttenberg brings along not only a camera, notebooks, and small canvases, but also rolls of extra large paper. Last year she began to call herself “August Parker,” for fun. She unrolls two roughly 4½ x 15-foot strips of paper on the ground at her site along the northern edge of the Sheep Meadow, weighting them down against breezes with anything at hand, from rocks to bags of supplies. Once set up this way with a giant two-piece support on the ground, she can paint like a pastoral-minded Jackson Pollock. She uses the best French watercolors to sketch her hallmark motif in the two horizontal layers: the immediate foreground where she is at work, with the lawn stretching off into the distance, and the bordering 59th Street skyline reflecting the weather and time of day. Later, in the studio, Ruttenberg mounts these long slices of landscape together into some of the largest watercolors ever made by any artist. The two pieces often do not align exactly, and on at least more than one occasion she has added a smaller watercolor over part of one of the long strips. Thanks to such irregularities, the giant watercolors have overall patchwork structures, in themselves expressive of the drama of her self-critical artistic process.

Left: Detail of watercolor Study 15.
Right: Broad brushstrokes define
City Landscape, 1955, by Joan Mitchell.

No matter how informal, these roughly 15-feet-wide watercolors are majestic in themselves, only secondarily related to the oils as studies. Made on the spot, the watercolors are Ruttenberg’s spontaneous responses to the challenges she faces as a painter. For example, in the watercolor Study 2, Ruttenberg sketches the figures in an effort to concentrate on the overall composition, the integration of the background skyline with the overhanging branches in the most immediate foreground, and the quick shifts of color the eye sees when looking across the lawn. Her marks for the branches’ arabesques are so free and colorful that the large watercolor appears nearly abstract, with the graphic vigor associated with the paintings by the late Joan Mitchell, whose works were well known to Ruttenberg as a fellow Chicago artist.

Left: Detail from Lemonade.
The Joy of Life, Henri Matisse, 1906.

Watercolor Study 5 addresses similar spatial concerns, primarily with slightly windswept branches visible in the immediate foreground as quickly sketched lines trailing aggregated flourishes in many shades of green, indicating the leaves turned every which way to register levels of shadow, sun, and color. In terms of scale, the branches rival the various background buildings along 59th Street, these treated no less atmospherically in various shades of mauve. The freedom of execution suggests a sense of visual overload, as if there is too much to see all at once. Indicated in summary fashion, the figures on their blankets get smaller and blurrier as the plane of the lawn recedes between the branches and the skyline, interlocked visually overhead. Most of the figures look like nudists, pasty pale like the man in the right foreground who oversees a baby and toddler at his still-mostly sketchy picnic, dark like the African-American with his red-headed partner in the shade, or sunburned like all the tiny orange figures resting in the middle of the lawn.

Comparable in subject matter to the photographs staged by Spencer Tunick with crowds of nudes, the figures in Bee’s Dick sit and sprawl on dozens of white blankets, all with thin shadows along the edges, all the blue lines creating a pattern across the lawn. With lines per se in mind here, Ruttenberg used the tiniest dashes to show the spokes and handlebars of two bicycles dropped on top of one another. All around the central area of figures, in the spirit of some Golden Age, are Ruttenberg’s hallmark border motifs: the background buildings, the overhanging branches, precisely rendered at the left, quickly sketched at the right, and the grasses underfoot. In this particular case, she got her title from a bee pollinating a flower in the bottom foreground zone, thinking the insect had a rather tiny member for such a huge painting. Ruttenberg’s vision is often animated by jumping from one scale to another, almost like a pianist trying to use every octave on the keyboard.

Left: Detail from A Bee’s Dick.
Right: Detail from
Queens, NY (Party Series), by Spencer Tunick, 2007.

Scale jumps are nowhere more essential to Ruttenberg’s pictorial adventure than in Morning Glories, the most structured, chaotic, and multi-medium of all the large Central Park paintings. The long, overcrossing diagonals are quick indications of the lattice of a chain link fence along the edge of the Sheep Meadow, which serves as a trellis for countless morning glories. Ruttenberg took close-up photographs of the flowers, leaves, tendrils, and the strands of the fence itself, and printed these in different sizes, some quite large, cutting around the principal shapes and splicing the photograph remnants together loosely into an extraordinary collage, to serve as the foremost plane of her hybrid painting. The blues and purples of the flowers provide the cool tonality that the skyline buildings provide in most of her other works. Weaving through these photographic collage elements, Ruttenberg draws and paints the same elements observed in non-photographic colors and shapes—tendrils, leaves, and so on—with a dizzying exuberance. The figures—some no more than rough drawings, others painted in miniature, others represented by more collaged photographs—are observed through the diamond-shaped openings in the fabric of the fence. The painting teems with details, one more exciting than the next. Take the large leaf at right—half photograph, half painting—with holes as if some insect had feasted here and there. Inside the holes, indeed observed through them, the artist included tiny figure groups in the distance.

Left: Detail from Morning Glories.
Le Rendez-vous, by René Magritte, 1948.

Ruttenberg seemed pleased when I asked her whether she knew René Magritte’s 1948 painting Le Rendez-vous, with tiny birds silhouetted against a giant leaf, jumping from large to small scale in a similar mindset. Indicated only as a slight drawing, the large figure seated in the middle with leaves in her hair is a much enlarged approximation of the figure of a river goddess in a print by Marcantonio Raimondi after a lost Raphael painting that directly inspired Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (1863), the zaniest and best-known of his pioneering park paintings. This particular figure, based on an Old Master print, is among Ruttenberg’s favorites. As a ghost-like presence, it shares center stage again in Birds in the Park, her giant painting based on studies made not at the Sheep Meadow, but at the southeast corner of the park in early spring as a record of the otherworldly blossoming of the 20 pear trees planted around Saint-Gaudens’ gilded equestrian statue of General Sherman. Sadly, many of these trees were destroyed in a storm last year, and so Ruttenberg has come to realize how she needs to accept the fact that the painting cannot be developed any further.

Left: Detail from Tango, I’m Your Man.
Dance at the Moulin de la Galette, by Auguste Renoir, 1876.

It began one day when she noticed how a puddle reflected these trees, the equestrian statue, the Bergdorf-Goodman building beyond them, and the large, still-bare trees where she was standing. She stopped in her tracks and made an elaborate sketch in her notebook, later deciding to paste this very sketch in the center of a vast canvas (protecting it with a plastic overlay that only adds to the glimmer), forcing a jump from one scale to a vastly larger one. The figures in the foreground here, on the slatted benches along the path made with hexagonal paving stones, remain somewhat ghost-like, observations begun only to be suspended. Otherwise they recall the sorts of figures Vuillard and Bonnard captured in their park paintings made a century ago in France. At right in the painting, where large dogs are entering the picture, Ruttenberg has indicated a park portrait artist at work, with a bystander seeming to watch, while the silhouettes of horse-drawn carriages are visible further back. Overgrowing in the foreground with these ghostly figures are white blossoms rendered with visionary intensity. One day when I visited Ruttenberg at her studio, I found her working from branches of pear tree blossoms in enormous vases, and I needed some sort of explanation. As if channeling van Gogh, she explained that the short-lived, close-up beauty of the delicate white flowers was lost in the distance, both in her rendition of the reflection in the puddle and in her rendition of the trees themselves encircling the gilded statue. Consequently she needed a way to indicate them at another still more intimate scale, whether they were there or not, since the painting as a whole is about the most ephemeral springtime beauty, visualized in these blossoms. The extra-close-up flowers are no more visionary than the seated figures to either side of the puddle, both based on interrelated Raphael and Manet prototypes. Here, the male figure is an apparition of her husband Derald, whom she lost in 2004. More recently she has begun to use video components to animate some of her paintings, and she now projects a video of birds splashing in a puddle on the original sketch under plastic, animating the whole scene with uncanny poetry. She was delighted when I asked her whether she had been inspired by the little airborne bird in Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe that appears ready to land on the figure of the reclining man.

Her idea to integrate her videos and her Central Park paintings is most elaborately realized in several smaller paintings made at John Quincy Adam Ward’s statue of Shakespeare on the park’s Literary Mall, where on summer Saturday evenings people gather for tango dancing to music broadcast on a sound system. Ruttenberg captures the crowd of shadowy twilight dancers in the same spirit that guided Renoir to observe Parisians dancing at the Moulin de la Galette during the heyday of Impressionism. Based on drawings done on-the-spot, Ruttenberg’s paintings are developed now both as complex images on their own and as backgrounds for videos that she takes at the same weekly gatherings. Accompanied by tango recordings, Ruttenberg’s hybrid video-paintings capture a mood of charmed romance, overlapping observations that do sublime justice to the park and to park people, content that the Golden Age is very much alive in the city welcoming all to come and see for themselves.

Charles Stuckey is an independent scholar living in New York, after a distinguished career as a curator of 19th- and 20th-century American and European paintings and sculpture at The Art Institute of Chicago, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. He has also taught art history and museum history courses at the University of Pennsylvania, The Institute of Fine Arts, The Johns Hopkins University, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has lectured widely and published hundreds of articles, books, and exhibition catalogues, and serves as a Contributing Editor for Art in America. He organized major exhibitions devoted to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Berthe Morisot, and Claude Monet. He is currently in charge of research for the revised catalogue raisonné of the paintings of Yves Tanguy, to be published by the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation.

© 2013 Janet K. Ruttenberg from the book Gatherings