In the slice of the West Village just below the overrun streets of the Meatpacking District, there sits a complex of enormous buildings that hearken to a vestigial New York, a world of yesterday. Straddling the city-space from Bethune to Hudson and down to Bank streets, this is Westbeth. Built at the end of the 19th century as the Bell Telephone Laboratories, it was repurposed by the architect Richard Meier in 1970 into an artist’s colony: just under 400 subsidized housing units of varying shapes and sizes, with an enormous studio floor set aside for dancers. (Merce Cunningham had his studio and office here; Gil Evans, the jazz great, kept an apartment.) The majority of those who received early admission into this coveted space never left, or at least not of their own volition.
It was here, among the very first to earn a coveted spot, that Dresden-born painter Peter Ruta set roots down in New York City. Ruta turns 98 on Feb. 7. He is quite possibly the oldest living member of Westbeth and certainly among its most prolific, if least-well-advertised. That is just beginning to change: He was the subject of two small recent retrospectives of his work—one at the Art Students League on 57th Street in Manhattan—the same school that nurtured young Ruta when he arrived in America, fleeing Fascism, on Nov. 11, 1936—and the other at NYU’s Casa Italiana, coinciding with his last birthday. The former was held over twice; the latter focused exclusively on Ruta’s Italy years. Neither could quite do justice to the enormous breadth of Ruta’s work, nor could they fill the gap: It has been a long time since this country has paid sufficient attention to Ruta at all. (Italy and Germany have both held large shows in the last five years.) All of this is belated recognition, timely only in so far as it has, at least, happened in his lifetime.
If Westbeth is a reminder of a New York we are losing—artistic and gritty and avant garde—then Peter Ruta himself speaks to a generation of 20th-century artistic European emigrés and flâneurs we have also lost, very nearly fully.
Indeed, Ruta is a man Dr. Volker Rodekamp, director of the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum in Leipzig, calls “not only important as an artist,” but also “a representative of the tragedy of the 20th century.” In the catalog accompanying Ruta’s 2004 show Picturing New York: The Paintings of Peter Ruta, at the Museum of the City of New York, curator Andrea Henderson Fahnestock noted that his architectural vistas of lower Manhattan rooftops, absent of all city life, were marked by a “metaphysical emptiness” and a style of “powerful simplicity.” Ruta’s friend Paul Resika, also a painter, said by phone, “I don’t think there was anyone quite like Peter Ruta who painted with such simplicity. He paints more pictures than anyone who has ever lived. He’s an old-fashioned person. He’s a real painter. He paints from nature, and he does it every day and over and over again.”
Ruta paints landscapes, primarily—the Italian coastline, lower Manhattan, Mexico, New Mexico, and southern France—as well as still-lifes. A brief pop period in the 1960s included a slew of images painted from newspaper photographs of the Kennedy assassination. His work demonstrates a quiet quality, belying the upheaval Ruta has seen in his life: wars, displacement, loss. Before the attacks of Sept. 11, Ruta even had a space in a communal studio on the 91st floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center when the planes hit; by chance, he was not there that day.
The recent exhibitions and the sheer vastness of his work beg the question: Why hasn’t more attention been paid? To some degree, muses Resika, it is because all Peter Ruta ever wanted to do was paint. In the course of his wildly nomadic life he has known nearly every major 20th-century player in the art world, and yet he didn’t exploit those relationships. He just kept on painting. And as he did, his work evolved into a meditation on space and time, it moved from pieces influenced by the neo-romantics to a style that can be nearly fauvist, and it serves not only as an impressive artistic oeuvre, but also as a time capsule for vanishing worlds.
Peter and his wife of 46 years, Suzanne, live in an open-plan duplex apartment in Westbeth with nearly no privacy, but plenty of light. For about 20 years they shared that space with their three children, who have long since moved on. (Ruta also has a daughter from a previous marriage, who never lived at Westbeth.) I met the Rutas there over a few days this past spring.
On my visits, Ruta wore the same clothes: loose painter’s pants held up on slightly stooped shoulders with once-bright yellow suspenders that are mock-rulers, over a loose faint-blue button-down shirt. What’s left of his hair puffs out behind his ears in a thin white cloud. His hearing is poor and his voice muffled; he smiles easily. His easel, in the far corner of the upstairs floor, is set up, angled toward the windows. Paints are everywhere, and often wet because Ruta still steps to his easel every day. His only nod to aging is a more regular submission to the practicality of painting indoors, rather than out.
The room is filled with completed canvases wrapped in old bed sheets of varying pattern and design, giving the impression, at first, of a bedding-goods store. Hundreds of rolled pieces and precarious piles of stretched canvases threaten to overwhelm the last of the living space. Bookshelves are overstuffed with texts in German, French, Spanish, and English—languages that both Suzanne and Peter speak. Books are pushed off the table, which is quickly set with quiche, salad, wine, crusty bread, cheeses: the south of France, by way of New York.
And yet, as crowded as the room feels, Ruta’s deceptively tranquil canvases counter that mood.
There is a serenity to his work, an almost otherworldly, high-altitude appreciation for space and structure that captures a melancholy urbanity, which, reviewers often note, recalls Edward Hopper. Take a 1981 untitled landscape of lower Manhattan that was included in the 2004 show on New York. The city is all ochres and cadmiums, grays and blacks, it is blocky; a city-scape made basic, a bit like it was constructed from refined children’s blocks. It is clearly a scene of lower Manhattan, and yet there is no human movement. As one gets closer the lines of the buildings appear somewhat blurred, as though seen through mottled glass. In the distance, set against a yellow-white sky, is the World Trade Center. It is somehow breathless, a city that is not exactly unfriendly, but nor is it home to anyone. The effect might be read as either preternaturally calm or terrifying.
Peter Ruta was born in 1918 to a Jewish mother, Else (née Stein) Franke, and an independent-minded Protestant father, Walther, a journalist. In 1923 the Munich Beer Hall putsch took place while Walther was in Italy for work. Presciently, Walther sent for his wife and two sons. The boys grew up in Italy, in Milan and then on the coast, occasionally visiting their German relatives. (Ruta, in fact, was a nom de paix taken by Walther, a suppression of the German “Franke.”)
Peter Ruta fled Europe in 1936 (correctly suspecting worse was to come) and found a job in New York working for an agent of his maternal uncle’s successful art-reproduction company, Seemann Verlag. Once in New York, he tried to join the fight against Franco in Spain; the International Brigades rejected him—German citizenship was a liability. Instead he began studying at the Art Students League. Ruta briefly traveled back to Europe in 1938 to visit his parents—“they were in extremely reduced circumstances”—then returned to New York. A fresco from that era painted by Peter still graces the walls of the school.
In 1939, Ruta hitchhiked to Mexico and stayed there six months. “I met many refugees from Spain,” he said. “German expats. Anti-Fascist poets. I had a very interesting life. Then I hitchhiked back through California and I hitchhiked to an artist party in Chicago and ended up in Colorado … ”
“Then he comes home,” Suzanne broke in, meaning to New York, “and makes still-lifes and gentle paintings.”
Ruta was drafted into the U.S. Army after Pearl Harbor. They offered him a position as an Army painter; he opted for combat. He lasted less than a week in Bataan before his gut was filled with enemy ammunition. Newly discovered penicillin saved him, he said.
Meanwhile his parents remained in Europe. His mother’s family disintegrated under the Reich. Gustav Kirstein, the owner of the art firm, died in 1934 after his firm was Aryanized. His wife Clara, Peter’s maternal aunt, was forced to liquidate the family’s considerable assets, including works of great art. (In 2014, a Max Liebermann painting that had been confiscated by Nazi looters was restituted to Peter and his family and then auctioned at Sotheby’s.) Clara committed suicide when her passport was confiscated on the eve of her departure for England. Another aunt, Thilde, was deported to Izbica. If she survived that horror, she was likely sent on to Belzec in 1942 to be murdered. (Suzanne, who has become the chronicler of the family, has written about her life.)
Else and Walther lived relatively quietly, if uneasily, in Italy until 1943. By then they had both converted to Catholicism, for both protection and community, though it proved flimsy cover. Walther was commanded by the German consulate to divorce his non-Aryan wife. He refused, thus forfeiting his citizenship. The couple began a life on the run. Peter, still Army-based, knew nothing about it. But after the war he learned: They were denounced, they escaped, they were arrested, they escaped. Else was briefly hidden in a convent. The couple fled for the Swiss border, aided by a series of resistance fighters, communists, and religious Catholics, zig-zagging across the Italian countryside by foot and train and foot again. They were interned in a Swiss camp for eight months.
Postwar Walther wrote a memoir—unpublished, wildly cinematic—detailing their improbable survival. And after years of uncertainty, Ruta reunited with his parents in 1946, in Basel, his first wife in tow.
Peter’s first marriage produced a daughter, Alexandra, born in Rome. The girl stayed with Peter; the wife returned to America. Together, father and daughter toggled between New York and Italy and ended up in Venice, Peter with a Fulbright scholarship. There he became friendly with Peggy Guggenheim and a part of the emergent Venetian art scene. (“I was the only single, American man! So I was I was always invited to her house, the sixth at the dinner party … ”)
Bucking the popularity of abstraction so prevalent in those years, in Italy Ruta painted still-lifes of bread and cheese, and then lush, colorful landscapes of then-unknown Positano, a town he returned to throughout his life. “In the 1950s Rome became a center for Americans,” he said. “People wanted to go to Paris. But we went to Paris and we realized there was nothing there really. And we went to Italy and we found something—writers and painters and movie people—and it gave me a feeling of what life in a major European intellectual capital could be like.”
In the early 1960s Ruta was wooed back to New York by Wilhela Cushman, fashion editor of Ladies’ Home Journal (then with a circulation of 6 million). He joined the staff and later edited for Arts magazine. He and his then girlfriend hung out with Andy Warhol and his crowd at Max’s Kansas City. The girlfriend was Jeannie, her sister was Viva Hoffmann (“her daughter is Gabi Hoffmann? The actress?”). He tells these stories off-handedly, it was who was around, this who’s who of New York’s avant garde. Back in America, after decades of painting from nature, Ruta painted off of magazine ads and news photos, experimenting with Pop Art, influenced by Warhol.
In 1968 Ruta met Suzanne, then a graduate student in French. A son, Sebastian, now an entrepreneur, was born in New York. Garance, now a journalist with Yahoo (and a colleague of mine, as well as a star of the documentary How To Survive a Plague), was born in Cavaillon near Lacoste, France, where the couple lived for a time—(“a friend of Peter had bought all these houses there at the end of the war for $10 each,” Suzanne explained. “He started an art school there and then we rented a peasant house.”) And the third, Vanessa, today an assistant professor neuroscientist at Rockefeller University, arrived while the family lived in Chiapas, Mexico. The family dipped in and out of New York but lived as well in Guatemala and in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a life lived in search of landscapes. Each era shifts—the light is different, the sentiment, the color palate. A 1974 painting, “Madron Tree,” captures a Mexican forest, tempting the viewer into the painting, the light beyond. The colors are fecund greens and browns, and a sense of possibility infuses the scene.
That geographic life history hangs all around Suzanne and Peter, in their quirky Westbeth studio-home space. The walls and floor are thick with stacked images of Italian villages, Mexican meadows, and lower Manhattan as they once were. In front of each piece is a new one, painted just yesterday, filling in the space with the new.
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Sarah Wildman is the author of Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind. Her Twitter feed is @sarahawildman.
Sarah Wildman is the author ofPaper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind. Her Twitter feed is @sarahawildman.