“I think of my life as a life in the sunlight, with many bright colors, and yellow lightbulbs indoors at night.”
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Peter Ruta, born 1918 in Germany, raised in Italy by his Jewish mother and anti Nazi father, reached New York in 1936, a poor refugee from Fascism. The next year he enrolled in night classes at the Art Students League. He was not yet a citizen, but already a painter when drafted into the US Army in 1942. With the rest of his family still in Europe and in peril, he turned down the position of division artist in the Indiana National Guard for a combat role. In 1945, he took four bullets in the abdomen in night fighting on Bataan. He survived by miracle – sturdy, energetic, hopeful, but permanently scarred.
He saw the worst and the best of the 20th century. In Settignano in 1947, he befriended Gertrude Stein’s brother Leo, in his last months of life. In Venice in 1949 Peggy Guggenheim invited him into her coterie of surrealists. Ruta formed his ideas about painting in opposition to theirs. Stella Adler and Roberto Matta were good friends. On the Amalfi coast, Ruta discussed child care with Ingrid Bergman. In New York in the 60’s, Andy Warhol’s superstars found solace and spaghetti at his table.
None of this affected the painter, whose motto, throughout his life, remained a modest, focussed “I paint what I see. ” With selfless absorption and indifference to passing trends, he painted lyrical landscapes in Mexico, New Mexico, New England, France and Spain. He painted New York City from the 91st floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and finally, in his nineties, he painted a great series of explosive still lives, in his downtown Manhattan studio.
He won awards, a Fulbright, several Pollock-Krasner grants, various residencies in the US and Europe, and showed his work in small prestigious galleries in New York, Rome and London. In his nineties the world began to catch up with him: in 2004 a one person show of cityscapes at the Museum of the City of New York. 2008 a 90th birthday celebration of his life’s work (and his family’s early resistance to Fascism) at the Leipzig Stadtgeschichtliches Museum. 2012 brought a show of his Italian work at the Museo de Villa Rufolo, Ravello and 2015 another Italian show at Casa Italiana, New York University.
A ten year old grandson teased his grandfather a few years ago. What was his old man’s wisdom? Ruta had an answer ready. “Accept life as it is.” That approach had served him well. He painted every day of his life, till just before the end. He died at 98, in November 2016.