Peter Ruta
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Peter Ruta painting

Peter Ruta (1918-2016) was a leading American painter of landscape and cityscape, with a career spanning centuries and continents. Born in Germany, raised in Italy, he came to New York at age eighteen in 1936, a refugee from Fascism. He discovered his vocation as a painter at the Art Students League with teachers Jean Charlot and Morris Kantor. In 1942 the army proposed to make him division artist in the Indiana National Guard. He asked for a combat position instead -- his family were still in Europe under threat. Sent to the Pacific, he was badly wounded in combat, February 1945, in the retaking of Bataan.

In the 1950s he painted in Europe. In New York action painting ruled. Ruta in Rome, Venice and on the Bay of Naples, gave himself up to non-picturesque street views, humble still life of breadcrusts and kitchen knives and dark romantic portraits of his household help. This early work -- a tender document of poor postwar Italy -- was rediscovered by an Italian art historian after 2000, with many shows in Italy, Germany and New York.

In the 60s Ruta found a bridge from his Italian work to Pop painting based on news photos. The day Kennedy was shot he bought a roll of canvas and spent three years painting scenes of political upheaval. From 1967-71 he edited ARTS magazine, covering the new trends of the times. He also produced two books of architectural photography, with long periods of travel in India and the Far East.

IIn the 1970s, Ruta reclaimed his true vocation: landscape painting, outdoors, from the motif. Meadows and forests in Southern Mexico, rugged hills and creeks in New Mexico, groves and quarries in New England, rural France and Spain. In New York he painted the view from the roof of his downtown apartment house: the West Side Highway, the Hudson piers, the now vanished smokestacks. The World Trade Center often anchored these energetic cityscapes. In 2000 and 2001 he painted vast city views from a studio on the 92nd floor of the North Tower. His last painting of the view was destroyed in the 9/11 attack. The Museum of the City of New York gathered this work into a 30 year retrospective in 2004, Picturing New York. The 9/11 Memorial Museum added one of these works to its collection.

With the loss of the towers, the prolific Ruta, in his 80s, returned to his studio in lower Manhattan to paint a long series of increasingly complex and colorful still life, mixing fruit, flowers, and city buildings. He started his last painting just six weeks before his death, in November 2016.

Critic Phillip Gould, Ruta's contemporary, speaking at the installation of the painter's work in the lobby of the Veterans Medical Center on E. 23rd Street in Manhattan in 2014, called him a "lyrical luminist." Ruta would have agreed. "I think of my life," he once told friends "as a life in the sunlight. What I remember is sunlight and bright colors and yellow light bulbs indoors at night."

Read Ruta in his own words in this thoughtful interview with journalist and holocaust scholar Sarah Wildman, from 2015, and oral historian Liza Zapol in the 2016 transcript of her interviews with Peter.

Ruta’s downtown New York painting serenaded, Leipzig 2011
Ruta’s downtown New York painting serenaded, Leipzig 2011
 


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