My first encounter with the work of the artist Alexander Rutsch was through his daughter, the artist Alexandra Rutsch Brock (Alexi), a friend and one of my fellow co-founders of the London Calling Collective. I visited the Rutsch family home in Pelham where she grew up and where her mother still lives. The home, an eccentric, polymathic cacophony of hand-hewn art and embodied life, reflects my experience of Alexi as a passionate and energetic artist, teacher, and friend. A labyrinthine artist’s house- the type that real estate brokers abhor, is brim-full of paintings, sculptures, built-in furniture, object d’art, hand-tiled stone walls, curved nooks, hallways to a warren of rooms, and Alexander Rutsch’s overflowing attic studio, where the work from this exhibition came. I marvel at the fecundity of imagination a childhood in that house must have fostered. This history makes it a special honor to step back and review the exhibition, Alexander Rutsch, a Pop-Up, at Kenise Barnes Fine Art in Larchmont, NY, on view March 4-7 and March 11-14. 2021. The exhibition includes paintings on panel, works on paper, sketchbook pages, and whimsical bronze sculptures cast from industrial materials and found objects.
Alexander Rutsch was born in Russia right before one devastating world war and came of age just after the second, part of the post WWII European wave of immigration, optimism, and artistic expression. He experienced a world come alive with intensity, and in his postwar years in Paris, knew Picasso and Dali. There he built a life of art as full-on vocation, and continued that intensity when he emigrated to the states and settled in Pelham, NY.
The work in the exhibition is a form of voluptuous abstract representation, including landscape, portraits of his wife and daughters, family gatherings, women in repose, narratives drawn from a personal image bank. The work reflects modernist ideas of emotive personal gesture over grand historical narrative. Impressionistic and observational more than reflective, the works have a sensual immediacy, with little distance between subject, eye, hand, page. The evidence of touch and visceral unfinish show Rutsch’s responsiveness to a mark— haptic moments recorded without looking back, a stroke of life onto canvas. They are as though he scrutinized his subject intently, then closed his eyes and quickly painted the afterglow. He favored vibrant jewel tones and thick blacks, dense and weighty on the surface. Objects appear sculptural, cut from stone and hit quickly with a torch light of cadmiums and cobalts.
In Rutsch’s hands landscape and figure are puzzles of geometric flatness. In Family, pastel and tempera on board from the 1970’s, a woman and two children sit near vivid water near what appears to be a block of cadmium orange rock, perhaps the square of a man, the artist as he contemplates the domestic scene. The rock, the woman, the children, are blocks of equidistant non-hierarchical shapes, afternoon light compressed into complementary blue and orange.
The exhibition contains many images of women, his wife and daughters as models and inspiration more than specific portraits. The women look demurely forward, down or aside, their faces planes of saturation. He doesn’t deconstruct them as much as turn them into iconic bursts of color, ideals of womanhood as diva, lover, madonna, muse.
His nudes, as in Beach with Nudes, pastel on board from the 1970s, are Matissian tree trunks, backs facing the viewer, sturdy organic architectures in a fixed pictorial space. In Nude, a small mixed media work, the arms of the figure cut diagonally across the plane, scarlet hair repeated in a swath of crimson under her right arm. The upraised arm holds the painting in place and stops us from passing to her vulnerable front, like Susannah denying the elders. The space flattens out as our eyes are caught in the crook of the elbow, she is a shimmering fiery protectress.
One landscape, Sunset, mixed media on board from the 1990’s, stands out, with backlit moody light and a more finely articulated narrative. Three people sit at a round table in the center of a forested night scene, a dog active in the foreground. More figures hover in the murky lower right and left, while the trees and the dog are bathed in reflective glowing cobalt. The sky is dark but for a streak of dense salmony pink, bouncing onto the circular tabletop and into the lower left corner, the very end of dusk where a slip of light persists. The scene is fairy tale mysterious, a pagan bacchanal or an innocent family picnic collecting fireflies. We can’t tell. Like all of Rutsch’s work, the intense sensuality of the moment is right on the lips of the painting.
Rustch applied the same immediacy to sculpture, seeming to reach out his hand to random scraps of metal, nuts, bolts, anything with his characteristic muscular shape. The sculptures, such as Rainy Day, bronze, from the 1960’s, are more defined and whimsical than the paintings, idiosyncratic figures gathered in families, cubes of metal for heads, women with round bolts for breasts. These shapes are reflected in paintings such as Woman, mixed media on board, yet despite their bright color, the paintings seem weightier than the sculptures, which retain a child-like playfulness.
Placing Rutsch’s work in the context of contemporary figurative work today shows an ongoing narrative dialogue, from European artists such as Picasso, Dali, Mattise, and a Russian Viennese emigre to the the US, to today’s female, queer and BIPOC artists reinvigorating these vernaculars. Artists like Drea Cofield’s fantastical tales in jewel colors, or Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s emotive brushwork, explore intimate internal stories of embodied living. These artists waltz in a complex American history, one that loops backwards and forwards through culture and artistic tradition, tales war and immigration, race and assimilation, of struggle and success, love and family, and ultimately the commonality of difference art reveals to us. I never had the chance to meet Alexander Rutsch in person, but in the work and the image of this robust dynamic man I recognize the features of both my dear friend and my vital turbulent country.
All photos courtesy of Rutsch Estate
ALEXANDER RUTSCH, a Pop-Up exhibition
Kenise Barnes Fine Art, 1947 Palmer Avenue, Larchmont, NY March 4-7 and March 11-14, 11:00 am to 5:00 pm daily Contact: Daphne Anderson Deeds, email: email@example.com phone: 860.989.7719
Patricia Miranda is founder and director of MAPSpace and The Crit Lab. She has been Visiting Artist at Vermont Studio Center, the Heckscher Museum, and University of Utah; and been awarded residencies at I-Park, Weir Farm, Vermont Studio Center, and Julio Valdez Printmaking Studio. She received an Anonymous Was a Woman Covid19 Relief Grant, an artist grant from ArtsWestchester/New York State Council on the Arts, and was part of a year-long NEA grant working with homeless youth. She has exhibited at ODETTA Gallery, ABC No Rio, Wave Hill, and Rio II Gallery, in NYC; The Alexey von Schlippe Gallery at UConn Avery Point, Groton, CT; the Cape Museum of Fine Art, Cape Cod MA; and the Belvedere Museum, Vienna Austria.