A crowd gathers. A horse and carriage rides by in the distance. The music begins: a soft, slow melody. Then the dancing starts. The statue of William Shakespeare looks on as the festivities begin.
A man and woman spin in and out of view, a woman’s rainbow-colored skirt twirls hypnotically, then fades into a static image and you realize you’re standing in a gallery in the Museum of the City of New York. You’re not in Central Park’s tango dance-off, as you thought, but instead staring at Janet Ruttenberg’s combined painting and video work entitled “Shakespeare.”
This particular work, set to background music sung by Oscar de la Renta, seems to be the most popular in the gallery full of Ruttenberg’s works. Over fifteen other pieces hang in the gallery, all as part of Ruttenberg’s very first museum exhibition, entitled Picturing Central Park: Paintings by Janet Ruttenberg. The artist is 82 years old.
Ruttenberg can often be seen in the 843-acre park itself, painting the peaceful and familiar scenes New Yorkers so love to call their own. The artist generally focuses on three specific areas of the park: the Literary Walk (where her tango video painting is from), Sheep Meadow, and the Grand Army Plaza.
Her portrayal of the Grand Army Plaza in 2011 is a beautiful scene of blooming white Bradford Callery Pear trees that once graced the plaza before the freak October snowstorm that felled them. “In Bloom” is therefore a record of the park as it was as well.
Each drawing, painting, or video is often part of an oversized canvas collage; the artist includes photographs, newspaper clippings, and drawings in one piece. It is obvious jut how much art history has influenced Ruttledge as we see fun glimpses of this in many works. In one of the first works in the gallery, “Roller Blades,” a young woman stares out at the viewer in very much the same manner as Manet’s masterwork “Le Dejuneur sur l’herbe.” Two very Egyptian-looking figures kiss in the background as well as the characters in Cezanne’s “The Large Bathers.”
While the paintings are actual images of Central Park that the artist has seen and observed, the figures in her works can be entirely fictional. And yet it is these figures that she focuses on, and these figures that the viewer is drawn to.
At first glance, the oversized works seem simplistic, uncomplicated. But don’t be fooled. Each of the works on view here at the MCNY deserves a second, longer look, and you will surely find yourself lingering in front of a few favorites. With such vibrant colors, large canvases, and hidden aspects, Ruttledge’s works are one-of-a-kind.
And her works could not be displayed in a more fitting place. An architectural gem of a museum, the MCNY celebrates all-things New York. What’s more New York than Central Park? Even Mayor Bloomberg came out to the opening to sing his praises of the artist and her work. See Picturing Central Park until January 5, 2014.