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The Ruttenbergs’ Exquisite Rabbit Holes

For years, artist Kathy tried as hard as she could not to be like her mother, artist Janet. Then she happily gave up: “I want to be just like her.”


Two years ago, Picasso biographer Sir John Richardson told me that I had to meet Kathy Ruttenberg, who makes elaborate ceramic sculptures at her outlandish headquarters upstate, a live-work space as crowded with precious animals as Noah’s Ark. Subsequently, John let me in on the other half of his favorite art-world secret, introducing me to Janet Ruttenberg, Kathy’s mother. A virtuoso printmaker and painter herself, Janet is as private as an artist can be, except that she can be found on any nice day out in Manhattan drawing and painting and taking photographs and shooting videos in public.

When Janet was a girl growing up in Dubuque in the thirties, she knew she wanted to be an artist. When Kathy was a girl growing up in New York in the sixties—one of Janet and financier Derald Ruttenberg’s four children—she was always being asked to pose for her mother, who has relegated some of the finest family portraits by any American painter since Sargent to staircases and hallways in her apartment. But as most children will do, Janet tried to find her own path, and when not posing, she was eager to slip free of the demands of her artist mother, who was always “disappearing into the rabbit hole” of her work.

Escape proved futile. According to Kathy, “I tried so very hard to be different in any way I could from my mother, and now I give up. I want to be just like her.” According to Janet, however, it goes both ways: “I give up. My adventurous daughter is now the original, with her brilliant anti-taste and her nonstop multimedia creativity.”

Both mother and daughter are about to have a bit of a moment. Kathy’s second solo exhibition is up through May 18 at Stux Gallery, which is also showing a documentary on her by David Kaplan. Except for a few very recently completed works—none more complex than the twelve-foot tree man just inside the gallery entrance, with miniature girls hanging from his branches like victimized ornaments—the visionary sculptures in the show are reproduced in a new monograph published by Charta: Kathy Ruttenberg: “Nature of the Beast.” Not to be surpassed, come September, in a solo exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, Janet will finally show the monumental Central Park watercolors and paintings she has been making during the past fifteen years, some now animated with her own videos. Whereas Janet looks panoramically outward from the grass to distant skylines, Kathy sees the surrounding landscape wrapped around, and absorbed by, figures she’s observed up close. But green is everywhere in the works of both artists, along with branches and figures taking refuge amid plants. And nowhere is the genetic heritage of creativity more apparent than in their exquisite, if madcap, interior-design schemes.

The eye alights just about everywhere in these homes. The social rooms in Janet’s apartment are filled with all kinds of art: mostly old-master prints, a few dazzling paintings she did in Scotland in the eighties, and the best collection of Kathy’s sculptures anywhere. The centerpiece is Kathy’s Serial Killer, a life-size ceramic girl on a very real tree limb spanning the mantelpiece. The window treatments are particularly inventive. In the dining room, the Jeroen Vinken curtains have been elegantly slashed. Pulled back to reveal a panoramic view of the East River, those in the living room are in fact part of Janet’s print collection, the design applied with woodblocks, with bits of real fur for accents. They complement Kathy’s woven worsted-wool-and-silk rugs, illustrated with girls and furry pets. The back rooms include yet more quirky ideas, from the Louis XV chair that Janet upholstered in bubble wrap for the kitchen to a full-length Elizabethan portrait of some dubious ancestor displayed in a bathtub. Waiting by the elevator is Kathy’s wall lamp with a translucent blue head sprouting from a vagina.

Unlike Janet’s apartment, Kathy’s home upstate has a less formal atmosphere—in large part because so many animals roam throughout it. The theme is animal art, as if the space had been conceived as a progressive kindergarten for nonhumans. There are dozens of fantastical furnishings, and although Kathy has been reluctant to show them publicly alongside her more classic sculptures, many can be seen in her guesthouse: a one-woman design showroom filled with curtains, rugs, chandeliers, glazed tiles, drawer pulls, and so on. Needless to say, the first guest invited to this house was … Janet.


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