Untitled (Downtown skyline from Westbeth roof),1981, Oil on canvas, 40 x 48 inches, Museum of the City of New York
Friday, July 13, 2012
“It is very rewarding to see that a patient who has gone through so much is so vital and active as he approaches his 95th birthday,” said Cardiologist Rosemarie Gambetta, MD, at VA New York Harbor Healthcare System. “He’s survived wartime bullet wounds and later recovered well from by-pass surgery performed in his 80s."
Dr. Gambetta's patient, artist Peter Ruta, has lived a life that would make a good movie. Among stacks and rolls of paintings representing his work over more than 60 years, Ruta and his wife, Suzanne, recently discussed Ruta’s life and times. They live in Manhattan’s famous Westbeth artist’s building. It’s the first such artists’ housing built with federal money in the United States. Currently, Ruta is assembling a show that will be held October 6-21 at the huge Westbeth gallery.
Ruta’s work has been inspired by the places he’s traveled and lived and often returned to again and again. In the '50s and '60s, he was grounded in New York with work as an editor and designer for Ladies Home Journal and Arts Magazine, but he eventually found a way to leave that routine and paint full-time.
He has traveled the world, sketched and painted large canvases. As a young art student in the 1930s, Ruta met muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros and his circle in Mexico City. He was friends with heiress and arts patron Peggy Guggenheim in Venice in the '50s. And, only by chance, he was away from his Manhattan artist’s studio on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center when terrorists attacked on 9/11.
Having a daughter from an earlier marriage, Ruta married Suzanne in the late 1960s. He continued to create landscapes and still life paintings and traveled widely with his wife and their three children. They lived for years in beautiful places with excellent climates and supportive artists’ communities like San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Suzanne is a writer and translator with a recent novel “To Algeria, with Love” (Virago Press 2011).
Any New Yorker would resonate to Ruta’s wonderful cityscapes. He painted in the cold of winter and summer heat often on the rooftop of his Bethune Street apartment building, in what is now a very hip neighborhood. His downtown New York paintings from the 70s through 90s were the subject of a one person show at the Museum of the City of New York in 2004.
In 2008, a big one man show was hosted at the City History Museum of Leipzig to celebrate his 90th birthday. His latest show was at the Villa Rufolo, Ravello, Italy this past spring - Italian paintings of the 1950s and recent years.
It all started in Leipzig, where Ruta was born into a literary and musical family. His mother was Jewish. His father had leftist political views and was an early anti Nazi. Knowing that for these reasons they were at risk with the rise of Hitler, his parents moved to Italy when Ruta was a child. In 1936, Ruta emigrated from Italy to New York. After Pearl Harbor, he was after drafted into the US Army and became a citizen. Unhappy with his original assignment as division artist with the Indiana National Guard, Ruta said, “I asked for combat. My parents were still in Italy. It was my fight.”
As a result, he was deployed to the Pacific during heavy fighting toward the end of WWII. Under constant enemy attack, Ruta was felled by enemy fire. “Four bullets shot in my belly,” he recalls. Expected to die, he survived through numerous surgeries and large amounts of penicillin applied directly to his wounds, beginning with a field hospital emergency surgery in the Philippines. He was later treated in New Guinea and finally at the Butler, Pennsylvania, Army Hospital. He lost “a foot of intestine” causing him periodic abdominal pain until this day, yet his overall health was good. He continued to paint, enjoy his family and adventurous life.
VA came into his life in a dramatic way when he required heart surgery in 1998 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Satisfied then, as earlier with his care, on return to New York City, he started coming routinely to Dr. Gambetta to monitor his care. And, in keeping with the times, Ruta and his wife communicate with her electronically about questions in between clinic visits.