By Daniella Walsh
Over the past two-and-a-half decades, Jack Rutberg Fine Arts has been Los Angeles’ go-to gallery for the best in modernist and contemporary art. Between the gallery’s inception and now, its founder, Jack Rutberg, has evolved into a respected art consultant and mentor, a prolific author and engaging lecturer on a plethora of art-related topics.
Thus, Rutberg has plenty of insight into the gallery business and the general state of the arts. “There are galleries that are art boutiques and there are galleries that are places of enlightenment. Enlightenment is a big part of my life and my business—I could not just live in a retail outlet,” he says.
It all started with what he describes as a “hobby that grew out of control.” By “hobby”, he means an adopted fascination with prints by Old Masters, a prodigious interest that gradually transformed an introspective, Belgian-born teenager prowling through Los Angeles’ museums into a mature gallery owner with a sterling reputation and staying power in a volatile business.
“I first got a book on the Old Masters and the history of prints, which also gave me insight into the history of art, music and literature—it filled a void,” he recalls.
But books were only part of the equation; it wasn’t until he first held in his hand a small Rembrandt print that he became fully aware of his place in the larger picture. “I felt as if I was part of a huge continuum holding a little piece of paper that had been attached to so many lives before me,” he fondly remembers.
After opening his doors on La Brea Avenue, he held a grand opening show in 1982 that featured 91 paintings and drawings by Arshile Gorky and Hans Burkhardt. Since Gorky and Burkhardt shared a New York studio for a time, Rutberg figured it would be rather original to showcase their work together. From that time, critics and important art world pundits like Peter Selz, Walter Hopps, Henry Hopkins and Donald Kuspit were generous with praise and the tone was set for Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, which has since gone on to stage exhibitions featuring notable figures Oskar Fischinger and Ruth Weisberg as well as Alexander Calder, George Herms, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Käthe Kollwitz and Max Webber, to mention a few.
Rutberg emphasizes that his knowledge is, while wide-ranging, mostly self-acquired through independent research and hands-on experience. He says that artists, for example, have taught him that there are no real great truths in art—just a whole bunch of small ones. “I have a huge regard for art history but, having been in the trenches, I also know how miswritten it is,” he explains.
Erudition, a wry sense of humor and an instinct for what really matters in art (vision, genius and effect on viewers rather than technical minutiae) have made him a sought-after speaker at an array of locales—the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Orange County Museum of Art, the Portland Art Museum, and Ireland’s Douglas Hyde Gallery and Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, to name a few.
Art venues such as the Galway Arts Festival in Ireland engage his curatorial expertise. “One has to stay passionate and informed, but in the end it’s all about simplicity, about getting it,” he reveals, adding that he feels an obligation to give voice to artists whom scholars often overlook.
It is this drive that has compelled him to provide a forum for new (though not necessarily young) talent. He is an authority on the American, Swiss-born painter Hans Burkhardt (1904-1994), championing his expressive celebratory works and his anti-war paintings that deal with such conflicts as the Spanish Civil War and Desert Storm. Rutberg has written extensively on Burkhardt, including a catalogue raisonné titled Hans Burkhardt: The War Paintings, and Black Rain, a documentation of his final works.
One discovery is Irish painter Patrick Graham, whom he has introduced to Los Angeles. “When I show Patrick, I see things that one does not often see in galleries; people are moved to tears,” he says. Rutberg first saw his work in Ireland following a tip by blue-chip collector Vincent Price and became consumed by the powerful drawings and paintings of an artist who so eloquently represents the multiple facets of Ireland’s history, politics and soul.
Rutberg was so enraptured by Graham’s work that he immediately sought to fill his home with the painter’s canvases—although, as he explains, his wife of nearly ten years, Mary Lou, came around much more slowly to Graham’s expressions of existentialist angst. By now though, she is a full-fledged convert and has enthusiastically insisted on hanging one Graham painting in the couple’s bedroom and another, larger canvas in the living room.
Jerome Witkin, another major discovery to whom Rutberg is devoted, is increasingly regarded as the most exceptional contemporary narrative painter today.
The Rutbergs’ own art collection mirrors the direction of the gallery—European modernists and contemporary works including the aforementioned icons. They are also known for their vast collection of works on paper by 19th-century French symbolist Henri Fantin-Latour.
Thus, with a vast collection surrounding him at both home and work, Rutberg sees his part clearly. “A collector’s role is to cherish and protect,” he asserts. “Works have to survive long beyond us.”
Photos: (Top): Jack Rutberg in his Los Angeles gallery. Behind him is Journey, a 1956 painting by Hans Burkhardt. Photo by Jim McHugh. (Bottom): Hans Burkhardt, Abstract Landscape, 1951. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy Jack Rutberg Fine Arts.MySpace Art Chat