The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Brian Rutenberg (2008)

Introduction for a book on the artist, Radius Books, 2008.

During the second half of the twentieth century, the art world's center of attention shifted from Abstract Expressionism to Postmodernism, which offered a reorientation from the straightforward and demanding value system of modernism to an easier, Duchampian "anything goes" outlook. Modernist artists continue today to emphasize the purely visual, while Postmodernists are more interested in direct, literal meaning and connections to real-life circumstances, typically emphasizing content at the expense of craft and visual aesthetics.

Postmodernists seek to appeal to the need for "important" symbolic significance through the indirect representation of "ideas" or "issues" and by the gathering of recognizable objects into exotic combinations that imply meaning without making it explicit. In this construct, visual interest becomes secondary to storytelling with readily identifiable - usually quite simple - subject matter, meanings, and ideas.

Mainstream Postmodernism, like the academic art of any time, insists on overt message while implicitly deriding and discouraging intuitively derived aesthetic pleasure, which is the explicit aim of modernism and has been the "subtext" of great art through the centuries. It is work that relies on values extrinsic to the art rather than those existing "within" it, replacing intuitively derived experience with literal explanation. Postmodernism holds sway in academia and in the contemporary art market. Like the head on a glass of beer, it is an insubstantial froth, one that obscures the much greater volume of work - good, bad, and indifferent - being done "the old-fashioned way."

Pluralism - the open acceptance of virtually anything as art - was much in evidence at the School of Visual Arts in New York City when I taught in its graduate program, during the mid-to-late 1980s. The faculty was a microcosm of the art world, containing Postmodernists, modernists, conceptualists, and many others; students gravitated to instructors who represented their particular interests. Brian Rutenberg and I were clearly on the same wavelength about painting; we both took it seriously as a medium for visual rather than "idea" art. He was talented and hardworking, and, unlike some of his peers, he was disciplined to paint as well as his talent allowed. This was a student with whom I was happy to work.

Rutenberg's attitude today is the same as it was then: when I asked him what sort of introduction I should write for this book, he replied, "What I would like is an observation from an artist's point of view, hardcore talk about color, constructing a picture, materials, surface, intent, and execution - the very things we discussed years ago, the things that matter." Brian's answer is plain, serious, and commonsensical, and it is refreshing to be shown that what I have seen in his paintings over the years reflects the fact that he has kept his head on straight and still knows what counts. The popular notion that artists are wild-eyed, misbehaving eccentrics is generally wrong; even those who are a little odd are dead serious when it comes to their art - the good ones, anyway. And Brian is certainly one of the good ones.

Another common notion is that an artwork is "profound" by virtue of the story it has to tell and, if the work is nonrepresentational, by the "meaning" it conveys. We are willing to be moved by music despite its lack of reference to nature because we are used to it; we don't ask it to be full of birds chirping and auto horns. Visual art, on the other hand, was made to be referential and did not move away from depicting the real world until recently - during the last hundred years or so. So instead of yielding to the sensuous characteristics of a work, to its beauty, if you will, people tend look, first, for what it says. That is what motivated the academic artists of the nineteenth century, and it is what motivates Postmodernists today.

Yet despite this almost universal initial misconception, basic visual strength has, in the long run, always won out over explicit meaning. In the final analysis, content is unimportant as art. What counts is how the art was made and what the artist has put into to it beyond content; those visual characteristics are the basis of its quality. For example, every image of the Crucifixion is loaded with clear-cut, specific, understandable content and meaning, but very few such images manage to last as great art.

Rutenberg grabs the contemporary situation at both ends. He revels in the visual sensuousness enabled by painting while introducing his own rather surrealistic effects. One look at these richly colored, densely material pictures will tell anyone that his primary interest is in the visual effects achieved by how the painting was made. But he also consistently alludes to landscape, usually wooded areas seen from the inside, that often evoke a feeling of being haunted or possessed, inhabited by an immanence that is felt but unseen. This can be said to be a species of meaning - the landscape is "more than" just a landscape - but it is meaning that is generated by a gathering of aesthetic means, meaning that can't be spelled out but must come across as intuitive experience. He doesn't tell us straight out that there is something eerie in these irradiated woods; he makes us feel it. And he couldn't make us feel it unless he had stood on the land and felt it himself.

His rendering of landscape forms ranges from fairly direct representation to oblique suggestion. Specter (2000, plate 27), for example, is interpretive but straightforward: the colors are relatively natural (the few ghostly shocks of stark white are startling), the illusionistic spatial recession is clear, and the light is ambient and relatively shadowless. It looks like a landscape. Summer Swirl 10 (2007, plate 80), on the other hand, contains only a few tree forms and a slight suggestion of Rutenberg's characteristic penetrating frontal light; and the forms are pressed up against the picture plane, damping down the illusion of depth. Other paintings, such as Cherry Grove 3 (2004-5, plate 67) and Palmetto Smooth 4 (2006, plate 74), ask us to consider seemingly arbitrary unalloyed chunks of pigment or mists of dissolving color as appropriate elements of his numinous wilderness.

Brian Rutenberg's skillful interweaving of materials and representation, and what is evoked when they are interwoven, reflect a talented artist of mature accomplishment at the midpoint of his career. This book celebrates what he has achieved to date and suggests what may come. He has created a world that begs to be explored, and I anticipate with pleasure seeing what he will discover - and move us to explore - next.