Slightly dazed and suddenly blinded by the hot September sun, I fumbled inside my bag for my sunglasses as I waved goodbye to the Museum of the City of New York’s communications manager. Just as she turned to walk down the street, she asked me, smiling in a knowing way, “Are you going to walk back through Central Park?” After what I had just seen, how could I not?
“Picturing Central Park,” which opens Friday, is a series of massively scaled works by artist Janet Ruttenberg. Three key areas of the park—Sheep Meadow, the General Sherman Plaza, and the Mall (or Literary Walk)—are portrayed in 15-foot-long multimedia panoramas.
Ruttenberg, a long-time figure of New York’s art scene, is known for her privacy, rarely displaying her work. But in her portrayal of Central Park, Ruttenberg’s affection for the landmark is anything but coy. A native Ohioan, Ruttenberg has called New York City home since the 1960s, and the park has always been a fixture of her life in the city, especially her habitual stroll through Sheep Meadow to her Upper West Side studio.
“It started one day when she was walking through the park and saw this really interesting woman sitting in the park with roller blades,” Andrea Henderson Fahnestock, SoA ’85 and the guest curator for the exhibit, said. “That was the first image that interested her.”
Central Park, of course, needs no introduction. The name says it all: It is central to our lives as New Yorkers and it’s located in the middle of the city. The division between east and west, Central Park is the slash of green that keeps our maps from looking like a highly organized Mondrian painting. But more than that, Central Park is one of the iconic stamps of the city.
Like Central Park itself, the only word that can accurately describe this exhibit is “overwhelming.” From the sheer magnitude of the paintings to the ambitious subject matter—Ruttenberg’s pieces make a bold attempt to highlight both the natural beauty of the park and its visitors—Ruttenberg portrays a Central Park that is larger than life in size and activity. As a result, the exhibit benefits from its simple layout: It consists of three small galleries, because anything else more complicated would simply send visitors into a nervous breakdown.
With a little trepidation, I forayed into the first gallery, and found myself surrounded on all sides by Sheep Meadow, an area of Central Park between 66th and 69th streets from which many of Ruttenberg’s pieces draw their inspiration, surrounded on all sides by massive portrayals of the park.
The touchstone for understanding the exhibit as a whole is “Roller Blades,” Ruttenberg’s first study of Central Park based upon that chance encounter in Sheep Meadow. The titular roller blades do make an appearance in the paintings, but are so dwarfed by the expanse of blue figures sprawled across the deep green-yellow grass of summer that I had to hunt for them. The skater is seated at the base of the painting, her tan figure slowly transitioning into a deep blue down her legs. While the extras get rudimentary limbs and figures, our roller blader explodes with detail. Everything from the yellow, green, and blue paint that clings to her hair to the teasing quality in her eyes to the pattern on her blanket demonstrates Ruttenberg’s talent for the minute amid the massive. In the middle of a sea of faceless blue people, the roller blader stands out from the chaos.
Ruttenberg’s artwork captures the duality of the park in an impressive fashion: a place of constant activity and motion, yet a place where someone can go to get away from the bustling city. As Jennifer Lantzas, the public art coordinator for the Parks Department, said, “For the past couple hundred years, New York City’s public spaces and parks have served as ‘city squares’ where the general public can gather to voice political and social concerns and triumphs—particularly ripe material for artistic interpretation.”
Ruttenberg’s artwork is steeped in this idea. These are not dainty watercolor studies painted from the comfort of her studio, but casualties of a park in action, long strips of canvas laid on the grass, covered in leaves, dirt, and debris as Ruttenberg hurries to immortalize the moment. In fact, the very first piece in the exhibition “Morning Glories” was painted directly on the cellophane cover of the canvas, as Ruttenberg raced against time to capture what she was seeing.
“What she is really drawn to is the people, and they happen to be in this wide-open space,” Fahnestock said. “It’s a gathering place.”
One visitor to Sheep Meadow, Ashley Kiel, echoed Fahnestock, noting how the park’s centrality and beauty make it “easy for people to come and meet up.”
In many ways, Ruttenberg’s paintings are microcosms for Central Park itself. What makes these pieces so stimulating—perhaps even too much so—is their sheer scope. These are not just studies of trees, or people, or the city, but of the experience as a whole.
The second gallery gives visitors breathing room after the busyness of the first; there’s a palpable step back from the frenetic energy of before. In one piece, amid a monochromatic skyline of androgynous building-like shapes, the Hearst Tower is strikingly identifiable, and I am taken aback by the careful detail and attention paid to this one building. More than shocked, I am troubled and almost offended that it has gotten so much attention in a series that is meant to highlight Central Park, the antithesis of this massive glass-and-metal monstrosity.
As I scan “Study #2,” my vision of green trees is suddenly interrupted by a splash of grey. In a gap between two branches of a tree, I can see the clear outline of a building, located somewhere beyond the treeline. While jarring, it is also a reminder of what makes Central Park so unique. Central Park would be impressive anywhere, but in New York City it is nothing short of a triumph—an oasis of nature amid the very urban landscape, a balance that we all strive to create in our own interactions with the city. An important detail of Ruttenberg’s work is that she never forgets this. Every single landscape is capped with the New York City skyline, a reminder that this is not just another park, this is Central Park.
When laid out in 1857, Central Park was the nation’s largest planned park, specifically designed for the ever-expanding populace to have a respite from the hustle and bustle of Victorian New York. Sheep Meadow was originally designed as a parade ground for military drills, an idea which was politely scrapped by architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who felt military drills would detract from the park’s relaxing surroundings. While Sheep Meadow today is indeed a relaxing place to spend a Sunday afternoon, Ruttenberg’s artwork teems with the life and vitality that still permeates the park, 160 years after the military abandoned the fields to sheep.
Entering the third gallery, I took a step back to look at the dark painting on the wall. It took my eyes a few minutes to adjust before I begin seeing figures emerging from the canvas. Legs and arms intertwined, dancing couples lope across the canvas, depicting the free outdoor tango on the Mall that takes place every evening in the summer. The piece is complemented by a video of dancers projected onto the canvas itself. I arrived too early to appreciate it for myself, but that adds an extra dimension to the painted dancers frozen mid-lunge.
Most New Yorkers hold warm, fuzzy spots in their hearts for Central Park. For me, the park conjures up visits to my grandparents’ apartment, weaving through former hippies selling buttons at Strawberry Fields, scrambling up the “Alice in Wonderland” statue, and screaming myself hoarse at SummerStage. Central Park is so much a part of my childhood growing up in New York, and like Ruttenberg’s own experience, there’s no defining moment, no grand revelation; it’s the little things that make the park so special. Ruttenberg’s paintings are not of sweeping vistas or stunning views. Instead, they are glimpses of ordinary people in one of the most extraordinary places in the city.
What Ruttenberg attempts to convey in her artwork is that Central Park isn’t an anomaly in the city. It’s a part of the city in a very tangible way, and as such, fundamental to the experience of what it means to be a New Yorker.
Like trying to experience the park itself, Ruttenberg’s pieces must be taken in section by section. I found myself clinging to one beautifully articulated tree or carefully sketched figure in each canvas, lest I get drowned in the deluge of color and activity that takes place in the paintings.
After looking at the park through the eyes of the artist herself, I ventured out across the street to see it for myself once more. Should I have been studying? Probably. Was I wearing the right shoes for a walk in the park? A decisive no—and I have the blisters to prove it. But does Central Park continue to amaze, both in life and art? A resounding yes.
“Picturing Central Park” opens Sept. 13 and runs through Jan. 5, 2014 at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Ave. Admission to the exhibition is free with museum admission, which is free with a CUID.