Linear Harmony: Exploring and Preserving the Collection of Buzz Ruttenberg

Buzz Ruttenberg, a passionate collector and an active member of The Conservation Center’s Advisory Board, recently invited our CEO Heather Becker into his home for a conversation and a tour.

Read Heather and Buzz’s dialogue below, and watch our video of their walk through of his extensive collection of Modern and Contemporary works, many of which The Center has had the privilege of conserving and framing over the years.

We are grateful to Buzz not only for the warm welcome into his home, but also for his support as a member of The Center’s Advisory Board for over 11 years.

BUZZ RUTTENBERG: I grew up with a Jackson Pollock in the house. My parents purchased it in 1952. It was a 1949 work, and one of his very famous drip pieces. I was ten years old and didn’t understand whether it was a big deal to use a paint brush or a drip, but everybody would make fun of the piece, saying ‘my kid could do this’! So at an early age, I was exposed to people being critical. I loved the way it looked, and I didn’t understand why at the time.

In addition to this, my parents always had an interest in music. My dad played the violin and my mom played the piano. 

"Music and art seemed to be interwoven in our lives, and the Pollock exposed me to interests and artistic movements that required a level of understanding greater than just a visual interaction."

HEATHER BECKER: Right. The art arena was shifting into abstraction which was more theoretical.

BR: Yes; the freedom to see beyond the meaning of an object or image, and to feel an emotion. It was very much a part of the abstract movement.

Moving on, this is a head carved by Jaume Plensa, who is a famous sculptor here in Chicago. His work is on permanent display in Millennium Park; I had seen his work at Richard Gray Gallery and was very taken by it. I tend to favor long, thin shapes and lines - I have always been drawn to Giacometti’s work, in particular his drawings of heads and portraits. 

"I find the whiteness of Plensa’s work to be very serene, quiet, and comforting to live with."

HB: Plensa’s work seems to echo your focus on the monochrome, as well as the linear emphasis seen scattered throughout your works on paper collection.

BR: It does. Intuitively I seem to be drawn to the black and white lines; perhaps that was part of my experience growing up surrounded by the lines in Pollock’s work. But to me the linear qualities are representative; the lines are a type of discipline I seek to find within the art. Although they are quite linear, I also see a sense of softness is Plensa’s sculptures. To some extent, they also offer a sense of reality; this piece is very clearly a head. Similarly, we have a Deborah Butterfield (represented by Zolla/Lieberman Gallery) horse that is clearly a horse.

 HB: Does the Giacometti portrait offer you the same sentiment?

BR: Definitely. My dad collected this drawing in the early ’70s, well before the Plensa. As you can see, a lot of the lines in this work are round in shape, while the lines in Giacometti’s other work tend to be long and thin. This piece also features more negatives space, allowing viewers to focus in on the portrait itself. The lines and strokes Giacometti used in this piece seem to have a more horizontal emphasis, which is  interesting because typically we see him favor verticality.

HB: Let’s move on to your piano room, where you have created a space that is obviously not only special to you, but also offers a place to experience both art and music together. Tell us a little bit about what this room means to you.

BR: As I mentioned, when I was young music was always important to my family. We had a piano in the house and, like most children, I resented practice because I would rather have been outside playing. Now I find playing the piano very comforting, because it reminds me of my youth and my family. While I don’t play well, I do practice well.

This room is circular, and was especially designed for the piano. The piano is dark ebony, so I decided to use ebony frames to house the Lichtenstein prints. The prints are primarily from the early 60’s, and by surrounding the piano they seem to create a harmonious composition. The piano is curved, and much of the Lichtenstein's work also has curves in it. The pieces tend to feature a lot of yellow coloration, and the yellow contrasts elegantly with the ebony in the piano and the frames.

HB: It really does.

BR: The space is intimate and peaceful. It’s not intended to be a room for many people; instead, it’s a room for one. When I’ve had a stressful day, this room offers me a gracious space to sit and experience both art and music in harmony together.

HB: From a preservation standpoint, it’s amazing to see the care you have taken. I remember when The Center was reframing the collection for you, you understood fully the importance of using archival materials and UV-filtering glazing. Now, in addition to protecting the work, the anti-reflective Optium glazing also offers a clarity that allows viewers to experience the works in a truly intimate way.

BR: Very much so.

"Particularly with the Lichtenstein's, viewing them from a close distance without seeing one’s reflection in them provides an intimacy of appreciation."

With the wonderful work that The Conservation Center did with the archival housing, anti-reflective glazing, and UV-protection, I was able to display the works in a room with natural light. 

"The clarity of the glazing allows me the ability to insert myself both physically and emotionally near to the work. We as viewers are able to realize what the artist was feeling, and what he was asking us to feel."

HB: The bright colors, strokes, and shapes in Lichtenstein’s work features a lot of movement; with the works displayed all together, there is indeed a feeling of musicality to the compositions that spreads throughout all walls of this room.

BR: Right. The blues pop and there are two shades of yellow here - one has a tad more green in it, and the other has a bit more red. The fact that you can differentiate that subtlety in a print that is fifty to sixty years old is pretty phenomenal. The Center did an amazing job with the framing.

HB: Continuing to focus on compositions and the lines within them, let’s go to another room where you have some beautiful linear works on paper. Traveling back to the main hallway, what was your focus for this wall?

BR: These are four images, all drawings of women. The Giacometti work is a tall, thin figure with the legs together, telling us it is a woman. Giacometti’s striding figures were always male.

HB: Buzz, I notice a linear continuity throughout the collection. First, we began with the artistic and musical influence of the home you grew up in; now, as we explore your own home we are again discovering an environment that surrounds you with both art and music. The combination of all these lines and forms becomes meditative and calming.

Works on paper seem to be your focus and something you really love. How do you encapsulate that in the development of your collection?

BR: Part of it is what’s happened to the art market in general. The idea of being able to regularly buy significant works on canvas, construction works, oil paintings, sculptures; as someone who is curious about the changing art market, I was drawn to works on paper because they are easier to display and, frankly, they are a little more affordable.

HB: As a member of The Conservation Center’s Advisory Board for many years now, we’ve seen your collection truly evolve. You frequently move pieces around, rearrange, and recreate the environment in which you live and work again and again. Is this process something you enjoy?

BR: Very much so. I seem to be living up to my name. Call me Buzz - it has a certain level of energy to it.

"My collection has that same level of energy. It’s not stagnant. My home is not a museum - people live here."

When I’m buying something new, we have to work with the collection I already have to move pieces around and create more space.

HB: Has your role on the Advisory Board at The Center influenced the way you collect?

BR: Well, it’s made me more cautious about how I treat my pieces. But it hasn’t impacted my willingness to take my chances and buy an unusual piece by an unknown artist. Sometimes I think I am more willing to take risks because I’m in the creative and destructive business of real estate. Some of the work you build from the ground up, some of the work you remodel.

HB: While some of it gets destroyed.

BR: Sometimes you have to destroy to build anew. There is a sense of both a destructive and constructive dynamic in my collection. While many works are obviously finished pieces, they tend to display an energy that changes and transitions. And I find in life that sense of temporary permanence has always been appealing to me.

HB: With the recurring reference to the linear tendencies in your collection, I’m wondering how this transfers to your career as a developer. In the architectural world, line and space are always core important elements. To you, is there any correlation between your career path and the art you collect?

BR: I’m sure there is. I find harmony in the space I have created within my home, particularly in the large, long main hallway. It does have a very linear quality, that is also reflected in the kind of work that appeals to me.

HB: Buzz, it’s been a pleasure to tour your collection and learn more about how you collect, care for, and display the work. Just as your collection is ongoing and active, so are our efforts to protect and preserve it. It has truly been an honor to treat your collection over the years.

BR: It’s a pleasure to get to share it with you and The Conservation Center. It’s a special treat. Thank you.