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Who’s your radical?
On a recent trip to the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wis., I stopped at the new Gallery 3 in nearby Manitowoc. This large industrial building has recently been converted to a gallery and multipurpose art space and is on its way to becoming an artistic retreat just three hours from Chicago. It is also the new permanent home of the Rudy Rotter Collection of Art.
Rudy Rotter (1913–2001) was probably the most prolific artist in Wisconsin history, having created an estimated 16,000 works of art during a 45-year period. His overwhelming output utilized an entire universe of material choices. The finished pieces I saw were mostly sculptures, but there were also paintings, drawings and assemblages. His artistic output was staggering by any account, especially considering that Rotter had no formal artistic training—just did hard sustained work during many decades.
When the Rudy Rotter Museum of Sculpture—which included his working studio—was closed to the public in 2007, some works were acquired by other art institutions, including the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore; the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University; the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis.; the Lawton Art Gallery at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay; and the Rahr-West Art Museum in Manitowoc. Gallery 3’s Heather Bonde and Robert Jagemann have transferred the remainder of the collection to multiple floors in their space and are beginning the long process of cataloging and preserving the rest of what is estimated at approximately 14,000 pieces.
I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the upper floors of the 1929 Mirro Aluminum Plant 3 building that houses Gallery 3 to look at some of Rotter’s work that is not on display. Seeing the work laid out across the floor and on tables, filling the cavernous space, took my breath away. The idea that one person created each piece I saw was hard to comprehend. Working with so many different materials and using them in interdisciplinary fashion, all while raising a family and running a successful dental practice is truly the revolutionary work of a radical individual.
To Rudy, everything had possibility, and to sketch, carve and create this astounding body of work, he reused, repurposed and recreated every form of media and material imaginable. The finished pieces convey his passionate feelings regarding humanity. The representational works display power and tenderness, and the abstract pieces burst with a sense of joy and celebration. His art shows wit, compassion and wonder. It is as though the art was in the items all along, and he was driven to reveal it.
Although Rotter was a self-taught artist, he doesn’t fit the standard view of an impoverished visionary or social misfit. He was organized, disciplined, creative and above all, compulsive about his artmaking. He worked every day in an organized manner, morning and afternoons, rarely taking a day off from art. He once said, “I feel driven to create; I just love the creative process. The product is not as important as the action.”
Rotter is my radical because he did not question his need to create and was never distracted from exploring new ways to find and create beauty, often out of things discarded by others. His dedication and creative spirit is an inspiration to me in the middle of working in the MFA Interdisciplinary Book and Paper Arts program here at Columbia. And after seeing his work, I know I better get moving.