If the painter Ruben Alterio were to paint himself at a moment of total well-being, he tells me, his painting would look something like what I am seeing before me: a spry, slightly built fellow with a jaunty kerchief around his throat, chopping garlic in a tiny Paris kitchen. He would be gazing out the kitchen door, across a kind of mezzanine filled with bric-a-brac—a small wooden boat, several candelabra, old iron teapots, family photos—and into the big, light-filled studio lined with large canvases. Tall north-facing windows rise almost 15 feet to the ceiling. Beyond them, you can make out the bustle of the Boulevard de Rochechouart, Montmartre’s main thoroughfare. Across the street and up the hill is the big white Basilique du Sacré-Coeur.
“This whole place is like a painting for me,” says the 67-year-old, speaking French with the heavy accent of a native Argentinean. “My life is here—every little thing in it means something, and there is nothing in it, no colors, nothing, that displeases me.”
The whole scene could have been lifted intact from an old sepia-toned photo, with Pierre-Auguste Renoir, say, at his easel. You wouldn’t be far off. Renoir did indeed paint here at the end of his life, but not in Alte- Erio’s studio. Renoir’s was a few floors below; you can see the white shutters of what was his apartment from Alterio’s kitchen window.
Everything about the studio recalls a bygone Paris—Paris as the art shrine it used to be. For Alterio, it plays an almost sacred role in his own religion, which is painting. “If you go to a church and there’s no altar and the priest isn’t dressed right, how can you believe in God?” he says.
Alterio has been producing his large canvases here for over 30 years. They are forceful pieces, with sweeping brushstrokes and a kind of interior glow. He starts with the canvas flat on the floor and swipes a layer of watercolor across it with a large brush attached to a stick, like a broom. Later, he’ll rework the canvas with oil paint. This technique is called gras sur maigre—fat on thin—and he uses it to give his paintings their wonderful luminosity.
It’s obvious Paris is where Alterio had to end up. As a young man, he followed his father into the painting line and studied at the Buenos Aires School of Fine Arts. He played jazz clarinet in bars around town. But Alterio’s Buenos Aires was a stuck-up place and sniffy toward bohemians like him. “In Argentina, you’ve got to be at least 50 before they let you do anything,” Alterio says. “If you want to play the clarinet, they say, ‘Who is your professor?’ You can’t just play the clarinet.”
And then there was Chez Tatave, a local dive straight out of a dream: The owner wore a beret, the ceiling had surrealist eyes painted all over it, and in the middle of everything was a genuine colonne Morris—one of those green columns plastered with posters that are to pictures of Paris what cable cars are to images of San Francisco. “For me, this place was Paris,” Alterio says reverently.
As you might guess, Alterio’s studio has history too. A century ago, it housed a workshop that produced engravings for Picasso, Matisse, and Miró. Alterio’s wife’s grandmother—stay with me here—was the sister of the Picasso engravers. The engravers moved across the boulevard, but they kept the studio, and Alterio eventually took over the lease.
He’s made it the centerpiece of a life that might have come directly from the fantasies he spun at Chez Tatave. He’s made fashion illustrations for luxury book publisher Prosper Assouline’s magazine La Mode en Peinture; he’s designed sets and costumes for the ballet Don Quichotte at the Opéra de Marseille; and he’s made some killer French friends—a photo of actress Isabelle Adjani that photographer André Rau gave him hangs on the wall. And of course he paints, the central activity that he refers to as “mon grand bateau.” His work has appeared in shows at Art Chicago, Paris’s Centre Pompidou, Berlin City Museum, and MALBA, the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires.
“We reinvent ourselves in Paris,” Alterio says, but almost nobody does anymore. The idea itself comes from another time. But Alterio did, and when you look out his tiny kitchen, over the bric-a-brac and into his studio, you can see why, once upon a time, so many people wanted to.
Ruben Alterio's first show in the United States will be this summer from July 1 to August 12, 2017, at 21 Crowns in Southampton, New York; tgallery.com.