Dr. Rudy P. Rotter (1913 - 2001)

Birth date: 4/23/2013 Death date: 2001  
Birth location: Milwaukee, Wisconsin Death location:  
Media: Assemblages , Folk & Outsider Art , Mixed Media , Sculpture Web site:
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Rudy Rotter

Rudy Rotter (1913-2001) was one of the most prolific artists Wisconsin has ever seen. Although he didn’t begin making art until he was 43, his works total over 15,000 pieces. While his artistic output rivals that of several artists, his variety in style and medium could lead many to think that Rotter was a dozen distinct artists. Although he was mainly a sculptor, he would frequently jot down sketches, and spent most of his later years drawing.

Rotter’s parents were the pattern in how to create a well-balanced life. They were Russian immigrants who settled on the south side of Milwaukee. Though they worked hard to open up several businesses, they would make sure to expose their children to different worlds through occasional visits to the Milwaukee Public Museum and cultural sites in Chicago. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in zoology, he quickly realized it would take too long to climb the ranks at the museum and decided on a different career: dentist.

Rudy Rotter graduated from Marquette’s dental school in 1941 and served in the Army Dental Corps for two years. After his stint in the army, he traveled to Manitowoc, a city that he would call home for the rest of his life. Rotter kept everything under one roof. He lived on the second floor, ran his dental practice out of the first floor, and had a studio/gallery in the basement. Patients remember Dr. Rotter not wasting a second. He would regularly sketch in between appointments and sneak down to his studio while he waited for anesthesia to take effect on a patient.

Initially called the Manitowoc Fine Arts Gallery, his basement studio/gallery was an escape from the delicate work he did as a dentist just one floor up. In 1979, he changed the name to the Manitowoc Museum of Sculpture. Then, after retiring in 1987, he moved the museum to a few rooms of an empty industrial building. With all the extra time to create, those few rooms turned into an entire floor, and by 1998 he occupied the entirety of the 21,000 square foot building. After his death in 2001, his wife Karen maintained the museum as best as she could, but in 2007 a rainstorm caused part of the roof to collapse. Consequently, some pieces were lost due to mildew. In 2011, the collection was moved out of the building and split up between museums and storage locations.

The variety in Rotter’s work comes mostly from the components of the piece. The material for his art comes from items that are on their way to the landfill. From old linoleum from someone’s house to bits of plastic from an industrial scrap heap, he would use just about anything. He said, “I’m open to it all, there’s so much potential, I don’t see it as junk and I don’t want people to see it as junk. It’s raw material with a form that I arrange into art.” It’s this practicality paired with intense creativity that have defined him as an artist.

(Biography contributed by Steve Koplitz.)

Wisconsin Affiliations

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Wisconsin Art Organizations

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