Susan Rothenberg

American Painter

Born: January 29, 1945
Buffalo, New York, USA
Died: May 18, 2020
Galisteo, New Mexico
I almost feel I can take the most banal subject matter and made a good painting out of it.

Summary of Susan Rothenberg

Rothenberg happened upon the subject of the horse in her paintings, not with the greatest of intent, but instead through a process of intuition. She does not claim political or social motivation in the creation of her pictures, and yet her paintings highlight the most vital urge of all, that of mark making as means to mimic and pay homage to the visible world around us. Indeed, it has often been said that Rothenberg's works are akin to giant cave paintings, and thus call upon our collective and ancestral memories. Thick layers of paint with flickers of other colors beneath also recall rich and elaborate icon paintings, and as such the artist's horse comes to represent an icon of American life. The horse is a creature - perhaps like the artist herself -tamed by human innovation but essentially wild by nature.

Having supported other artist's performances early in her career, for example those of Joan Jonas, once Rothenberg hit on the motif of the horse in the mid-1970s she became quickly well known in her own right, and particularly amongst Neo-Expressionist circles. Fatefully, when Rothenberg met fellow artist Bruce Nauman during the late 1980s he already owned a large ranch full of horses situated in the New Mexico desert. Captivated by the spiritual energy of this land, together the two artists moved there permanently and continue to live and work in the same place to this day.


Progression of Art



In 1974 Susan Rothenberg began painting her Horse series, which would ultimately number more than thirty works and prove to be the most recognizable part of her oeuvre. Untitled (1974) is one of the earliest pieces and contains formal elements that the rest of the series would incorporate with only minor divergences. Typically we see a dense and richly painted monochromatic background - in this case a fleshy and bodily pink - a horse in the center lightly traced or outlined, and a strong vertical line that bifurcates the canvas.

The presence of the figure in painting after decades of abstraction and minimalism was considered enough to link Rothenberg and the other artists shown in the seminal "New Image Painting" exhibition of 1974. Though Rothenberg would protest the grouping as arbitrary, saying, "We weren't a movement, we were a bunch of individuals who were reintroducing images," the exhibition brought her immediate art world fame. Her work revealed a painter who obsessively delighted in the application of paint on canvas, and her subject was seemingly simple but alluded to mythology, history, and progress in art itself - after all, the image is very similar to that of the 19th century photographer's Eadweard Muybridge, interested in capturing motion.

Rothenberg's horse in Untitled has an air of ephemerality as it runs through the monochromatic void of the canvas, as if it will momentarily vanish and leave only a trace of its presence. It is a fragile image, perhaps alluding to a memory or the idea of a horse (wild and free but also tamable for human need) rather than a specific creature or narrative. However, through its simple rendering and placement on an earthy background free of any other adornment, it also asserts its permanence through the allusion to humankind's oldest art - the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira. In reviving this ancient imagery in a time when painting was putatively dead, Rothenberg offers a delicate but forceful rebuttal to that claim and asserts the enduring power of the image and the artist.

Acrylic and tempera on canvas - Private Collection



In Butterfly the horse occupies nearly the entire picture plane, with one of its hooves and part of its face even cut off by the edges of the canvas. While the background is the same muddy red color as Untitled (1974), the horse and the lines that divide the canvas into an "X" shape are rich black. While the horse appears to be moving, the thick black lines look both as if they are behind the horse, and emphasize the flatness of the image - making the whole appear like a flag or national emblem.

Though the horse is fecund in terms of its associations, Rothenberg was less interested in the actual animal because she was more attracted to the form itself, she says: "[it was a] big, soft, heavy, strong, powerful form" that let her think about "wholes and parts, figures and space." For her the "geometrics in the painting - the center line and other divisions - are the main fascinators." This is not the equine hero of David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801) or the noble but gentle mounts of George Stubbs; rather, this is black paint in the general shape of a horse painted on a flat canvas, less interested in the anatomy of a horse and more in the act of mark making itself.

Acrylic on canvas - The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


Blue Frontal

Rothenberg not only repeats the motif of the horse, but also a somewhat abstract and simplified depiction of the hands placed together in prayer. Indeed, the artist herself famously said that "paintings are prayers, they have to do with anything that makes you wish for more than what everyday life provides". Sometimes Rothenberg draws hands more obviously, twisted, intertwined, and even puppeteered, but more often they are transformed to become this skeletal looking bridge-type feature. Much like the outer petals of a flower (making further comparison with the work of Georgia O'Keeffe), or the entry point of a hidden cave, the 'hands' become a framing device inside which glimmers of the imagination emerge and grab our attention. From within the deep, dark, cavern, forms edge forward to help fathom the mysteries of our existence.

Acrylic on canvas - Private Collection



This painting reminds the viewer of Nancy Spero's Lovers paintings from the 1960s. The painting asks questions about our identity, as such how we exist in relationships and duality, as well as individuals. The work is humorously titled Bugfuck, as the larger figure resembles an arachnid of some sort. However, the larger figure could also be interpreted as an archetypal female goddess with the erect 'male' figure poking out from her side.

The painting is reminiscent of many other works by Rothenberg whereby she inserts one living thing inside another one. For example, very recently she made a picture of two dogs heads on a yellow background with the smaller head positioned inside a larger one. The same technique has been used to show hands within hands and heads within heads and as such points towards the idea of birth, of a small replica coming from a larger model. From within the deep crevice, images form to help fathom the mysteries of our existence.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection



The slim figure of an austerely dressed and bespectacled man hovers near the front of the picture plane, rendered in shades of blue and gray. His trousers, hands, and shadow are a deeper, night-sky blue while glimmers of pale gold brushstrokes illuminate the top right of the canvas. The figure stares off into space, conveying a sense of self-reflection and general intensity. He only barely emerges from the painted penumbras of which he is an intrinsic part, suggesting a private wrestling with darkness, as well as with the processes of art.

This is not an anonymous individual but rather the famously meticulous Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian. The first in a series of Mondrian paintings, this work essentially came out of the ether, or at lease once again out of Rothenberg's deep intuition. The artist recalled going into her studio and forcing herself to do a drawing, and when she began sketching, Mondrian's face materialized. She was surprised, as she wasn't intending to paint him and recalls, I was "just moving my hand on the paper. It was like an Ouija board." Interestingly though, Rothenberg was attracted to the qualities of Mondrian that she saw as most unlike her own - "pure and wonderful and disciplined." Indeed, the figure she paints from her drawing is rigid in his stance and set jaw, but the hallucinatory layers of feathered paint threaten to undulate or blur at any second. The painting bears likeness to the Giacometti sketches that Rothenberg admired and introduces the European philosophy of existentialism. The juxtaposition between Mondrian and the force of art, as well as light versus dark swirling around, result in a mesmerizing but slightly unsettling work. Critic Chase Madar aptly sums up the final painting and its prefatory drawing by calling it a "passionate, intellectually challenging commentary by a post-AbEx American painter on an arch-classicist European."

Oil on canvas - Private Collection


Blue U-Turn

By the 1980s Rothenberg had moved away from painting horses and had begun to turn her attention to the human figure. Blue U-Turn began as a portrait of Rothenberg's husband and famed artist Bruce Nauman. It features a man's head and torso with the latter attenuated like a Giacometti sculpture or fish tail that curves into a U shape and stretches to the top of the canvas. The figure and the background are all in varying shades of blue, evoking Picasso's early period of intense human observation. Rothenberg's brushstrokes are thick, lush; the result of her application of paint, the bright blue shades, and the silent strangeness of the man is a sensuous, organic image and one that evokes the dreamy depths of the sea or space. The figure appears like a merman and as such an interesting precursor for the imaginations behind the films Avatar and more recently, The Shape of Water.

In the eighties Rothenberg was associated with Neo-Expressionism, a movement of mostly male painters whose work was a middle finger to the ubiquitous claim in the art world that painting was dead. It was characterized by the inclusion of the figure; dynamic application of paint to the canvas; and not a little boldness and bombast. Art historian Irving Sandler wrote that the Neo-Expressionists "cultivated and paraded their individuality, feeling free to paint their fantasies, memories, fears, hang-ups, and whatever else they desired." Rothenberg's "painterly" style certainly qualifies her for inclusion, but the type of individual sentiment she imbues her canvases with is much more gnomic, cerebral, personal. Her work, critic Hilton Kramer stated in a glowing review, "is the kind of painting that invests every area of the canvas with feeling without ever spilling over into Expressionist abandon." Blue U-Turn demonstrates Rothenberg's studied but sensuous brushstrokes and how she manifests her poetic, private visions into a visually beguiling work.

Oil on canvas


Ghost Rug

A soft white rectangle floats on a mottled red-and-white sea, while nearly two-dozen eyes hover around the outskirts of the rectangle or move across its midline. The eyes are individually lustrous and alert, but collectively they disconcert as they glance in all different directions or, in their putative movement across the canvas, pause in momentary befuddlement. Divided from the body as a whole and instead presented as fragments, the eyes recall the practice of Kiki Smith and ultimately convey greater human presence than if all bodily parts were connected and visible. An isolated eye is also a long standing and greatly recurring motif of the Surrealists, it is their symbol and comment for all that we hold hidden within, for our unconscious, our soul.

Despite the presence of the hard-edged rectangle, the piece is much less controlled and much more organic and psychologically haunting than much of the artist's earlier work. Rothenberg explained the impetus of the work to curator Joan Simon, saying that the eyes were her mother's while she was dying: "They were everywhere but no center. Some Navajo saddle blankets have an empty center. They are called 'ghost rugs.'" The aimlessness of the eyes conveys, to reference artist Damien Hirst, the "physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living." There is no closure, no unity, nothing peaceful. The void of the white shape and the eyes separated from the body convey Rothenberg's anguish at her mother's painful passage from life to death.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection


White Raven

Some of Rothenberg's most recent work shows the painter applying her formidable talent for "painterly" brushwork and nebulous boundaries between content and form to the subject of birds, and more specifically, to ravens. White Raven is a massive work, ten feet wide and painted with all the frosty gray tones of a classic Northern Renaissance winter scene. A screeching white raven (which does not, of course, exist in nature) is suspended in the void and occupies the left side of the canvas, its head almost cut off by the edge.

Critic Faye Hirsch described the eerie image as "white on white, an eyeless, wingless avian, beak open as if screeching, is hurled through the restless ether." It is an image that evokes Tennyson's line, "Nature, red in tooth and claw" as well as the implacable menace of Ahab's white whale. However, as Rothenberg's animals have long been her surrogates for the human body, here there is an evocation of existential terror (similar to the portrait of Mondrian) - of being unmoored, of one's psyche untethered from narrative and memory. The raven is sometimes culturally associated with death, or the transition between life and death, and as such it is interesting that Rothenberg paints such a creature in the latter phase of life.

Oil on canvas

Biography of Susan Rothenberg


Susan Rothenberg was born in Buffalo, New York in 1945 and spent most of her youth there. While her parents simply wished for her to graduate college and marry a man with a stable profession, such as a doctor, Rothenberg defied expectation and became interested in art from an early age. Her grandfather was a house painter and a family friend was an amateur artist, and together these influential characters, as well as frequent trips to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery stoked an enthusiasm for both painting and sculpture. Both in her youth and beyond, Rothenberg also loved rock 'n roll and dance, and she had professional training in modern dance and ballet.

Early Training and Work

Rothenberg enrolled at Cornell University and began studying sculpture. She soon quit however because the department head told her that she had no talent. The artist herself remembered being a "goofy girl" and said, "it wasn't an ambition of mine to become an artist; I thought I'd be the muse of a famous painter. I think that I've grown into it." She left for a five-month sojourn to the Greek island of Hydra and when she returned to Cornell she switched courses and took up painting. After graduating she attended the Washington School of Art but decided it wasn't for her after only two weeks. Following a time of restlessness she went back to Buffalo and then decided to head to Nova Scotia. While stopping in Montreal she pivotally decided to change her ticket and switched destination from Halifax to New York.

Once in New York City Rothenberg quickly established herself with financial assistance from her parents and artistic connections from Cornell friends. For a time she was involved in performance art, working for Joan Jonas and Nancy Graves; she also befriended the artists Alan Saret and Gordon Matta-Clark. She was intrigued by the Warhol Factory but determined that she didn't have an interesting enough persona to present to the Warhol machine so she stayed downtown.

She married the sculptor George Trakas in 1970 after meeting him at a Jonas piece that both of them were participating in. Both were part of an interdisciplinary circle of dancers, painters, sculptors, and musicians and Rothenberg at this point was already painting prolifically.

Rothenberg and Trakas had a daughter, Maggie, born in 1972. The couple divorced in 1979, but always thereafter remained good friends.

Mature Period

In 1974 Rothenberg drew a vertical line on a canvas and then added the figure of a horse thinking primarily of good proportion and questions of beauty, thus beginning her famous and influential Horse series. Her first solo show was in 1975 at 112 Greene Street, an alternative art space in SoHo, where she showed three of these new and large-scale horse paintings. Art critic Peter Schjeldhal deemed the horses a "eureka moment" and Rothenberg herself said at the time that she felt she had "found her voice." She sold her first painting for $1,500 when she was thirty years old, a fact that she still recalls vividly due to her routine of logging every painting she ever made in a now-tattered notebook. She laughed with an interviewer, "I know when I'll die - when I fill the last page."

Art world fame came to Rothenberg with her inclusion in the Whitney Museum's exhibition entitled New Image Painting. The featured artists had little in common other than their inclusion of the figure in painting at a time when this was seen as anathema. Rothenberg was then later classed as a Neo-Expressionist for her indulgence in dynamic brushstrokes, visceral paint, and the continuing presence of the figure.

Rothenberg never abandoned the horse completely, but by 1980 she was incorporating a more diverse array of imagery in her works such as birds, other animals, including dogs, body parts, and even the modernist Piet Mondrian. She also started using oil paint instead of acrylics at the suggestion of friend and fellow artist Elizabeth Murray, who said "you can get so much more texture in oil" and knew that Rothenberg's style in particular would benefit from this.

Throughout the 1980s Rothenberg participated in dozens of single and group shows, whilst famously saying in 1982 that she would not be a part of any group show where she was the only female artist.

Rothenberg loved being mother to her daughter Maggie and believed that it helped her grow up, commenting, "What better demarcation can you have in your life than a baby to make you feel like you can't be a fuck-around anymore?". However, she struggled with her loneliness and admitted that while "I would get all this praise" it was difficult because "I guess I was just hoping to have a partner to share in it." She took two years of psychotherapy in 1984 and, as she stated, "[my therapist] completely helped me straighten out, to see what was working well and what was defeating me."

Late Period and Current Work

Rothenberg met famed artist Bruce Nauman at a dinner party in 1988 and within three months the two were married. After a year and a half of going back and forth from New York (so Maggie could finish high school) to Galisteo, New Mexico, where Nauman owned a sprawling 700-acre ranch, Rothenberg moved to the Southwest permanently. The couple own numerous horses and dogs and even two yaks. The artist and her dogs go walking in the desert for an hour or two every morning and she considers herself somewhat of an amateur archeologist, digging for arrowheads and piecing together whole pots from shards left in the sand.

The sensory experience of the desert and concomitant feelings of isolation and spirituality permeate, at least to an extent, Rothenberg's late canvases. She and Nauman don't often leave the area, though they maintain an East Village studio and she still tries to be somewhat connected to the art world: "I like to get a bunch of art magazines and I try to get to New York five or six times a year and do the galleries."

The Legacy of Susan Rothenberg

Susan Rothenberg's legacy would have no doubt been secured with her Horse paintings of the late 1970s, but her successive decades of work only solidified her reputation as a painter of immense verve, depth of feeling, and simultaneously meticulous and spontaneous technique. Critic Peter Schjeldhal deemed her "quite simply, one of the most thoroughly convincing artists in the world, one of a handful who have laid hold of a medium and muscled it into perfect accord with their temperaments."

Rothenberg's style and content influenced her peers -Schnabel, Nauman, Bartlett, among others - and encouraged future generations of painters to delight in the physical act of painting as well as the quiet contemplation that usually comes naturally being alone with brush and canvas. Her insistence on including the figure (albeit a spare, tenuous one) in her painting during a time in which Minimalism and Conceptualism were de rigueur in the art world, as well as her unapologetically lush and obsessive handling of paint, indicated to her contemporaries and future painters that form and content were not irreconcilable, that nature and mankind and history and glimmers of narrative were not anathema, and that there could be worlds contained within one dab of paint. Agnes Martin was a similarly devoted painter, and today a painter in Cornwall UK, Kate Walters, has adopted a style of horse painting that appears interestingly inspired by Rothenberg's career.

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