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Artists Susan Rothenberg Biography and Legacy
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Susan Rothenberg

American Painter

Movements and Styles: New Image Painting, Neo-Expressionism

Born: 1945 - Buffalo, New York, USA

Susan Rothenberg Timeline

Quotes

"[I am] trying to invent new forms to stand in for the body since I don't want to make a realist painting...I'm very aware of my body in space -shoulders, frontal positions."
Susan Rothenberg
"[The] complexities [of my art] involve perceptual and psychological memories based on real and imagined experiences...which are things that seem close to unpaintable, which is why I love painting."
Susan Rothenberg
"But I am a female painter, and certainly what I do is informed by a woman's brain. I'm not sure a person could see my work, not knowing who did it, and characterize it as a woman's. When I'm in the studio, I'm only a painter."
Susan Rothenberg
"The magic part usually frames itself in my head like a question, a phrase, like, 'What should be? What picture should be? Here.' And I don't know if I mean here in my studio, or here in this world. Sometimes, it comes up as, 'What do I want to do? What do I want to make?' But 'What should be?' is a kind of prior thought to letting an image come up. It will happen any time; it happens sometimes just thinking, 'I know what I want to do,' and then starting. I mean, I mess up the canvas as soon as I can with some sort of paint."
Susan Rothenberg
"And if I would use a word to define my current goals, after spending about two years trying to paint movement, light, and color, I have a desire for - diffusion is the word I want to use."
Susan Rothenberg

"I almost feel I can take the most banal subject matter and made a good painting out of it."

Biography

Childhood

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.

Rothenberg and Trakas
Rothenberg and Trakas

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 (1986)
Rothenberg (1986)

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 and Nauman
Rothenberg and Nauman

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."

Legacy

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.

Most Important Art

Susan Rothenberg Famous Art

Untitled (1974)

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.
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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Kristen Osborne-Bartucca

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Dr. Rebecca Baillie

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Kristen Osborne-Bartucca
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Dr. Rebecca Baillie
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