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 - National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
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
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
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
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