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Susan Rothenberg, internationally acclaimed painter

December 2, 2009

Susan Rothenberg first gained critical attention in the mid-1970s, when she introduced the simple outline image of a horse into the austere, canvas plane of Minimalism. Like her peers, she considered the materials of the artist, but rather than denying the use of illusion in painting, she instead explored the relationship between the figure and the painted ground. Since then, Rothenberg has received international acclaim for her paintings, drawings, and prints. Because she has maintained a strict reliance upon imagery throughout her career and wrestled with the lessons of Modernism, she has often been a singular voice in contemporary painting. At the same time, her physical approach and gestural application of paint place her in the tradition of an earlier generation of American painters that includes Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. In 1990 Rothenberg moved permanently from New York to New Mexico with her husband, artist Bruce Nauman. The paintings she has completed in this once-new environment were stimulated by life on the ranch and the light-filled landscape of her surroundings. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

From artnet and  Craig F. Starr Gallery :

Untitled, 1974 Acrylic and tempera on canvas, h: 36 x w: 45 inches

Susan Rothenberg, Untitled

Rothenberg was born in Buffalo, New York in 1945. She received a BFA from Cornell University. Her early work—large acrylic, figurative paintings—came to prominence in the 1970s New York art world, a time and place almost completely dominated and defined by Minimalist aesthetics and theories. The first body of work for which she became known centered on life-sized images of horses. Glyph-like and iconic, these images are not so much abstracted as pared down to their most essential elements. The horses, along with fragmented body parts (heads, eyes, and hands) are almost totemic, like primitive symbols, and serve as formal elements through which Rothenberg investigated the meaning, mechanics, and essence of painting. From Documentary Film | PBS

New York, 1975, marked Rothenberg’s debut.  The center of the art world rode the waves of American art movements Pop Art and Minimalism.  The alternative space 112 Greene Street was home to downtown performances and shows busily breaking boundaries between disciplines, even as Postmodernism was ushering in such things as Photo-realist painting. When Rothenberg boldly showed three large horse paintings in a solo exhibition at 112 Greene, Peter Schjeldahl, then senior editor for Art in America wrote: “the large format of the pictures was a gesture of ambition,” and that “the mere reference to something really existing was astonishing.” From adobe airstream

From  Sperone Westwater – Works:

Untitled, 1976 crayon and graphite on paper, 15 3/4 x 23 5/8 inches

“[The horse was] my Jasper John flag,” she said in Art:21. “They were acceptable as paintings and acceptable as not going backwards.”

She began to dismantle the horses and reconstruct them with a sense of radial motion. At this time she also began to realize that these horse paintings were surrogate self portraits expressing a type of body empathy and emotional conditions. “I didn’t feel comfortable making a complete figure, but I did want to explore the idea of the body. So I started with parts and wholes,” Rothenberg said. “My head is the thinking part and my hand is the painting part, and I wanted to get my hand inside my head.”
From adobe airstream

From   Tate Gallery Colletion :

Vertical Spin,  1986-7 oil on canvas, 130 x 112 inches

Susan Rothenberg Vertical Spin 1986-7

‘Vertical Spin’ is from a series of twelve paintings on the theme of spinning figures made by the artist over a period of two and a half years. The painting depicts a dancer leaping into the air with the figure visible at various stages of the leap. The artist has said that she tries ‘to break down and record the conceivable placements and changes of the body on its way up, and into an airborne spin. This imagined projection of movement in time and space met the same obstacles a dancer would know in trying to defy gravity. A dancer cannot spin in the air forever, and a painter can’t make literal movement or actual space.’

From artnet and Baldwin Gallery :

“Untitled,” 1989-1990 Oil, charcoal & graphite on paper, h: 47.2 x w: 43.5 inches

Susan Rothenberg, Untitled

Normal activities on the ranch supplied Rothenberg with some of the subjects of her paintings, as in Dogs Killing Rabbit (1990–91) and the two Accident paintings, on the theme of a rider thrown from a horse. However, more important than the depicted scene is Rothenberg’s attention to the relationship between the varying images in the final composition. She is calculating in her placement of the fractured legs, arms, and faces scattered throughout these paintings. In contrast to the specificity of these earlier canvases, the scenes found in the four panels of Spanish Dancer #1–4 (see below) 1994–96 (68 1/2 x 324 inches) suggest a story that remains mysterious.

Here, rather than simply creating a narrative, Rothenberg instead employs a perplexing sequence that she constructs with figures and the manipulation of brilliant color.

From  Sperone Westwater:

Dogs Killing Rabbit, 1991 – 1992, oil on canvas 87 x 140 1/2 inches

In addition to continuing to explore color, Rothenberg has also considered viewpoints that vary from her previous paintings. The position of the viewer changes from that of multiple points that suggest the passage of time, in her earliest paintings, to being in close proximity to the subject, as found in her most recent paintings. Her later compositions appear to be less about an event and more about a painter who is attempting to compose something new with her developing skills and experience.

While stimulated by New Mexico’s environment, Rothenberg’s paintings from the nineties are—above all else—reflective of the artist’s increasingly complex relationship with her medium. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Cheryl Brutvan is the Beal Curator of Contemporary Art in the Department of Contemporary Art.

From Minneapolis Institute of Arts:

Goat Over Dog, 1991-1992 oil on canvas, 71 x 48 1/2 inches

Michael Auping, chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth condensed Susan Rothenberg’s 35-year career as a performer-turned-painter into a focused exhibition of 25 paintings, titled “Moving in Place.” Through SUNDAY, JANUARY  3, 2010

Excerpted here: Auping curates “Untitled (Black Head)” (1980-81), “Folded Buddha” (1987-88) and “Pin Wheel” (1988) as works that stretch the boundaries of figuration and explore the disorientation between the human body and our perception of it in a space (a theme Rothenberg also explored with Joan Jonas, in performance).

Another shift in the show is 1990, when Rothenberg moved to Galisteo, NM, where she still lives with her husband Bruce Nauman. Rothenberg describes the move as very disorienting and a time of significant change in her painting. Auping suggests, “The restlessness of the artist’s psyche seems to have merged with the unpredictability of rural life.” His entire exhibition swirls around “Orange Break” (1989-90). It’s not the color that is the key for Rothenberg; it is the break in the figure depicted as flipping back on itself. “I think the figure in this painting represents an extreme stretching of emotional energy,” Rothenberg said in the catalog.

From Sperone Westwater – Works:

Untitled, 2005 oil on paper, 63 5/8 x 77 inches

But Auping supposes that since 1990, Rothenberg’s paintings have been more influenced by art history and specifically her memories of early Modernist art she examined at Albright-Knox Gallery, in her hometown of Buffalo, NY.  He inscribes as influential Pablo Picasso’s “Nude Figure” (1909-10), Morgan Russell’s “Synchrony in Orange: To Form” (1913-14), Chaim Soutine’s “Page Boy at Maxim’s” (1927). He infers that Rothenberg’s figures are formed around instability and dislocation, which he ties directly to her dislocation from New York to New Mexico. He laments her disconnection from an avant-garde that mined the photographic and the purely abstract. Auping then says that Rothenberg has taken a reverse trajectory.

“She has become an outsider of sorts, practicing her art on a ranch in relative isolation,” Auping writes in the catalog. Moving away from her avant-garde roots her imagery has turned back toward early Modern figuration.

From Sperone Westwater – Works:

Good Dog Stay, 2006 oil on paper, 58 5/8 x 72 inches

If Rothenberg is known first and foremost as a painter, she has also made crucial contributions to the medium of drawing. On the occasion of her 2004 exhibition of drawings at Sperone Westwater, Robert Storr wrote, “…fundamentally, drawing is as much a matter of evocation as it is of depiction, of identifying the primary qualities of things in the world and transposing them without a loss of quiddity. This at any rate is what drawing has been for Rothenberg. He also said “what is that black blob? o nevermind i have realized that it is a horse and i respect that everyone has a …different style.” Wikipedia

From artnet and Sperone Westwater:

The Fence 2 (Holding), 2006-2007 oil on canvas, h: 66 x w: 88 inches

Susan Rothenberg, The Fence 2 (Holding)

From artnet and Bernier/Eliades Gallery:

“Primo” 2007 oil on canvas, h: 78 x w: 84.1 inches

Susan Rothenberg, Primo

“I’m pretty painterly,” says Rothenberg. “I love moving paint around and how lively or soft it is.”

Examples of Rothenberg’s work are in MOMA, New York, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2010 2:14 pm

    Thanks for terrific compilation on Rothenburg. One of my all time favorite painters.

    • islandlass permalink*
      February 16, 2010 1:46 am

      You’re welcome! She’s definitely one of my faves too.

  2. August 20, 2010 4:17 am

    Usually I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this article really forced me to do so! Thanks, really nice article.

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