Bringing a sense of personal, narrative imagery to an otherwise abstract style of painting, artist Susan Rothenberg (born 1945) rose to a place of prominence on the New York art scene in the 1970s, and has continued to gain critical acclaim for her work in the decades since.
Rothenberg has forged a long and distinguished career that has seen her hold fiercely to her roots in Abstract Expressionism while exploring a minimalist aesthetic that has led her to varied and surprising places. Working on large canvases with a cool palette and rich, often haunting imagery, Rothenberg has continued to evolve in her art through the decades, but most critics agree that one constant has been the artist's aggressive, kinetic brushwork and stark imagery on fields of muted black, blue, and white. Her early works depicting ghostly images of horses brought her international acclaim, both for their powerful effect and the fact that the artist was bringing a representational image into her otherwise purely abstract paintings. In that sense she became a bridge connecting the new artists of the 1960s with the mid-century giants of American Expressionism.
"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," wrote Cheryl Brutvan of Boston's Museum of Fine Art. "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."
Rothenberg has been a largely self-made artist who, as a woman, required an uncanny drive and persistence of vision to emerge from the traditionally male-dominated New York art world of the mid-twentieth century, and to carve a place in the art pantheon that has continued to inspire and amaze. In perhaps the truest compliment of all, she has been often imitated. And to her admirers in the world of art criticism, Rothenberg has been able to make her canvases express something deeper about the world and times she has inhabited.
Rothenberg, Mark Stevens stated in an article in The New Republic, "is a painting painter. She has attracted attention not only because she has made some good pictures, but because she seems to be struggling to maintain the world of painting. Implicit in her art, I think, is a concern that the world is threatened, fading, even dead…. Rothenberg's art is full of remembering that is not quite nostalgic. Her pictures leave the impression of an artist trying to recover painting's secrets, of trying to begin again."
Destined to be an Artist
Born in 1945 in Buffalo, New York, Rothenberg received a comfortable upbringing. Rothenberg actually dreamed of being an artist's wife (a dream fulfilled twice, in fact); little did she know that she would become a great artist herself. After trying sculpture first, she eventually switched to painting and received a fine arts degree from Cornell University before moving to Washington, D.C., to study at George Washington University and the Corcoran Museum. After moving to New York in 1969, Rothenberg did not paint at first, but instead worked briefly in the trendy fields of installation art with Nancy Graves, and as a dancer with the performance artist Joan Jonas.
She married the sculptor George Trakas in 1971 and the following year gave birth to her only child, daughter Maggie. She raised her daughter and painted at night. Like many students, she worked in the style of her times, which was then a kind of flat, abstract painting in the Modernist tradition. It was purely by chance, or—she would later recall—perhaps not by chance at all, that in 1973 an image much like a horse crept into one of her paintings as a dividing element. It was a happy accident that subsequently became the fulcrum of her painting career. With deep roots in both human psychology and artistic tradition (early humans painted horses on cave walls), the horse is a powerful symbolic image often metaphorically linked to the mysterious and primal forces within human sexuality. It was an almost constant thematic element in Rothenberg's work for many years.
"For five years, from 1974 to 1979, Rothenberg painted horses almost exclusively," wrote Thomas Buser of the University of Louisville. "She painted her first horse impulsively, as a 'doodle' that immediately seemed right for her. In her mind she had the vague desire to paint something simple, magical, and universal like the prehistoric cave paintings of animals. Despite the serendipitous beginning, Rothenberg soon realized that her horse was a surrogate for the human figure. But her lifesize, powerful animals represent living spirits without the specifics of age, sex, or personality that accompany nearly every depiction of human beings."
Was at the Forefront of 1980s Art Boom
It was during this period that Rothenberg was swept up by the whirlwind of the New York art world. Critics raved, art dealers lined up to exhibit Rothenberg's work at one-woman shows, and of course the prices of her canvasses went up. The attention strained her marriage, there were problems with alcohol, and in 1979 she was divorced from Trakas, an event that fueled her work with an even greater intensity. Soon bones, human heads, and other body parts began creeping into her work, usually depicted in stark black imagery on solid white canvasses. "Many of those are divorce images," Rothenberg recalled for Michael Auping in the catalog to her 1992 retrospective at Buffalo's Albright-Knox Gallery. "It was not a happy time. If you want to use modern talk, I would say things were about my energies being blocked and the flow being screwed up…. You know, the whole choked-up mess of separating from some-body you care for and a child being involved. That's what those drawings are about."
As things in her personal life became more settled, Rothenberg continued to enjoy critical and commercial success at the top of the New York scene in the 1980s. She worked relatively slowly, spending hours in her studio conjuring images from her subconscious, drawing them, and tacking them to the walls. After settling on an image or group of images, she would then work it out very loosely on canvas, and pause, sometimes for hours or days, to sit in her rocking chair and contemplate the work. Working in brief bouts of intense, kinetic brushwork, pausing again, and so on, Rothenberg would finally finish the piece. Once during the 1980s she created an image that looked startlingly like the famed early-twentieth century Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. Rothenberg had been an admirer of Mondrian's, an early Expressionist who painted for many years in a severe abstract style. Her paintings "Tattoo, Mondrian" and "Mondrian Dancing" grew out of this particular phase.
In 1989 Rothenberg was introduced to the New Mexican sculptor and artist Bruce Nauman and a romance flourished. It was a long-distance relationship for some time—Nauman was as devoted to his quiet life in the rural desert as Rothenberg was to cosmopolitan New York. But when her daughter left home, the artist decided that a break from her surroundings might lead to new revelations in her work, and she joined and later married Nauman in New Mexico. The pair designed and built their own house on a 600-acre ranch, where they now raise horses, rising each morning to do farm chores before parting ways to their separate studios for the day.
Critics have continued to uphold the high quality of Rothenberg's work over the last decade. Though her output has diminished and her work has shown less frequently in New York, a major exhibition of her work at that city's Sperone Westwater gallery in 2002 did show that desert life had introduced subtle but definite changes in Rothenberg's painting. "Her sensibility has always been tactile, but in the dozen years that she has spent living in the Southwest, it has become more so, and more kinetic," wrote Nancy Princenthal in Art in America. "Avid, anxious and hyperalert, her habits of vision can be deduced from the way she wields a brush, making it dart across the canvas like the eyes of a hiker hunting for pottery shards, or like fingers probing for bones in the dirt. The field thus painted is dry and brushy as a back pasture. But there is nothing naturalistic about it. Rothenberg's paintings are almost completely devoid of natural light, and have little modeling and barely any perspective."
Additionally, Princenthal found it ironic that Rothenberg's early horse paintings seemed to foretell her life and work far away from the big city and decades in the future. "Among the earliest works in this [the 2002 Sperone Westwater] show (none go back more than a few years) are paintings, presumably from observation, of doglike deer that are fast as horses and stampede like cattle on the range."
Critic Malin Wilson-Powell of the Albuquerque Journal was able to survey more than a quarter-century of Rothenberg's development after attending a traveling exhibition of the artist's work in 2002. Organized by Rothenberg's alma mater, Cornell University, and including a lecture from the artist herself, the show featured more than 120 slides of her paintings from the early 1970s to her work from the New Mexico years. Wilson-Powell described how the scenes on canvas, "excerpted from daily life-whether highlighting an untoward event or a moment of remembrance-come to life through Rothenberg's thickly layered and nervous brush-work." He added, "Her works are perpetual mystery and mystification generators." What was surprising for Wilson-Powell in viewing the body of Rothenberg's work, was that so much of the imagery had "taken up residence in my memory over the years."
Rothenberg has received numerous awards and commendations for her art over the years, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Skowhegan Medal for Painting, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has had one-woman exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Dallas Museum of Art; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and the Tate Gallery, London, among others.
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Museum of Fimes Arts, Boston, http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/sub.asp?key=15&subkey=619 (March 20, 2006).
University of Louisville Online Catalog, http://www.louisville.edu/a-s/finearts/VRC/buser203/rothenberg.html (March 17, 2006).