Susan Rothenberg's champions have a problem that mere casual admirers like myself can easily avoid. To us, she is a capable, sensitive expressionist animalier, out of sync with the general conceptual trend, but in harmony with the romantic underbelly of 1980s taste, which was the decade of her meteoric rise to international attention. To her champions, however, her messily materialist and sparingly imagistic style has to be mediated by theoretical explanations.
Perhaps this is because she has enjoyed, from early in her career, institutional and critical support; marriage to the non plus ultra new media artist, Bruce Nauman, may demand such intellectual somersaults to disprove the evidence of the eye and make her conceptually cool. But she has always appealed widely while pursuing an independent path. Hilton Kramer was among the first to express approval of her work, while she was a darling of the avant-garde.
This dual appeal derives, I'd suggest, from a dynamic contradiction at the heart of her aesthetic: The essential Rothenberg is at once tentative and defiant. There is a raw, rugged, no-nonsense quality to her imagery of fauna and figures, yet an agitated, tentative, exploratory, nervous touch militates against closure. Fixity and flow are Ms. Rothenberg's yin and yang, constantly primed.
Robert Storr, in his introduction to the catalog of the retrospective currently at Sperone Westwater, works hard to make sense of her working procedures. Recalling the Abstract Expressionists, she is an artist who searches for her image: The journey is registered as emphatically as the destination. But febrile brushiness aside, she is no expressionist: "as forceful as they generally are, her gestures are explorations rather than ejaculations," he writes.
Though she shares affinities with expressionist and existentialist artists Cy Twombly, Antoni Tapies, and the German neo-expressionists A.R. Penck and Georg Baselitz - and even, in the scribbly graphites on paper in the early 1980s, Giacometti - her rough, rushed application is more her means to fix form than to convey emotion. Her most recent works on paper are also her most painterly, appealing in palette, mood, and composition to late Philip Guston and late Bonnard.
In the eyes of some, a knowingly nervous hand and a compulsive need to show correction are sure signs of mannerism. Yet Ms. Rothenberg's genius is to convey a sense of genuine search and connection: sincere but not sentimental.
The animal with which Ms. Rothenberg is primarily associated is the horse: You could say she is the Stubbs of postmodernism. But where Stubbs was revolutionary for the extent to which he worked from direct observation and anatomical precision, Ms. Rothenberg treads a tenuous line between emblem and representation.
The earliest horse drawings oscillate between reductive abstraction - such as her untitled work in masking tape on wax-coated paper from 1974, which recalls Theo van Doesburg's didactic sequence of progressively abstract cows - and a much freer, more lyrical naturalism. A series of watercolors pushes the contradictory tendencies toward the iconic and the lifelike: These recall at one and the same time the bison at Lascaux and the erotic watercolors of Joseph Beuys.
Seen together, this range of imagery, marking a personal journey between abstraction and empathy, seems like an internalized recapitulation of mankind's prehistoric gropings to capture the world in images. The caves at Lascaux are layered with the earlier naturalism of the paleolithic and the later schematism of the Neolithic - a counterintuitive evolution, since children seem to develop in the opposite direction, from stick figures to fleshed-out bodies.
This lends significant charge to Ms. Rothenberg's endeavors to feel that she is re-inventing the wheel, so to speak, of representation. Her creations are ever poised between the idea of horse and the living, breathing thing itself.
Ms. Rothenberg's gracefully awkward, knowingly primitive renderings of the horse link to Eadweard Muybridge's positivist explorations of equinine motion, yet come out of a sense of crisis in representation, a need to grapple with images with out submitting to realism.
The sense of drawing as coaxing the image into being pervades not only this exhibition but all of Ms. Rothenberg's work, including her paintings.
The human form makes a dramatic entry in the 1980s with crude, creepy, faces, masks, and human limbs, often playing upon a sense of the grotesque. The faces collide with tools or are penetrated by strange projectiles. By the end of the decade, however, there is a renewed tenderness with a series exploring dance.
Ms Rothenberg had trained as a dancer and appeared in Joan Jonas's performance, "Jones Beach Piece" (1970). The dance drawings of 1990 push to a new extreme the tension between awkwardness and fluency: a figure arching backwards in excruciating yoga pose is conjured in an agitated scratchy hand; a lovingly nervous, fibrous outline describes a couple, joined as Siamese twins, dancing upon the page.
One of Ms. Rothenberg's most persistent qualities of her figuration is the way it is simultaneously volumetric and flattened-out, a very sculptural concern. And dance may be the vital clue as to why Ms. Rothenberg's drawings look so much more like a sculptor's than a painter's - the sense of a lived-in body in specific space.
- David Cohen