Michael Auping: There are periods when you do a lot of drawing and periods when you dont. When you first moved to New York in 1969, do you remember what role drawing played then? Were you making sketches? Were you doodling? Were you doing finished drawings?
Susan Rothenberg: The first horses generally involved some drawing on the canvas with pencil; first with pencil, then with paint, and then the form. I always place my materials out, get the canvas gessoed, stick a brush in any old colored dirty turpentine, and start to draw.
MA: You draw with the brush?
SR: Yeah. It often starts with pencil and then the light brush drawing and then it gets a little more solid and eventually areas of paint come. Even though I might change it one hundred times, it begins with a drawing action. I dont go in there and paint a shape, or a head. Ive drawn it first and changed it ten times, in pencil or drawn brushstrokes, before I puck up a full brush of paint and scrub an area in.
MA: Ive noticed that around your studio and all over your house you have a lot of casual drawing pads.
SR: Yellow pads. All the horses started out on the backs of envelopes, or any scrap of paper laying around. The first paper that came to hand was usually in the mail pile. Rather than getting a sheet of paper and putting it on the wall and developing a drawing, Id just sit in my chair and say, What if it was like this? Little Doodles, on and on: on a torn envelope, on the back of a Con Ed bill. It seemed like a lot of work to get a piece of paper, staple it to the wall, and make a drawing. Id rather just sit in a chair and say, I know what I want to do, but I dont know, should it be a square, should it be long, should it have a perimeter, double image, or triple image, or should it be an X or a side bar? All of those horse paintings developed out of drawings in which I asked myself, What if it was like this? What if I did this? What would happen?
One of the things that drawing added to the horse paintings was a great sense of geometry. I remember I made a number of small drawings in which I drew straight lines through the horse. I probably threw them out because they were experimental ideas. They were not finished. But the lines in those drawings added geometry, which added a needed tension to the paintings. It was a way of making this big, soft animal tougher and a bit more abstract, and also a way of unifying figure/ ground spatially.
MA: How does a drawing function for you? What does it mean in the larger scheme of your work?
SR: A drawing is about thinking. Its a record of your thinking, which means it can be just a mere note to your thinking made visible. Then if youre really interested, you can develop it so that its much more than a notation. To me, there is a large range of what drawing can be, from the smallest indication of a direction that you want to go, that you can make visible to yourself, to staying with it for a couple of hours, a couple of days, or a couple of weeks and make it into a much fuller realization. You can get very interested in its problem and solutions, the erasures and the gessoing out of certain sections. Then it becomes very similar to make a painting, if you engage with it. If you dont engage with it, it stays in the simpler state, just telling yourself what you cant visualize inside, or maybe the opposite-visualizing what you cant tell yourself inside? Drawing is an activity that I do when I either dont have an interesting painting going, or I dont have the energy to dip into a full painting session, but I want to be in the studio. Many drawings happen after paintings, as afterthoughts. With the horse images I drew a lot between series, to try and figure out where I was going next.
MA: Did you once tell me that you took figure drawing classes?
SR: Yes, at one period with Elizabeth Murray for about a month or two in her studio. I also did a whole summers worth of it with John Duff. Both of us took a course just a few years a go, at the School of Visual Arts. The instructor thought I was terrible. He didnt know I was an artist. He said, What are you making all these hairy lines for? I want you to look and observe and use a nice simple, clean, clear line. I had told him I was a housewife. Duff said he was a construction worker.
MA: What is your favorite drawing instrument? Do you like a pencil with very sharp lead?
SR: No! But I love graphite, the softest, smeariest graphite I can find, and this one charcoal that I had for short period of time. You cant find it anywhere, and it was the best drawing material I ever had. It was a stick of black powder called Noire Velour. But Im happiest with a very soft lead, and I like a really black pencil, soft, so that if you rub it, it smears, and its semi-erasable. Youre always leaving some trace no matter how hard you scrub.
MA: Do you think there is such a thing as womens painting or maybe, more accurately, a female sensibility as opposed to a male sensibility? Do you think such a thing exists?
SR: I never know what to do with these questions. I know men and women are different. I would imagine that a lot of the problem-solving is dealt with differently. But I would hate to think that you could walk into a room and identify the sex of a painter. Because we all know that we have male and female in each one of us. You shouldnt really be concerned with the sex of a painter when you look at a piece of art. On the other hand, what grabs you, say your color sensibility, is a personal matter, an individual matter, and all thats partially informed by your sex, I suppose. Most of the art that I saw as a young woman was made by a man, of course, and if there is one factor that I think women artists allow for better than men, it is rendering the world, truly I think, as more various. Men often try to impose coherency on that condition
- Interview by Michael Auping