Sampling of Susan Rothenberg's art at the Modern tells much about the artist, the times and her subjects
By her own admission Susan Rothenberg was too boring for Andy Warhols inner circle at The Factory. To run with the big dogs in New York art circles in the 1970s, you had to sparkle. Rothenberg says she "was a mouse. I didnt have an interesting persona to present to the Warhol machine, so I stayed downtown."
It was her saving grace. Had she been sucked into the Warhol entourage like so many other aspiring artists, she would have been an also-ran. Instead, she became one of the few women who managed to succeed in the male-dominated field. She did it by painting "smart, dumb paintings," says Michael Auping, who has been championing Rothenbergs work for more than 30 years. The chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth has mounted a small retrospective of 25 pieces, "Susan Rothenberg: Moving in Place," which opened Sunday. Her paintings were dumb, Auping says, because she incorporated silhouettes of horses on big, flat fields of color. Everyone else was doing either abstraction or minimalism. She bucked the trends of the times with horses of all things. It was such a girly thing to do.
"I wasnt a horse girl," insists the 64 year-old Rothenberg "but I wanted to paint a form." So she painted horses for three years, first exhausting the profile silhouette, then the frontal image. Horses were a good choice. Even in a simple line form they speak of mass and motion. They are iconic images in the art canon. When she felt she had depleted all the ways to use a horse, she moved on to empty heads and contorted bodies.
Auping says this insistence on using the figurative and her resulting success paved the way for other artists to do the same; figuration is still in vogue. Rothenbergs horses were collected by most large contemporary American museums, and they remain her most famous works. The Obamas have borrowed one (Butterfly, 1976) from the National Gallery of Art for inclusion in the private quarters of the White House.
Her horses and their immediate success have overshadowed all her subsequent work. Auping even addresses that in the museums announcement of the show. "Rather than focusing on Rothenbergs famous early horse paintings as the beginning of a symbolic, figurative evolution, we are looking at the artists work from a more holistic, formal standpoint, identifying her unusual way of organizing pictorial space, regardless of the figurative content." But when he and Rothenberg sat down to discuss her work at the Moderns Tuesday Night lecture series, most of the talk was about horses, what they mean and why she made them.
In 1990 Rothenberg left New York and moved to New Mexico to be with her new husband, artist Bruce Nauman. This dramatic change of scenery also changed her viewpoint. She moved from painting eye-level views of horses and bodies to overviews or underviews of primal moments her dogs killing a rabbit, a person being thrown from a horse. She was no longer on the safe streets of New York City. What she saw in the wilds of New Mexico was violent, bloody and dangerous. These fearful encounters such as The Chase and Dogs Killing Rabbit became her subject matter, and her canvases began to swirl with frenzied action. Once she became more inured to life on the range, she moved on to less dramatic moments.
The most recent works show disembodied arms and hands dancing about the canvas like wayward puppet pieces. She doesnt have much to say about them other than she fears "they are beginning to look like prostheses from Iraq."
One of the reasons Auping is attracted to Rothenbergs work is the painterly qualities of her canvases. She uses big bold brushfuls of color and swipes it on, overpainting with exuberance, always eliminating the extraneous detail until she has the barest of necessary images to make her point.
"This show gets at the essence of Susans work," says Auping. "She puts you in the middle of the process in the way no other painter does. You feel like you are painting the picture."
Its true; they do pull you in close. The brushwork activates the canvas and the viewing experience. Looking closely at the surface is enjoyable even if her draftsmanship leaves something to be desired.
Because the show is relatively small, it does not overwhelm the second-floor galleries, and there are places where pieces of the permanent collection butt up against Rothenbergs work. The contrast of minimalist works from the 70s highlights how odd Rothenbergs paintings must have looked at the time, and the works with similar energetic painting techniques that peek around corners are complementary. Using only a few works to speak for a lifetime and surrounding them with a cast of supporting characters is a smart move.
Although she wasnt crazy about the idea, Auping persuaded Rothenberg to add a narrative track to each work. He asked for her memories of intent or what was going on in her life when she painted each work. These help the viewer understand that there are always ambiguities, even for the artist. Intent is not always achieved, and surprises are inevitable.
- Gaile Robinson