FORT WORTH By her own admission, Susan Rothenberg was too boring for Andy Warhol's 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 didn't 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 others, she would have been an also-ran. Instead she was 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 championed Rothenberg's 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 abstraction or minimalism. She bucked the trends of the times with horses, of all things. It was such a girly thing to do.
"I wasn't a horse girl," insists Rothenberg, 64, "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 icons 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. Rothenberg's 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 the White House.
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. What she saw in the wilds of New Mexico was violent, bloody and dangerous. 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 doesn't have much to say about them other than that she fears "they are beginning to look like prostheses from Iraq."
One of the reasons Auping is attracted to Rothenberg's work is the painterly quality 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 Susan's work," Auping says. "She puts you in the middle of the process in the way no other painter does. You feel like you are painting the picture."
It's true that they 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 Rothenberg's work.
The contrast of minimalist works from the 1970s highlights how odd Rothenberg's paintings must have looked at the time, and the works with similar energetic 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.
- Gaile Robinson
Artist on the art: Curator Michael Auping persuaded Susan Rothenberg to add a narrative track to 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.
Cabin Fever, 1976, Acrylic and tempera on canvas
"It's about being ready to go and then going nowhere. The horse is held in place with a line down the middle. I was fascinated that a simple line could stop an image, hold it in place. I'm not sure it does, but that was the idea."
Orange Break, 1989-90, Oil on canvas
"Sometimes I think this painting is sexual, but mostly I think it's just about flesh. The break is the key to the painting. It's a time break, as in a new time in my life; a space break, as in traveling back and forth between New York and New Mexico when Bruce [Nauman] and I were courting. Then there was the final break with New York when I moved here."
Accident #2, 1993-94, Oil on canvas
"The Accident paintings have scattered details of something I remember, or think I remember, about an event, and I think of the term 'accident' in very broad terms something unusual with a danger element or at least something that shocks me into taking notice."
Yellow Studio, 2002-03, Oil on canvas
"Thinking about those quiet, unproductive days. The slowness of yellow."