Around four decades have passed since Susan Rothenberg first took a chance and painted a horse when it wasn’t cool to paint animals, let alone paint at all. Her early horses were iconic and hieratic, bisected or crossed out or otherwise marked for ironic distance; they were blank and submissive to formal considerations. Time passed. Her menagerie expanded to dogs, snakes and geese. Human figures and marionettes appeared, sometimes just as a head or in parts, riding horses, playing dominoes, lying bloody in the snow. By turns mysterious, whimsical, violent, Rothenberg’s subjects have always toed a delicate emotional line. Her paintings are gestural though not expressionistic, agitated but never unhinged.
In her recent show at Sperone Westwater, Rothenberg showed 13 paintings made during the past two years. In many of these works, we see her enjoying the pleasures of naturalism, as in Mink, in which a very specific black, shaggy dog vividly wags and pants. In the catalogue is a photo of Rothenberg’s studio wall; it tells us that this a real dog in her real life. Ditto for the short-haired canine in three small, bird’s-eye-view paintings in which the dog lies on a hexagonal pillow. Especially lovely among these is the blue dog in White Pillow Dog, conveying a respectful separateness from the master’s eye, of which the animal seems unaware, alertness directed elsewhere. Also full-blooded are a pair of doves, heavy bodies lunging onto a delicate branch. There they commune, speaking a language of flight and wind—and, in touches of red, hinting at danger.
There are also eerier images. White on white, an eyeless, wingless avian, beak open as if screeching, is hurled through the restless ether of White Raven, dramatic at 10 feet wide. Gert depicts half a yellow earless dog on a brownish ground, looking as if partially submerged in mud. Head in profile, the beast peers outward from a human-looking eye, and indeed its whole face looks human, seductive. More than any of Rothenberg’s oft-cited painterly precursors, in this show, I was reminded of Goya—in this case the little dog in a vast wasteland, about which so much ink has been spilled (The Dog, 1819-23). Rothenberg’s emotional tenor is quite different, of course, but the cropping of the dog, the expressively empty, brown setting, and the creature’s humanization are reminders of the earlier painting.
Rothenberg brings back her dismantled marionette in a few of the very best paintings in the show. Pink, the puppet rides bareback and backward on a racing, footless, blue-headed horse in Circus, brandishing a striped banner, his haloed head grotesquely bobbing above the horse’s rump. In the wonderfully spooky Strangers in the Night (2009-10), the toy’s severed head, now in blue, its neck a red post, communes with a big, white, blank-featured head in a dark field. Throughout, Rothenberg’s nervous gesture pulsates in figure and ground alike, a generative force animating any and all peculiar events.
Photo: Susan Rothenberg: Circus, 2009-10, oil on canvas, 76 by 68 inches; at Sperone Westwater. © ARS.
The lush exhibition “Susan Rothenberg: Moving in Place” includes 25 paintings dating from the mid-’70s to the present decade, selected by the museum’s Michael Auping. In Rothenberg’s work, the fulsome plasticity of paint and the expressive potential of the kinetic body—whether human or animal—are perfect equivalents. Chronologically installed in spacious galleries, the large paintings are bursting with dynamic energy, often dizzyingly enhanced by the painter’s eccentric points of view.
Rothenberg’s early work signaled a shift in an era dominated by conceptual art, performance and, in the dwindling group of artists who continued to paint, abstraction. Sullying the purity of late modernist painting, Rothenberg introduced schematic but recognizable figures into her paintings, including horses viewed in profile and centered on monochromatic fields. Cabin Fever (1976), the earliest work in the show, depicts a horse frozen in motion, with four feet bunched up beneath it. The horse and background are both muddy coral orange. As if the animal were a cutout, a black shadow surrounded by a blackened orange aura peeks out from behind its contour. Contributing to the painting’s overall flatness is a vertical line of unpainted canvas at its center, mimicking the joint between two panels of a diptych and disrupting any illusion of depth. Rendered from the horse’s viewpoint, Squeeze (1978-79) presents two outlined equine legs extending from the bottom to the top of the canvas, and the eyeless head of a second horse nipping at the inner left leg. The animal parts are delineated with a rough black line on a mottled off-white ground of pasty acrylic paint.
Such ashen-toned paintings were followed in the late ’80s by a shift from acrylic to oil paint and a warmer pink palette, which, along with a less perfunctory and more painterly brushstroke, is reminiscent of Guston’s. After 1990, when Rothenberg moved from New York to a New Mexico ranch, her paintings began to record encounters with animals and people in landscapes or interiors. Flat, conceptualized contour drawing gave way to the representation of events in space and time. Narrative drives juicy oil paintings such as Dogs Killing Rabbit (1991-92), with its nearly indecipherable flurry of bloody activity seen from the point of view of a rider on horseback. With Martini (2002) depicts three pairs of hands playing dominoes, one player holding a cigarette and cocktail, viewed from the position of a standing kibitzer. The hands, gray, bright red and fiery orange, emerge from three corners of the canvas-cum-tabletop, a luminous ground of pink and pale gray. Even as Rothenberg’s paint handling has become more confident, she rarely lapses into facile bravura, but rather makes a case for painting as a form of sensate expression.
[After the O’Keeffe Museum, the show travels to the Miami Art Museum, Oct. 15, 2010- Jan. 9, 2011.]
Photo: Susan Rothenberg: With Martini, 2002, oil on canvas, 76 by 87 inches; at the Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth.