Susan Rothenberg: The Search for a Subject

Sperone Westwater, New York, January 9 – February 29, 2020

“Buddha Monk” (2018-2019), 50” x 51

I was into women and horses, horses, horses in the 70s: Susan Rothenberg, Patti Smith* and to a lesser extent, Deborah Butterfield.

I have to go into the time machine to analyze why Rothenberg’s paintings were so exciting to me at that moment.  They depicted motion, yes—but also stop motion and combined geometry and an emphasis on the surface of the canvas.  They promised sensual experience and a hyperawareness of that experience. Distance—but not ironic distance, which became the dominant sensibility a bit later.

“Cabin Fever” (1976), 67” x 84”

The New Image Painters with whom Rothenberg showed at the time were a short-lived group that was never even really a group. They were simply shown together because they all exhibited an interest in figurative work that was unusual at the time.
Thomas Micchelli describes Rothenberg’s horses and her involvement with that group so well that I will simply refer you to his essay.** In it, Micchelli quotes Roberta Smith’s theory that they were crushed by Neo-Expressionism.***
So complicated to give everybody credit.

I will just say personally that though I was excited by The New Image Painters, their individualism and their “ownership” of specific imagery did not give other artists much to go on. I mean not in the way that Modernism, Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism and even Surrealism open new experimental pathways for everyone.

I’m still a bit of a punk**** and once an artist is blue chip and moves to their own private island—whether it be in New Mexico or the Hamptons—I pretty much figure they are done. In two ways they are. The first being that they aren’t around real people anymore and the other, that they are never really criticized again.

However, last week, out of the blue, I did have a great desire to see what Rothenberg is up to now and I will look at them critically: I think she deserves that.

To her great credit Rothenberg did not stay with the horse ad infinitum and we all know that she could have. (Butterfield did.) She experimented and continues to do so.

Oddly, because I was so taken in the horse series with the emphasis on surface and the whole ceci-n’est-pas-un-cheval thing, in the current work it is the drawings and the paintings that are most like drawings that get under my skin—I mean where the ground is not background but motion.

Buddha Monk (see above) is a wonderful painting. The yellow ground of the canvas is coaxed, manipulated—really tortured into becoming both the positive and the negative space. The Buddha figure is an enlightened ape—I laughed and remembered I am also a variety of ape—and shouldn’t forget to strive for enlightenment.

“Stone Angel” (2016-19), 55” x 36”

The paintings that emphasize central shapes like the dancing rat, the stone figure, or the disembodied hands grasping a hoop play against that fluid motion. Also many paintings have a strong border, usually unpainted, that comes across as an overused trick—and sometimes a disappointment. For example, in the otherwise masterful painting of a tree, the way it cuts off at the top and the bottom seems so unnecessary: I’m quite aware that it is not a tree—it is a painting of a tree.

“Twisted Tree” (2017-19), 75” x 60”


“Study” (2019), 42” x 30”

Study on the other hand is a fantastic drawing, intricate and offbeat.  I have no idea how Rothenberg arrived at the upper left-hand placement of the figure and the staccato piano keys. I wonder because in most other works the subject is so centralized. I love it. My photo is so bad—I just put it in to show the whole drawing. Here’s a detail:

“Study” (detail) (2019), 42” x 30”

What is most wonderful to me about Study and another beautiful drawing Upside Down, is how the line never quite describes an edge; it dances around and somewhere in that movement the figure appears.

The other thing that makes this show worth thinking about is how clearly it demonstrates that Rothenberg continues to avidly search for a subject.
Her horses were actually a tour de force of inspired sampling: she painted not from horses but from the images of horses—the Muybridge series. Artists were pretty excited about Muybridge’s motion studies at the time, possibly inspired by Francis Bacon. From what I see in her current work, I would guess that she works from life and from memory and looks for images in pieces of paper that spent some time in a barn or on the floor of her studio. I deeply understand that—the search for an image that resonates from within and might mean something to other people too.

Searching for a subject—an interesting and quite horrible struggle for the modern painter, even if they live in Bklyn.


* Patti Smith performing “Horses” live in 1976:


** Thomas Micchelli, “Unfettered Simplicity” –  Hyperallergic, 2014

*** Roberta Smith, “A Painting Landmark in Focus”— NYT, 1987

****The punk ethos is primarily made up of beliefs such as non-conformity, anti-authoritarianism, anti-corporatism, a do-it-yourself  ethic, anti-consumerist, anti-conservative, anti-corporate greed, direct action and not”selling out”. Thank you Wikipedia