Published  03/02/2004

Vital Configurations: The paintings of Susan Rothenberg

Vital Configurations: The paintings of Susan Rothenberg

Waddington Galleries, London
29 October - 22 November 2003

Dr Janet McKenzie

Paintings by American artist Susan Rothenberg were on show at Waddington Galleries, London in November 2003; her first solo British show since the Tate exhibited her work in 1984. In the early 1970s when Rothenberg began to exhibit, her paintings were informed by a remarkable visual maturity and emotional resonance. Acknowledging important trends in a wider context, Rothenberg's work was part of the phenomenon of 'new painting', a response to minimal art and performance art. The paintings in her London show continue to combine a rigorous approach to the formal process with personal autobiography.

Susan Rothenberg, Red Studio, 2003-2002. Oil on canvas / 63 x 58 ins / 160 x 147.3 cms

Her work is provocative and significant in terms of recent art. Between 1974 and 1979 Rothenberg created a series of depictions of horses charged with a psychological drama. Horses, and more recently dancers, are used in strange and mysterious fields to confront personal dilemmas and private memories. The chosen subject is transformed into an iconic image, layered with meaning. Her works possess an authority and conviction that set them apart from the mainstream.

Her visceral, muscular canvases are about the complex, often serendipitous discoveries in making each painting and equally about a self constantly searching for truths, for envisioning and understanding the impossible.1

Central to her London show at Waddingtons' were three paintings of her studio combining everyday life with homage to the reality of life as an artist. In doing so she also pays her respects to the artists who have influenced her, including those who have also painted studio interiors: Matisse's studio paintings of 1911, Braque's late 'Ateliers', and Picasso's play on Velázquez's 'Las Meninas'.2 Indeed, as she stated in a recent interview, Rothenberg has been looking back more than ever to the modernist masters.3

Rothenberg's studio interiors are less conspicuously studio interiors than those of her forebears. In fact, they could just as well be domestic interiors. She does not use an easel, but staples the canvas to the wall. The pots of paint could be any kind of domestic clutter. Rothenberg's studio paintings present the act of painting as an extension of her everyday life, in a relaxed, almost anonymous manner. Reading, thinking, talking, all take place in the studio. Painting is stripped of the formal connotations that are implied by Matisse's studio, for example, which is unmistakably a studio where works of art are created. The act of creation for Rothenberg appears to be an organic, relaxed process, perhaps acknowledging that women artists have to do more than one thing at a time. The rigour and honesty of her work, however, denies any compromise or laid back approach. Rothenberg's studio works share a similar sensibility to Philip Guston's 'Bad Habits', in which bottles, cigarettes, a clock and a whip indicate both a self-confessional requirement and a decadent existence. Rothenberg admires Guston; both present images of the artist that demystify the life of an artist. Her studio works have an ironic quality: smoke rings and a burning cigarette indicate her reflective pace of working and a degree of self-deprecation.

Susan Rothenberg was born in Buffalo, New York in 1945. While she was at school, she attended art classes at what later became the Albright-Knox Gallery. There she recalls admiring Gauguin's 'Yellow Christ', a stone Buddha outside the museum, and works by Daumier and Robert Rauschenberg's paintings. The Albright-Knox had a brilliant and varied collection. At a young age she had the chance to study collections there that ranged from antiquity to modern European and American painting and sculpture. All aspects of modern abstraction were represented, 'from the spiritual and organic to the non-objectively geometric - as well as Surrealism, German Expressionism and the European CoBrA School, and the newest Pop and Color Field works'.4

In September 1962 Rothenberg entered the Fine Arts School at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York State. She intended to pursue sculpture and to continue with dance, having studied ballet and modern dance as a child - but Rothenberg's art school career was not straightforward. When she failed a sculpture course she quit and travelled to Greece. However, she found it difficult to buy art materials there and found the expatriate community disappointing. On return to Cornell, her sculpture lecturer refused to have her back on the grounds that she had no talent. The works upon which this judgement was made were 'cement alarm clocks with little teeth'. Her surrealism was unappreciated. Simon observed,

As would become apparent in her later work, Rothenberg had an ability to create, with simple, almost innocent-looking images and intensely worked surfaces, art that could reach into the deepest recesses of her own consciousness and touch viewers in an equally profound way - at times hitting the rawest nerves.5

Rothenberg was eventually accepted into the painting department at Cornell but decided to leave after all. In New York City she embarked on an independent study programme where she visited as many exhibitions as possible. Her response to Robert Morris's 'Box' at Dwan Gallery (1969) indicates her receptivity to new art and her visual and psychological intelligence and maturity:

The sculpture was the box and it filled the room, and you only had a small channel to walk around the box and then you had to go out of the gallery. And at first I thought, this was insane. This is ridiculous. This is great. This shoves you right to the wall. I really first got a hit of what Minimal Art could be. Instead of seeming real passive to me, suddenly he was making a very aggressive object that forced you to the walls of the space.6

Rothenberg was drawn to artworks where there appeared to be 'an obsessive relationship between maker and object', where an ordinary object was transformed into something sublime. She aspired to works of art that possessed an emotional resonance. She found Pop Art lacked such a quality but that works by Jasper Johns and Philip Guston did.

Rothenberg is candid about the years she spent in and around art school; her disappointments are well documented. Yet the late 1960s were also a period in which she defined the boundaries of her work for the rest of her life. In her excellent biography of Susan Rothenberg, Joan Simon describes them thus:

…autobiographical reference without explicit detail; imagery drawn both from outside sources and interior thoughts; reinventions of figures, which might take the form of animals, places or things; arrested motion; a compositional sense that tackled the entire canvas while playing symmetry off of asymmetry; and a vocabulary of recognizable, simplified, abstracted images - fragments located in a place, often representing mementos of a place.7

The late 1960s, a defining period for Rothenberg, were dominated by the Vietnam War, the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King. In addition, she experienced a growing sense of personal isolation and opted to live for a time in Canada where she had spent childhood summer holidays, though she returned to New York soon after. Although Rothenberg was always quite detached from the vital social and artistic life in New York, she found that she was able to renew contact with friends and artists, and live in a superb loft on Lower West Broadway. She described this period as when, 'My whole life began all over again'. Her home was an 800ft loft in a former textile factory. Former occupants included Robert Motherwell, Richard Lippold, Richard Serra and Nancy Graves. She danced, became involved in Process Art and was influenced by many artists including Eva Hesse. She began to survive financially, independent of her family.

The collaborative spirit of the 1970s reduced the power of the market to determine the object. Performance art replaced 'art as commodity'. The umbrella term 'post-minimalism' referred to much of the activity that took place in the name of art to define the break from pristine, precise, defined. The random and accidental were central to the process. Autobiography was an acknowledged source.

1969 saw major exhibitions of abstract and conceptual art such as 'Anti-Illusion: Procedures/ Materials' (Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Eva Hesse, Richard Serra). Against this background, the exhibition of three lifesize camels by Nancy Graves caused a stir. In 1970 Rothenberg was one of a number of artists employed to fabricate the camels' legs in a related piece requiring thirty-six separate legs. She found the involvement exhilarating. Given her ballet training, Rothenberg was also well qualified to participate in a number of highly professional parts in the performances of Joan Jonas: 'Beach Piece' (1970) and 'Mirror Piece' (1970). Through Jonas she met the sculpture George Trakas whom she married in 1971. Their daughter was born in 1972 which in fact intensified her commitment to painting, for it became a necessary way of maintaining and asserting her own identity. Caring for a small baby, in the studio where she worked, also prompted her to adapt her working methods and change her materials from sticky handmade oil paints involving the use of pure pigments and turps, to acrylic paint that could be washed off her hands quickly with water.

A description or study of Susan Rothenberg's innovative, marvellous paintings often begins at this point of her career when in 1973 she allegedly doodled on unstretched canvas and inexplicably created a crude image of a horse. It made sense and subsequently dominated her work for the next 20 years.

The representational image was returning to painting in a blunt and insistent way in the work of a loose generation of artists exploring a wide range of personal symbols. The zeitgeist of the time seemed to implore the most thoughtful artists, as well as the most diplomatic, to graft the austerity associated with their minimal elders to a new form of psychological expressionism.8

Susan Rothenberg was the only woman artist to be included in the landmark exhibition, 'Zeitgeist' at the Berlinische Galerie in Berlin in 1982, and in several other major exhibitions - a fact she still finds deplorable. Her horse paintings combine various unlikely features; they are more human in scale than beast. They are primitive but not heroic. Instead of being firmly grounded, they inhabit space. They represent emotional states perhaps derived from her performance/feminist works which give autobiography an important position. Although a statement concerning figuration, the return of the image in Rothenberg's painting (while appearing primitive or childlike) is, in fact, informed by her wide and personal understanding of the abstract use of the picture plane.

The symbolism of the horse was a complex mix of the erotic and divine. Memory is implied but without nostalgia. The tenderness that might be implied in another image of this period, 'Mr Bear' (her daughter's teddy) is replaced by the image of a frightened trapped creature. Looking back on the 1970s' horse paintings, Rothenberg reflects:

In the early years, I had ambiguous feelings about the horse and what it meant to me. My formalist side was denying my content side. Eventually, I began tearing it apart to find out what it meant. It obviously became a vehicle for certain kinds of emotions.9

What followed in Rothenberg's painting, perplexed critics. A more complex process evolved from the dismemberment of the images of horses she reconciled, 'highly formalist statements about painting process with images of very high anxiety, who offsets decorum with blunt emotion'.10 Although Rothenberg's recent studio interiors and interviews imply a casual, almost chaotic approach to art-making, her actual paintings reveal quite the reverse. There is a powerful psychological process and engagement with subject, material and self. She has continually maintained that images grow out of a medium, that they are an elemental reaction between her nervous system and her unconscious.11 She is also rebellious, amusing and mischievous. It is possible to intellectualize Rothenberg's work against the background of the prevalent rhetoric that surrounds abstraction and figuration; however, it is the physicality of her works that one feels closely involved with.

Rothenberg is one of the most interesting artists working today. She lives in New Mexico with her husband, Bruce Nauman. There she finds the light and colour liberating. The horse paintings of the 1970s and her charcoal paintings of the 1980s are still favourites; their intense emotional states and elegant application of paint possess a sureness and ambiguity simultaneously. The recent paintings on show at Waddington Galleries reveal a range of moods, a sureness and elegance alongside distress and wretchedness. Her work feels intensely real and wide ranging.

Van Gogh gave me a thought of approaching my house, my studio with some passion and in making the studio paintings I kept thinking of his bedroom painting with the chair ('Bedroom at Arles', 1888). I felt a tremendous affinity with Van Goghs deep feeling for the things he painted and how he exaggerated the colours of sky, chairs, faces, to bring them to almost more than life.12

1. Joan Simon, Susan Rothenberg, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1991, p.9
2. Sarah Whitfield, Susan Rothenberg, Waddington Galleries, London, no pagination.
3. Joan Simon, "Susan Rothenberg Paints Her Studio", Art Press, March 2003, p.21.
4. Simon, SR, op.cit., p.10.
5. Ibid, p.12.
6. Ibid, p.13.
7. Ibid, p.13.
8. Michael Auping, Susan Rothenberg, Paintings and Drawings, Rizzoli, New York, in association with the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY, p.17.
9. Ibid, p.17.
10. Ibid, p.21.
11. Ibid, p.21.
12. Whitfield, op.cit., no pagination.


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