Throughout her career that spanned over five decades, Susan Rothenberg (1945-2020) produced monumental paintings of horses, disjointed body parts, and impressions of American southwestern landscapes. Rothenberg’s early acrylic paintings on canvas from the 1970s repositioned the importance of painting at a time when the medium had temporarily fallen out of favor. In her work, Rothenberg successfully blurred the lines between abstraction and figuration, and gesture and calculation in one single artistic space. Drawing from lived experiences and personal memories, Rothenberg reintroduced figuration at the height of Minimalism and set the stage for future painters to work both figuratively and abstractly.
Born in Buffalo, New York in 1945, Rothenberg frequently visited the Albright-Knox Museum, where she gained exposure to art at an early age. She later received her BFA from the Fine Arts School at Cornell University in 1967. After graduation, Rothenberg moved to New York City and became a leading figure in Manhattan’s downtown art scene, where she lived for the following two decades. In New York during the 1970s, Minimalism was at the height of its influence, but Rothenberg followed her own artistic trajectory. She pioneered new ways of re-engaging with figurative art, forging a space to combine figuration with a Minimalist aesthetic and the lively gestural qualities of Abstract Expressionism.
Rothenberg rose to prominence in 1975 after her first solo exhibition at 112 Greene Street, an alternative art space in SoHo that was influential among cutting-edge, contemporary artists at the time. Rothenberg’s debut show included three large-scale paintings of horses that inspired a series of works with this subject, the series for which she is best remembered today. Explaining the subject, Rothenberg said, “the horse was a way of not doing people, yet it was a symbol of people, a self-portrait, really.” These life-sized paintings were simplified silhouettes of a horse, layered over a range of painterly backdrops. Some of the backgrounds were vacant spaces rendered in monochrome paint with subtle dimensionality from thick impasto, other backgrounds were geometric blocks of color. All of these works are united by their relative simplicity. In these paintings, Rothenberg negotiated the relationship between an outlined figure and the painted ground, presented in a simple format with complex brushstrokes. The simplicity of these images was a response to Minimalism, but the gestural brushstroke echoed Abstract Expressionism. While these horse paintings were an important part of Rothenberg’s oeuvre, she only painted this subject matter over a short period of time – between the mid-1970s and early 1980s – in a series of roughly 40 canvases. The importance of this series stems from the ways in which it positioned Rothenberg as a leading contemporary artist in the 1970s, pioneering a return to painterly figurative expression at a time when Minimalism and Conceptualism dominated New York.
In 1978, Rothenberg was included in the “New Image Painting” exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. This show marked a turning point in the contemporary art world; it signaled a reincorporation of figurative imagery over pure abstraction and a returned interest in the painting medium itself. Rothenberg continued to push the avant-garde in her paintings of new subject matter in the 1980s. Her paintings throughout this decade were mostly fragmented body parts like disembodied heads and hands. These paintings adhere to her characteristic simplified forms rendered in thick impasto, while adding a sense of crudeness that evolved into figures in motion. Similar to the horse paintings, these works emphasize the creative process and embrace accidents and new discoveries. Aside from Rothenberg’s standard large-scale acrylic paintings, she executed this subject matter in a range of media including sculpture, drawing and prints as well.
Rothenberg married artist Bruce Nauman in 1989, and the following year they relocated from New York City to a rural ranch near Galisteo in New Mexico. Rothenberg was deeply inspired by this new setting and embraced oil paint as her preferred medium. In a wider scope of vibrant colors, Rothenberg depicted images of the New Mexico desert and her daily life on the ranch. She rejected artistic conventions with her unusual vantage points and unique explorations of movement, line, light, and color. Rothenberg continued to paint animals, referencing the chickens, dogs and horses in her everyday experiences in Southwestern America. In rich, thickly layered brushwork, Rothenberg investigated the relationship between the surface itself and the subject matter. She elegantly portrays her subjects through a complex aerial perspective, while conveying strong narratives in these works. She captures the ruggedness of this new terrain and illustrates the “melodrama of nature,” in her own words.
Rothenberg continued to live and work in New Mexico for over thirty years until she passed away in May of 2020. She has been the subject of numerous museum retrospectives and her works are represented in notable permanent collections including the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Tate Gallery, London.