Untitled Drawing #45, 1977 signed and dated 'Susan Rothenberg 1977' (on the reverse) acrylic and pencil on paper 36⅝ x 48½in. (93 x 123.2cm)
PROVENANCE: Willard Gallery, New York. Robert Miller Gallery, New York. Acquired from the above by the present owner.
American artist Susan Rothenberg first came to the spotlight in the 1970s, at a time when abstraction was still the dominant driving force in contemporary painting; critics and artists alike were debating whether figuration and ealism could ever become important again in the field. Minimalism was still in its early days at the beginning of her career, but had already established firm roots and an established following further diminishing the role of figuration.
Throughout her career, Rothenberg has consistently straddled the boundaries between abstraction and figuration, integrating human or animal forms into a minimal and abstract backdrop. Her first real success at this came in 1973 when she began her renowned series of horse paintings. Prior to this, she had been creating more pure geometric abstract paintings, infused with dividing elements more characteristic of early Frank Stella works, Barnet Newman "zip" paintings and even Jasper Johns' flag paintings. As she herself explained, "I had been doing abstract paintings, using a central dividing line so as to keep the painting on the surface and call attention to the canvas," she says. "But I wasn't satisfied with what I was doing. So one dull afternoon two and a half years ago, I doodled the image of a horse. It divided perfectly. Maybe there was some unconscious reason, but horses don't mean anything special to me. I rode them at camp, but that's about it. The horse was just something that happened to both sides of my line. The image held the space and the line kept the picture flat" (S. Rothenberg, quoted in New York, 3 May 1976, reprinted in Susan Rothenberg: MATRIX/BERKELEY 3, exh. cat., University Art Museum, University of California Berkeley, 1978, n.p.).
It is with these horse paintings, of which she only made approximately 40 over a span of five years, that Rothenberg was able to achieve what no one else had been able to at this point; to demonstrate that figurative painting was not only still alive and well, but that it had the capacity to capture our attention and be just as visually stimulating as the abstract and minimalist art works so already prevalent. Her success with these paintings was nearly immediate, with rave reviews following her first solo exhibition in 1975, she instantly became the leader of the New Image Painting movement which strived to explore ways of re-engaging figuration.
As noted earlier, the image of the horse came to her almost by chance, however, she had already recognized that in order to transcend the limits of Abstraction and Minimalism she needed to paint something that was alive, full of spirit and could convey a sense of energy and vitality you would find in the real world and not in the abstract world. The dilemma she faced once she began incorporating images of horses in motion, was how to slow them down and contain them within the frame. She fell in love with Edward Muybridge's motion studies of horses from the late 19th Century, and borrowed from his work methods of capturing movement in a still frame. Still, however, the boundaries of her works were not being fully explored. In a sense, she was half way there, having tackled the subject matter already, and she now needed to address the spatial and formal aspects that she had grappled with up to this point.
In fact, one of Rothenberg's main concerns up to this point, which she had come to appreciate through the abstractionists and minimalists before her, was the need to fill the entire picture plane and engage the viewer in the totality of its prepared surface. "What I responded to with Minimalism, and particularly Stella, was that his paintings were flat and spread out. Suddenly, the edges of the painting mattered. Also even though they were abstract, the whole was made of the parts." (S. Rothenberg quoted in M. Auping, "Susan Rothenberg: Moving in Place", in Susan Rothenberg: Moving in Place, exh. cat., Fort Worth, Museum of Modern Art, 2009, p. 12). With this in mind, Rothenberg began dissecting her horse paintings. By dividing them in to sections with diagonal or vertical lines that streamed from edge to edge, she causes the viewer's eye to transverse the entire picture plane.
Early on in her professional career, Rothenberg studied dance with Deborah Hag and was a performance assistant to the video artist Joan Jonas. Through both of these interactions, she had recognized the importance not only of movement (or lack thereof) but also more importantly the intersections between forms and space. Michael Auping aptly notes in his introductory essay to the artist's 2009 Fort Worth exhibition catalog, "in one of Jonas's performances from 1970, Rothenberg is photographed spread eagle, like a human "X" inside a large ring, her hands and legs held by handles on the inside of the wheel-like shape ... that early image of the artist spread out like an X bears a striking resemblance to a number of later works in which Xs divide a painting with a figure in the center ... the X attempts to stabilize a running horse, as if pinning it to the painted ground, as one would pin a butterfly to a backboard." (M. Auping, "Susan Rothenberg: Moving in Place", in Susan Rothenberg: Moving in Place, exh. cat., Fort Worth, Museum of Modern Art, 2009, p. 15).
Rothenberg once stated that these paintings were just as much about the idea of being ready to go and then not going anywhere. The diagonal lines that crossed the horse came to serve two purposes. One, to hold the horse in place and to contain all of that energy, and secondly, and in her own words, they "added geometry, which added a needed tension to the paintings. It was a way of making this big, soft animal tougher and a bit more abstract, and also a way of unifying figure/ground spatially." (S. Rothenberg quoted in M. Auping, Susan Rothenberg: Paintings and Drawings, New York, 1992, p. 50).
Thus, Rothenberg was able to fuse the elements of Abstraction and Minimalism with a new form of figuration. While she abandoned the horse theme after only five years, she continued to address the same concerns in the years following, substituting human forms into her compositions. Her later paintings have consistently gardened substantial acclaim, however, it will always be her horse paintings that most acutely reflect her success and innovation in the field.