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Susan Rothenberg: paint & form.

Looking Carefully

Neo-Expressionist Susan Rothenberg helped establish figurative art in the 1970s after the dominance of Abstract Expressionism and conceptual art in the art world. She was a link between the minimal artists of the 1960s, such as Robert Motherwell and Larry Poons, and the expressionist figurative artists of the 1980s, such as Francesco Clemente and Eric Fischl. "Neo-Expressionist" means "New Expressionist"--new in comparison to the German Expressionists in the early part of the century. Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner expressed their feelings and psychological concerns through stylized figurative images, often with broad, clearly evident brushwork. Rothenberg's early horse imagery was minimal and emblematic or symbolic. Later she developed a rich, painterly style with human figures, as well as animal forms in action, attempting to "catch a moment to exemplify an emotion." The painting itself was a major subject of her work, as it was for Jasper Johns, an artist whom Rothenberg admired. Her vibrant, energetic forms and clearly visible brushwork reinforced her focus on the medium. Her loose brushwork has been compared to the technique of the Impressionists, an accurate comparison in that Rothenberg captures fleeting motion. Unlike them, however, she is more concerned with building an aesthetic construction and less concerned with studying light effects in nature; she wants to paint "exactly the way things can't be." Rather than copying reality, Rothenberg combines imagery, memory, fantasy and multiple layers of meaning into creative fabrications. Her intuitive process is similar to that of the Surrealists, who explored imagery from dreams and the subconscious.

Rothenberg is most famous for her horse imagery painted between 1974 and 1979; imagery she has recently taken up again. These images evolved in the early 1970s as simplified, flat, frozen or trapped iconic forms, almost like aboriginal cave paintings. Later, they became energetic figures with volume and energy breaking out of geometric constructions. The paintings from the seventies reflect her restricted life as a mother of a young daughter, Maggie, and the wife of sculptor George Trakas, whom she divorced in 1979. In the 1970s, she painted horses that were in impossible positions. Her more recent horse imagery reflects her new life married to sculptor Bruce Nauman in New Mexico, where she has learned to ride horses. These paintings represent the violent forces of nature where animals compete for survival. For example, in Dogs Killing Rabbit, 1991-1992, horse's legs stand about to trample a dog that is devouring a rabbit. These recent works seem more connected to the real world than her earlier paintings.

In Vaulting, Rothenberg represents a human figure in rhythmic motion, reflecting her lifelong interest in dance. She said of her series of spinners, dancers, vaulters and jugglers painted from 1986 to 1988, she wanted to "see how much movement I'm capable of making." Vaulting reflects the chaotic feelings and transitions in Rothenberg's life. She said "I think they do reflect my state of being. I wanted them to be chaotic." The forms in this painting are less distinct than earlier ones, and less powerful. Her clearly identified brushstrokes reinforce the sense of movement. Her repeated figures recall the work of the Italian Futurists such as Boccioni and Severini, who represented the dynamics of modern life with repetitive forms that suggested quick movement.

The bright red, green, orange and blue add energy to the canvas and also organize the composition into areas of color. Rothenberg changed from acrylic paints, which were fast drying and easy to clean (practical when she was constantly interrupted by the demands of a young child) to oil paint, which dried slowly and allowed her to rework the surface of the canvas over a long period of time. She built up the surface of Vaulting with many layers of oil paint.


In Pontiac, 1979, Rothenberg creates a minimal horse form racing toward the viewer, halted by a dark bone form that bars the horse from moving forward. The motion and presence of the bar create a tension in the painting. In 1970, Rothenberg assisted in the studio of Nancy Graves in New York while Graves was working on camel forms made out of bones. It was here that Rothenberg got the idea that anything was possible for subject matter, including bone forms. Rothenberg used a bone as opposed to a line because "a bone has a more distinctive shape." The ambiguity of the bone form enlivens the imagery. Placing the bone form in front of the horse, and painting the horse's head blue, Rothenberg forces the viewer's gaze back. But the background is flat, stopping the gaze. This conflict increases the tension in the work and thereby adds vitality to it. The frustration and tension conveyed by these images reflect the turmoil in Rothenberg's life as her marriage to sculptor George Trakas was falling apart. The blue color selected for the horse's head is an emotionally charged color, often associated with depression. In this work, the blue isolates the horse's head and thereby calls attention to it. Rothenberg clearly reveals her Impressionistic brushstrokes. She represents this picture as a creative construction, not a copy of reality.

Rothenberg has said that "the paintings are prayers--they have to do with whatever it is that makes you want more than what daily life affords. I think they're a lot about sublimation, about the things that don't happen in your life, that you get to paint. You get to put the world together the way you want." Painting lifts Rothenberg out of the realm of reality into a special, created world of the aesthetic. Experiencing Rothenberg's powerful forms, rich surfaces, and masterful brushstrokes can be spiritual. Rothenberg's canvases celebrate paint, and through it, human achievement.

Key Concepts

* An artist's style can be a link between an old style and a future one.

* Style is created by the artist's choices in the work of art.

* Stylized forms, whether of people, animals, or something else, can be symbols for the artist who creates them.

* An artist's imagery changes to reflect changes in the artist's life.

* Some artists paint not the way things are, but the way things can't be.

* Different media allow the artist to create different effects.


1945 Born, Buffalo, New York.

1962-64 Enters Fine Arts School, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Studies sculpture at State University of New York, Buffalo, during the summer.

1965-67 Fails sculpture course at Cornell. Lives in Greece for five months. Returns to Cornell as a painting major. Studies in New York City for the spring semester. Graduates with B.F.A. degree from Cornell. Spends the summer in Spain. Studies at Corcoran School of Art, George Washington University, Washington, DC. Leaves school after three months.

1969-70 Settles in New York City. Studies dance with Deborah Hay and Joan Jonas. Works as their assistant.

1971 Marries sculptor George Trakas.

1972 Daughter, Maggie, born.

1974-76 Paints first horse. A horse painting is exhibited at Sachs Gallery, New York. First solo show at 112 Greene Street, New York. Solo show at Willard Gallery, New York. Work in "New Acquisitions" show at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

1977-80 Makes first prints. Teaches at California Institute for the Arts, Valencia. Included in "New Image Painting" at the Whitney, the Whitney Biennial and "American painting: The Eighties" at Grey Gallery and Study Center, New York University. Receives grant from National Endowment for the Arts. Divorces George Trakas. Travels to New Mexico.

1980 Work in Aperto section of Venice Biennale. Included in "Drawings: The Pluralist Decade" at the American Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Receives Guggenheim Fellowship.

1980-82 Switches from acrylic to oil painting. Solo exhibition at Kunsthalle, Basel, Switzerland. Solo exhibition at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Also exhibits in Berlin.

1983-85 Included in Whitney Biennial '83 and '85. Receives American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters award. Solo exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum, California. Included in "An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture" at Museum of Modern Art. Included in "1985 Carnegie International" at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh. Awarded Grand Prix at the Sixteenth International Biennial of Graphic Art, Yugoslavia. Solo exhibition at Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

1986-88 Begins "spinners" and "vaulters" paintings of figures in motion. Makes first sculpture. First solo show at Sperone Westwater, New York. Travels to China. Included in "1988 Carnegie International." Executes first commission, "1-6," for Paine Webber Group, Inc.

1989 Marries Bruce Nauman. Learns to ride a horse. Begins to use horse imagery again.

1990 Moves to New Mexico. Elected member of American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Solo exhibition at Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art, Malmo, Sweden.

1992-94 Solo exhibition at Sperone Westwater, New York. Solo traveling show, "Susan Rothenberg: Paintings and Drawings."

Suggested Activities

(All Grade Levels)

* Draw a figure or object moving. How will you represent motion? By the repetition of forms? By the placement of the images in the space? By color? By line?

* Choose an animal as a symbol of yourself. Draw the animal that represents what you feel inside.

* Draw a picture of yourself as you felt and looked last year. Draw a picture of yourself today. Compare the two pictures. What do they tell you about how you've changed in one year?

* Look closely at a picture in an art book. Analyze the way the color, form, line and texture contribute to the impact of the composition.

* Paint a picture using only black and white paint. Emphasize a variety of grays, vigorous brushstrokes and obvious textural effects.

* Discuss motion as depicted by the Italian Futurists and photographer Eadweard Muybridge in comparison to Susan Rothenberg's technique.


Berman, Avis. "Nancy Graves' New Age of Bronze." ArtNews (February, 1986): 56-64.

Simon, Joan, Susan Rothenberg. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991.

Smith, Roberta. "Raw Darwinian Visions of Violence and Survival." The New York Times, May 22, 1992, C24.

Susan Rothenberg Paintings. New York: Sperone Westwater, 1992.

Wallach, Amei. "Anecdotes in Living Color," New York Newsday, May 8, 1992 n.p.
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Author:Basquin, Kit
Publication:School Arts
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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