Around four decades have passed since Susan Rothenberg first took a chance and painted a horse when it wasn’t cool to paint animals, let alone paint at all. Her early horses were iconic and hieratic, bisected or crossed out or otherwise marked for ironic distance; they were blank and submissive to formal considerations. Time passed. Her menagerie expanded to dogs, snakes and geese. Human figures and marionettes appeared, sometimes just as a head or in parts, riding horses, playing dominoes, lying bloody in the snow. By turns mysterious, whimsical, violent, Rothenberg’s subjects have always toed a delicate emotional line. Her paintings are gestural though not expressionistic, agitated but never unhinged.
In her recent show at Sperone Westwater, Rothenberg showed 13 paintings made during the past two years. In many of these works, we see her enjoying the pleasures of naturalism, as in Mink, in which a very specific black, shaggy dog vividly wags and pants. In the catalogue is a photo of Rothenberg’s studio wall; it tells us that this a real dog in her real life. Ditto for the short-haired canine in three small, bird’s-eye-view paintings in which the dog lies on a hexagonal pillow. Especially lovely among these is the blue dog in White Pillow Dog, conveying a respectful separateness from the master’s eye, of which the animal seems unaware, alertness directed elsewhere. Also full-blooded are a pair of doves, heavy bodies lunging onto a delicate branch. There they commune, speaking a language of flight and wind—and, in touches of red, hinting at danger.
There are also eerier images. White on white, an eyeless, wingless avian, beak open as if screeching, is hurled through the restless ether of White Raven, dramatic at 10 feet wide. Gert depicts half a yellow earless dog on a brownish ground, looking as if partially submerged in mud. Head in profile, the beast peers outward from a human-looking eye, and indeed its whole face looks human, seductive. More than any of Rothenberg’s oft-cited painterly precursors, in this show, I was reminded of Goya—in this case the little dog in a vast wasteland, about which so much ink has been spilled (The Dog, 1819-23). Rothenberg’s emotional tenor is quite different, of course, but the cropping of the dog, the expressively empty, brown setting, and the creature’s humanization are reminders of the earlier painting.
Rothenberg brings back her dismantled marionette in a few of the very best paintings in the show. Pink, the puppet rides bareback and backward on a racing, footless, blue-headed horse in Circus, brandishing a striped banner, his haloed head grotesquely bobbing above the horse’s rump. In the wonderfully spooky Strangers in the Night (2009-10), the toy’s severed head, now in blue, its neck a red post, communes with a big, white, blank-featured head in a dark field. Throughout, Rothenberg’s nervous gesture pulsates in figure and ground alike, a generative force animating any and all peculiar events.
Photo: Susan Rothenberg: Circus, 2009-10, oil on canvas, 76 by 68 inches; at Sperone Westwater. © ARS.