The lush exhibition “Susan Rothenberg: Moving in Place” includes 25 paintings dating from the mid-’70s to the present decade, selected by the museum’s Michael Auping. In Rothenberg’s work, the fulsome plasticity of paint and the expressive potential of the kinetic body—whether human or animal—are perfect equivalents. Chronologically installed in spacious galleries, the large paintings are bursting with dynamic energy, often dizzyingly enhanced by the painter’s eccentric points of view.
Rothenberg’s early work signaled a shift in an era dominated by conceptual art, performance and, in the dwindling group of artists who continued to paint, abstraction. Sullying the purity of late modernist painting, Rothenberg introduced schematic but recognizable figures into her paintings, including horses viewed in profile and centered on monochromatic fields. Cabin Fever (1976), the earliest work in the show, depicts a horse frozen in motion, with four feet bunched up beneath it. The horse and background are both muddy coral orange. As if the animal were a cutout, a black shadow surrounded by a blackened orange aura peeks out from behind its contour. Contributing to the painting’s overall flatness is a vertical line of unpainted canvas at its center, mimicking the joint between two panels of a diptych and disrupting any illusion of depth. Rendered from the horse’s viewpoint, Squeeze (1978-79) presents two outlined equine legs extending from the bottom to the top of the canvas, and the eyeless head of a second horse nipping at the inner left leg. The animal parts are delineated with a rough black line on a mottled off-white ground of pasty acrylic paint.
Such ashen-toned paintings were followed in the late ’80s by a shift from acrylic to oil paint and a warmer pink palette, which, along with a less perfunctory and more painterly brushstroke, is reminiscent of Guston’s. After 1990, when Rothenberg moved from New York to a New Mexico ranch, her paintings began to record encounters with animals and people in landscapes or interiors. Flat, conceptualized contour drawing gave way to the representation of events in space and time. Narrative drives juicy oil paintings such as Dogs Killing Rabbit (1991-92), with its nearly indecipherable flurry of bloody activity seen from the point of view of a rider on horseback. With Martini (2002) depicts three pairs of hands playing dominoes, one player holding a cigarette and cocktail, viewed from the position of a standing kibitzer. The hands, gray, bright red and fiery orange, emerge from three corners of the canvas-cum-tabletop, a luminous ground of pink and pale gray. Even as Rothenberg’s paint handling has become more confident, she rarely lapses into facile bravura, but rather makes a case for painting as a form of sensate expression.
[After the O’Keeffe Museum, the show travels to the Miami Art Museum, Oct. 15, 2010- Jan. 9, 2011.]
Photo: Susan Rothenberg: With Martini, 2002, oil on canvas, 76 by 87 inches; at the Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth.