The horse paintings were a game changer, although Susan certainly got tired of hearing about them. Every time she spoke of them as “antiques” or “dinosaurs” (a witty reference to the fact that horses are descended from creatures that lived in the age of dinosaurs), I would reconstruct in my mind why in the mid-1970s we were so entranced by those horses. First of all, they were big and raw looking. They somehow felt alive. If the flat abstract Color Field paintings and the simple structures of Minimalism that dominated gallery spaces at the time were like barn doors, her horses—shown in her first solo, at the alternative space 112 Greene in 1975—seemed to kick those doors down.
We may have been young and a little overenthusiastic, but we knew visual power and authenticity when we saw it. These animals had it. And the words “they were painted by a woman” hung in the air, suggesting even more changes ahead. That show marked one of those increasingly rare moments when you feel lucky to be a part of contemporary art as it is on the move.
Rothenberg was just the person to generate that motion. Her horses came across as everything we needed in one weird package. They have the surface facture of a Jasper Johns Target, but with more excitable and blurry energy. While Johns’s brilliance comes from a nuanced muteness (which Rothenberg thoroughly appreciated), her brushstrokes were more agitated. These horses were not being contemplated. Nor are they passive beasts; they have been formed into vivid personas.
They were iconic, but not in a male way (which in those days generally meant intimidating). They were humble, human, even funny at times. These horses talked to us with body language and other clues. They had personalities. They could be clumsy, giddy, hyper, or shadowy. There are singles and couples. They run and jump and stumble. If you look closely, drips fall from some of the eyes like tears.
While many people would have been happy to see her just continue painting horses, Rothenberg drew from a deeper well of images. While her horses became iconic in the art historical sense, her pictures would increase in intensity. Those first horses were just the beginning of a wild ride through a new kind of figurative expressionism that was the equal of any in the ’70s and ’80s, even New Image Painting and Neo-Expressionism.
As if to emphasize that she had no interest in labels or image brands, Rothenberg soon tore the horses apart into disembodied heads and legs. The metaphor of slaughter was not lost on anyone. Susan always approached problems directly and swiftly. She was simply freeing herself to explore the next chapter.
In considering her post-horse periods, one thinks more of de Kooning than Johns. While de Kooning’s Women gradually gave way to abstract landscapes, Rothenberg’s horses morphed into faces and masks and twisted human bodies, which eventually became tornadic figures spinning over troubled landscapes. “I feel like my paintings are as much about my body experiencing things around me, as my mind,” she told me. “That circular or lateral energy that you see in many of my paintings may come from the subject, but also from me.”
When she moved from New York to Galisteo, New Mexico, in 1990, to be with her husband, Bruce Nauman, she brought that raw energy with her. Agnes Martin, who had moved to Galisteo a little more than a decade earlier, found clear days and a meditative space to create her serene abstractions. We choose what we wish to see. Rothenberg saw a playful, sometimes gruesome circus of ranch activity. Intensifying her depiction of the dramas was a new use of color—reds and oranges that recall blood or the red earth of New Mexico. Action, both painterly and in the daily scenes she witnessed, is everywhere in these paintings, some of the greatest and most inspired paintings of her career. The beautifully bloody and white Dogs Killing Rabbit (1991–92) is as sensuous as it is brutal, depicting Susan and Bruce witnessing their dogs rip a wild rabbit apart during the couple’s ride through a snowy meadow. Horses had returned to the paintings, but now they were even more feisty and dangerous. Accident #2 (1992) depicts a horse ride that went wrong, when her husband was thrown by a frightened horse, whose long neck and legs now fly around the canvas like a pinwheel. Goats jump to the top of another canvas, and in another, white deer stream by Rothenberg’s onlooking head.
Ranch life and the animals that make up much of its population would occupy Rothenberg for the next decades. I have many photos of Susan, and every one of them has an animal in it. In addition to the many exciting moments depicted in her paintings, there are also beautiful and intimate moments of stillness—a cigarette gently burning in an ashtray, dogs sleeping on the studio floor, hands playing dominoes.
Over the past decade, large ravens began hanging around outside Susan’s studio. Of course, they ended up in her paintings. Like her early horses, these ominous black forms seem both still and ready to jump. With Rothenberg, you never knew what was coming next. We were always in anticipation, and just along for the ride, a ride we will sorely miss.