Susan Rothenberg, a painter who bravely helped usher in an influential return to figuration at a time when it was unfashionable, has died at 75. A spokesperson for New York’s Sperone Westwater gallery, which has long represented Rothenberg, confirmed her death. A cause of death was not immediately provided.
Rothenberg’s paintings are spare and stark—frequently understated in their color palette and simple in their form. But through even the vague suggestion of figures, Rothenberg was able to create memorable images that tease the brain and tickle the eye. Her paintings, many of which feature just the barest outlines of forms against largely monochromatic backgrounds, provide low-key thrills. “I almost feel I can take the most banal subject matter and [make] a good painting out of it,” the artist said in a 1984 New York Times profile by Grace Glueck.
“Since 1987, I have been privileged to show Susan Rothenberg’s work and to experience close up her passion for and commitment to making art,” Angela Westwater, a cofounder of Sperone Westwater, said in a statement. “As a pioneer, she extended the boundaries of painting—especially for other women artists.”
Looked at today, Rothenberg’s pioneering paintings of the ’70s might seem to lack a certain edge. But when she started painting them, they stood directly in opposition to the haughty Minimalist art that was being produced in New York at the time. Part of a group known as the New Image artists who privileged figuration over abstraction, Rothenberg told New York Times critic Roberta Smith in 1986 that “careful consideration was taken of the rules being broken.”
The paintings that have long defined Rothenberg’s career are works featuring horses. In these canvases, many of them produced between 1975 and 1980, Rothenberg depicted equine forms that appeared to leap across and stand before vacant spaces. Sometimes, the horses are bisected; other times, they are contained within uneven geometrical forms. Almost always, they appear alone. “The horse was a way of not doing people, yet it was a symbol of people, a self-portrait, really,” Rothenberg once said.
The horse paintings were a hit with critics. “The spareness of color and drawing and the compulsively worked quality of the surface make for one kind of intensity; the pictorial evocation of checked, dislocated, tortured mind/body states makes for another,” Peter Schjeldahl wrote in an Artforum review of a Rothenberg solo show at Willard Gallery in New York in 1979. “This doubled intensity is disagreeable enough to make one look for an excuse to discount it, but I, at least, couldn’t find any.” The paintings earned Rothenberg a place in the Whitney Museum’s famed 1978 survey “New Image Painting,” which heralded a new kind of figurative painting in her work alongside that of Jennifer Bartlett, Neil Jenney, Denise Green, and others.
Rothenberg’s reputation would continue to be dominated by the impact of the horse paintings. “I never would have guessed that they would ever even be shown,” she told ARTnews in 2016. “They were big. I think I’ve lived with that for a long time, along with being called ‘a damn horse painter.’”
As critic Phyllis Tuchman has pointed out, Rothenberg’s painterly style is elegant in spite of what some might see as a slipshod appearance. The surfaces of her paintings often look dirtied, their colors deliberately muddied through the mixing in of hues that take the edge off her materials. Her process was guided by intuition, with images built out mainly through brushstrokes rather than lines.
After the horses, Rothenberg moved on to painting disembodied heads and hands. At times, the images border on the surrealist—in Bone Heads (1989–90), a painting measuring more than 12 feet long now held in the collection of the Broad museum in Los Angeles, Rothenberg envisions two bones, one in front of the other. One has heads at both ends, their eyes shut as if asleep and dreaming.
In the Times profile, Glueck described the intuitive process Rothenberg underwent to conjure such images. Speaking of a painting of a woman sitting in bed, Glueck wrote: “It could be her mother, ‘who’s been ill a lot, who’s spent a lot of time in bed,’ and it could be Rothenberg herself. ‘I knew it was supposed to be my mother, because the pillow was there right away. Yet it’s not the shape of her body, nor her face. So I begin to think it’s not her, it’s me. I don’t know quite who it is.’”
Susan Rothenberg was born in 1945 in Buffalo, New York. She received encouragement from her father to become an artist and paid visits to the city’s Albright-Knox museum. After graduating from Cornell University in Ithaca in 1967, she went to the Corcoran School of Art but left after two weeks. Following what she later described as a “lost” year, she returned to Buffalo and then planned to head to Nova Scotia. Then, at the last minute, she reversed course and ended up in New York, where she later married artist George Trakas, whom she met while performing in a piece by Joan Jonas. In 1979, they divorced.
In 1989, Rothenberg married artist Bruce Nauman and starting in 1990, the couple began living together on a 750-acre ranch in Galisteo, New Mexico, near where Georgia O’Keeffe and Agnes Martin also lived and worked. Critic Calvin Tomkins described their quaint home life in a 2009 New Yorker profile of Nauman: “The Naumans go into Santa Fe now and then, but they steer clear of the thriving art colony there. Non-art activities occupy a lot of their time. They both like to cook. Rothenberg feeds the chickens (they have six), and takes their three mixed-breed dogs on long hikes. She combs the dry hills behind the house for potsherds, arrowheads, and other artifacts of the ruined Galisteo pueblo, where a Tewa-speaking people flourished from the late twelve-hundreds to about 1690, on what is now the Naumans’ land. Her finds fill many drawers and shelves in the house, and she has assembled a dozen or more complete pots. Nauman gets up at seven each morning to feed his fourteen horses, which he breeds, raises, trains, and sells.”
While in New Mexico, Rothenberg’s paintings grew even more formally playful. The canvases feature odd perspectival shifts that cause her images to appear as though they were seen from above and from the side simultaneously. Animals appear in many of them, perhaps in reference to the chickens, dogs, and horses at the ranch.
Rothenberg’s trailblazing figurative style earned her placement in top exhibitions throughout her career. She was among the artists chosen to represent the United States at the 1980 Venice Biennale, and she also appeared in the main exhibition of that biennial’s 2007 edition. She showed in three editions of the Whitney Biennial and one edition of the Documenta quinquennial. She presented 12 gallery shows with Sperone Westwater, and the most recent major museum survey of her work originated in 2009 at the Museum of Modern Art Fort Worth in Texas.
Her final solo show during her lifetime took place earlier this year at Sperone Westwater, and it featured some of her most idiosyncratic, strange imagery to date. One work featured a woman garbed in a slinky black dress, its title (Pianist Playing Schubert) identifying her as a musician—though there’s no instrument to be found in the dark expanse surrounding her. Another featured a figure rendered in childlike scrawls—a Buddhist monk, the title reveals—whose arms appear to be violently duplicating.
During the ’80s, when Neo-Expressionism was in vogue, there was a brief moment when Rothenberg’s art synced up nicely with the trends of the day. But for the majority of her career, she remained refreshingly out of step. Rothenberg, for her part, told ARTnews that she didn’t care what was new or interesting because she and Nauman had virtually stopped seeing art altogether.
“I just don’t think there’s much stuff going on of the kind that I’m interested in, which is really just about painting,” she said. “It’s not about issues, it’s not about politics, it’s not about process, it’s not about technology. I’m just a painter.”