Susan Rothenberg at The Modern

by Jim Starr December 8, 2009

Susan Rothenberg, Cabin Fever (1976)...(Image details below.)

Susan Rothenberg was having a quiet moment at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth on the eve of her exhibition Moving in Place, the artist’s first museum show in more than 10 years. The transparency and vulnerability she’d evidenced during her gallery talk with Chief Curator Michael Auping, her serene demeanor and petite stature made her seem approachable. I moved in.

She stood at the railing, looking down on Mark Bradford‘s Helter Skelter II (2007). A longtime friend of Rothenberg’s, Auping said she looks a lot, recounting times he’d spent with her and artist husband, Bruce Nauman, when conversation would take a pause and they’d raise their heads to see her studying the tabletop.

In her profile from Season 3 of the PBS series "Art: 21," she’d said something about the elevated perspective she often chooses for her paintings, one that’s from a high vantage point looking down. She related it to the views she regularly encounters in the hills surrounding their ranch in Galisteo, New Mexico.

As the Modern states it, Rothenberg’s legacy is "introducing imagery into minimalist abstraction and bringing a new sensitivity to figuration," so it might be said she’s not so much painting what she has seen as what she would like to see. Even before moving to New Mexico, while still living in New York in 1988, she described wanting to make use of some sort of "anti-gravity device" in her paintings; how she wanted to reference a kind of multiple view and make images that are more about the space around the subject than they are about the subject in the space.

Susan Rothenberg, White Deer (1999–2001)...(Image details below.)

Begun in the late 1970s, Rothenberg’s horse series (which she called her "Jasper Johns’ flag," a vehicle in which she had no personal interest but upon which she might enjoy a long ride) was already beginning to reveal something of what she would come to call "frozen motion." The artist commented on the bisected, galloping horse in Cabin Fever (1976), the earliest painting in the show, saying, "I was fascinated that a simple line could stop an image; hold it in place." And Rothenberg’s preoccupation with kinetics is what the Modern proposes to explore in the 25 paintings of Moving in Place.

As evidenced by White Deer (1999-2001), it seems the artist eventually found her anti-gravity device. In the work, the artist and her dog, in red, stand still in the middle of a stampede, painted as if viewed from above.

Such levitation may have been birthed in Ghost Rug (1994), painted from Rothenberg’s experience of her mother’s dying moments. For the exhibition, she wrote, "As she laid there her eyes roamed around the room. She was very peaceful. Her eyes just kept circling around the room, around the walls, over the ceiling. I’m not sure what she was seeing."

Susan Rothenberg, Ghost Rug (1994)...(Image details below.)

Auping called that painting a metaphor for the way Rothenberg approaches a subject, and said, "She thinks about space with a whole bunch of eyes," describing her multi-image viewpoint as tossing a camera up into the air to capture random images as it falls, spinning back to earth. "You see all of these different angles; ways of experiencing an incident," he explained. It’s like Cubism but with a touch of disassociative disorder: instead of a portrait or still life, it’s the portrayal of a place and time that gets all mixed up on the picture plane.

As in Dogs Killing Rabbit (1991-92), a bloody narrative scene in which primitive, colorless faces protest and horse legs kick. Rothenberg explained their disembodiment: "I was hesitant to put the heads in. I thought the painting was done, but then I thought those heads represent my point of view at the time. And then I kind of liked the idea of watching myself watch the action."

In Chinese Goat (1991-92), Rothenberg relates another incident, this time between her hormonally imbalanced, hyperactive jumping goat and the dog he hoped to intimidate. "You can’t be sure of exactly how it did it or what you remember of it. I just tried to get that sense of something flying out of my vision, out of the space of the painting." The dog and the goat, however visually disorienting, both seem sufficiently connected to one space-time continuum or another, while an outstretched human hand floating between them gives the impression that something else is completely out of sync.

Susan Rothenberg, Red (2008)...(Image details below.)

Now, as she looked down on the Bradford painting, what I really came to ask her concerned something she’d brought up both for "Art: 21" and in the galleries at the Modern, something to which I related strongly as an artist. It was not about vantage points but about producing series; continuing themes; ideas with legs and why we chase them. In the interview she said she ran with her horses because they were "acceptable" under the rules of painting in place at the time, but years later the work was more a battle to satisfy herself.

I got the sense of an artist smart enough to, early on, seek out an identity that launched one of the most significant careers in modern painting, but also wise enough, once that career was established, to transition wholly to considerations more important to the artist than to the art world. But according to Rothenberg, that gnawing persisted; the impulse, in her words, to "get a hold of something and be on that idea for a couple of years." What about the 2008 series of works the Modern calls "disembodied hands and arms dangling around the space of the paintings like dismembered puppets," paintings like Tilt, The Master and Red? Had she found that something in this current series?

"I’m not sure," she said and turned to walk away.

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
Susan Rothenberg: Moving in Place
October 18, 2009 – January 3, 2010

James Michael Starr is an assemblage and collage artist who lives in Dallas. He is represented there by Conduit Gallery and in Houston by Hooks-Epstein Galleries.

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Susan Rothenberg
Cabin Fever (1976)
Acrylic and tempera on canvas
67 x 84.125 inches
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth,
Museum purchase, Sid W. Richardson Foundation
Endowment Fund and an anonymous donor
© 2009 Susan Rothenberg/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Susan Rothenberg
White Deer (1999–2001)
Oil on canvas
91.5 x 112 inches
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth,
Museum purchase

Susan Rothenberg
Ghost Rug (1994)
Oil on canvas
54.25 x 67.25 inches
Private collection. Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York

Susan Rothenberg
Red (2008)
Oil on canvas
55 x 57.5 inches
Private collection. Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York

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