What’s one to make of the early Susan Rothenberg paintings? Take Trumpeter from 1984-85, now on exhibit at Vermont’s Hall Art Foundation, founded in 2007 by Andrew and Christine Hall. This and other paintings in the first gallery of the exhibition are not what you might call ‘clean.’ They are dense with layers of thick oil paint.
When first walking into the gallery, there’s a claustrophobic feeling, as if being swallowed in a darkened whirlpool of emotion. These paintings are from her New York City years, filled with noise, grit and erratic movement. And yet, after sitting awhile in front of Trumpeter, one is able to understand what Rothenberg was getting at. The staccato brush strokes and white slashes of paint become the wailing sounds of the horn. Jazz. The man is on his knees in a dark space, perhaps a nightclub, his trumpet thrown upwards, letting it rip.
Another painting in the same room, A Golden Moment, is also steeped in dark, layered colors. This one shows a man sitting in front of a white table; on top are two bright squares, one red and the other blue. Both of these paintings are a nod to Mondrian, a great inspiration for Rothenberg. Hard to see why. His clean sharp, delineated lines on white and her dense overlay of thick paint are as different as Norman Rockwell is from Picasso.
In the same room is Elizabeth, also intensely painted and highly charged, with the figure’s shock of grey hair filling the space with shards of dirty white—a color Rothenberg loved. She used innumerable tubes of white, rarely washing her brushes. As such, her whites have a dirty look, an effect she favored. She continually reused the turpentine in which she dipped and stored her brushes. Some of her turps were fifteen years old.
Also in the first gallery of the Hall is one of her famous horse paintings: Algarve, from 1974. In contrast to the others in this gallery, this work feels peaceful. The flattened plane and clean outline of the white horse on a white background, with only two small triangles of black for shadow, offers stillness. Like a blank stare. This artist had nerve. She’s coming at her work with confidence and so much energy that one has to sit down and spend time to really take in what she’s doing. She’s at play, allowing herself to go in any direction she feels like at the time.
The late critic, Peter Schjeldahl, first saw Rothenberg’s horses in 1975 in a small gallery at 112 Greene Street in SoHo. He wrote that her horse pictures had an “asteroid impact” on the art world at that time. A second-generation Abstract Expressionist, Rothenberg pushed her figurative paintings onto the abstract art scene with what Schjeldahl felt was “kinetic force and unmistakable authenticity.”She quipped that her horse series was like Jasper Johns’ flags.
Flashe, a matte acrylic, is used as an overlay on two of the paintings; “Red Trunk” and “White Mountain.” These are also thickly painted but by adding Flashe, each painting has a smoother, less corrugated feel. One senses her surfaces. Here the globs of paint are still pocked but coated, like a softer fabric.
The painter needs space around her paintings and for her work. In 1990, she moved to Galisteo, New Mexico with her new husband, the artist Bruce Nauman. He was an avid horseman and owned a 750-acre ranch. Here, he and Rothenberg raised horses, chickens and dogs. They built a large studio where she painted with oils. Her paintings took on the colors of the landscape; reds, rust, greens and ocher.
The second building at the Hall houses works starting in 1994 and ending in 2012. This renovated horse barn has high ceilings and long white walls offering Rothenberg’s later paintings the space they need around and above them. Wandering among these paintings, there is an expansive and more nuanced presence. Ghost Rug is a gorgeous rich salmon color with a large dirty white rectangle in the center. Eyes float across the canvas, as if being tossed about on a roiling red sea.
The Master depicts a disembodied puppet’s arms and legs. The Corner could be the puppeteer, ready to exit stage right. Both of these paintings are humorous and lively. As with many of her paintings, it appears that she simply painted over body parts, leaving a torso, or one arm, no feet, as if she had painted a full body and then thought, no, I’ll just paint over the center of the body and leave the figure suspended in space, like in Blue Flash and Crying. As Rothenberg said, “I’m doing a presence not a figure.” Exactly.
From 2012, there is a large oil on canvas of a coral-colored raven, Pink Raven. The raven is perching sideways on a vertical branch, another of her odd shifts in focus. There is a sense that the bird is at play though some critics saw it as being furious and menacing. Whether Rothenberg is showing us snakes, dogs, rabbits, eyes, or figures, her playful, experimental freedom is always present. She often worked on large canvases on her knees or on a ladder, so the point of view was either looking up or looking down, skewing perspective.
Maryse Brand, Director at the Hall in Vermont, said they’d been planning the exhibition with Susan Rothenberg since 2019. Then Covid hit, and the show was postponed. It was finally installed at The Schloss in Germany from 2021 through 2022. “Unfortunately, she was never able to see the exhibition because she died in 2020,” Brand told Observer. “She was excited about the show. Rothenberg is an under-recognized but important artist in the world of painting. We’re honored to show her work and very happy with the exhibition.”
Susan Rothenberg at the Hall Art Foundation in Reading, Vermont runs through November 26.