Susan Rothenberg’s Mythic Horses are Back in the Flesh

A new exhibition brings the painter’s iconic works up from the caves of memory


For a relatively small number of paintings made almost entirely between 1974 and 1977, Susan Rothenberg’s horses have achieved a nearly mythic status, occupying a place of honor in recent art history. Both profoundly steeped in the cultural context in which they were produced and in important ways transcendent of it, 10 of these large-scale paintings are reunited in a special project, On Both Sides of My Line, at Richard Gray Gallery. Their assertive physicality in scale and texture, the earthbound vibrations of their palette, and the casually mesmerizing energy that radiates from within the pictures—all of this remains intact. What will be interesting to see is whether, nearly 50 years later, they are still received with the same rapturous respect they enjoyed at the time.

When Rothenberg (1945–2020) was painting these works, in 1970’s New York, art world discourse was dominated by (mostly male) minimalists and conceptualists and aging pop artists. Painting was dead—but only mostly dead—as contemporary artists fervently embraced unconventional materials, ephemerality, and even complete dematerialization in the service of concept and experiment. Into this climate Rothenberg dropped her first horse paintings—and the muscular self-possession and assertive physicality of their existence as monumental painted canvases, not to mention the presence of an actual image, created a tempest.

That was the now famous first show of three works in the dimly lit basement of indie gallery space 112 Greene Street, in 1975. Critics and curators fell in love as though obsessed. All the biggest writers came calling, and by 1978, Rothenberg was included in New Image Painting, at the Whitney Museum. In 1979, Michael Auping (who worked with the gallery on the current exhibition and has curated several solo exhibitions of Rothenberg’s work over the years) gave her her first museum show, at the University Art Museum, Berkeley.

What they were all responding to—in 1976, New York Times critic Hilton Kramer wrote of “the authority with which a highly simplified image is transformed into a pictorial experience of great sensitivity and even grandeur….”—was the perfect confluence in these paintings of resistance and evolution played out on several levels. There was the sheer size and visibly rough richness of their unmistakably hand-rendered studio technique—a sort of wide, almost crosshatch of rich pigments filling in decisive lines above a schematic of color washes. There was the striking but limited palette of black, white, and sienna, which came from minimalist reduction and also referenced her interest in Neolithic art. There was the way she blew past abstraction into evocative, universally understood imagery—A picture! Of something living! With contours and shadows and atmospheres! And emotion!—while also making certain to include compositional devices such as bisecting straight lines to subvert that same sense of pictorial space. She made a strong case that painting might not be so dead after all; it’s no wonder people took notice. And though she never made a big deal out of it, it was then and still remains worth remembering that it was a woman who did all of this.

In his writings and video interviews related to the show (one of which I was involved in researching for Frieze magazine), Auping shares a wealth of personal and art historical perspectives on the development and legacy of Rothenberg’s work, even beyond the horses. He speaks movingly about her exploration of what he calls the “declarative possibility of minimalism, but with a mystical quality” that came from somewhere else. His recollection of one particular aspect of Rothenberg’s challenge to minimalism—in which she said, essentially, that if you want to really get back to the most stripped-down fundamental impulses of art-making, look at cave paintings—opens the door to a world of considerations that resonate with the present moment.

Everyone who looks at art has noticed a surge of interest in figurative painting over the past several years; this trend predated the pandemic, but was almost certainly heightened by a yearning for avatars of the world and society, a longing born of loss and isolation. In a parallel thread that was robust even in the Before Times, there has been a steady backlash to the dominance of the digital, virtual, viewed-on-your-phone, amped-up, and eye-popping Insta-whatever; this too produces an appetite for the kind of hefty presence and nuanced narrative that Rothenberg’s paintings still forcefully embody. More proof of this appetite was in evidence as New York City’s painters made their rapturous pilgrimages to the recent Philip Guston show—an artist whose abrupt embrace of figuration after a career in abstraction ignited a firestorm in the discourse and remains the stuff of art historical legend. Furthermore, the appeal of a kinder pace of perception, a simpler experience of existential epiphany, and the shared promise of perennial human archetypes that illuminate our place in the natural order are very much in the frame these days. We’re all looking for storytelling, and we’re all looking at cave paintings, too.

Grace Glueck wrote in the Times in 1984 of Rothenberg’s “ability to translate her private, poetic visions into a fresh and forceful contemporary painting language,” and this is crucial among the accrued powers of the paintings. The artist has said, and there’s no reason to doubt her, that the horse itself was not chosen for its particular symbolic significance per se; it was more in the mode of Warhol’s soup cans or Johns’s flags and targets—a recognizable image with its own associations but basically a scaffold to contain and an armature on which to hang expressive actions. Still, variations in the body language of the horses and moods of palette and technique render each with such individual energy as to be unavoidably narrative.

The gallery materials include some of Rothenberg’s own words on this matter: “I didn’t want the horse to be neutral. I wanted it to have more guts…. The same way an abstract painter would want their gestures to say something about them or the world. It was never about making a pretty horse. It was something else.” And indeed, this dynamic continued throughout her entire career—most of which took place long after she stopped making horse paintings, in the early 1980s. Later works bore out the same push-pull between figure and abstraction, even as her post-equine compositions featuring people and her New Mexico ranch-life menagerie of dogs, goats, and birds were very much allowed the momentum of autobiography. There were even some pretty violent scenes, produced around the end of her first marriage, that she rather cheekily called her “divorce paintings.”

As these works are being codified in art history’s continuum, the question remains: Will the younger artists and audiences of today appreciate how radical Rothenberg’s actions were? Will her intentions enjoy a fresh new life in a reexamined context as we once again emerge from a period of detachment and start to tell our stories? Will the kids claim her as an ancestor, recognizing their own struggles with idea and form in hers? Or is it that the dialectic wars of the 1970s might as well be cave paintings themselves? As it happens, now is the perfect time to find out.    ❖

Susan Rothenberg: On Both Sides of My Line
Richard Gray Gallery
1018 Madison Avenue
Through December 17

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