Susan Rothenberg (1945–2020)

Susan Rothenberg. © Brigitte Lacombe.

PERHAPS BECAUSE THE MOMENTUM OF THE ART WORLD thrusts us all into constantly changing relationships, long friendships between artists and curators are, in my experience, surprisingly rare. But when they do develop, they can be very special. I was fortunate to have had such a friendship with Susan Rothenberg.

I first met Susan in 1978, when I was a young curator at the University Art Museum, Berkeley (now the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive), where I did her first museum exhibition the same year. It was an important moment for both of us, but more so for me. I was in need of knowledge and experience. Susan was five years older, and by that time she had already had two critically acclaimed gallery shows in New York. Initially, Susan was reluctant to talk about her practice, but that instinct was overridden by her innate generosity.

Fueled by cigarettes and a little alcohol, we eventually spent a lot of time in her studios, looking and talking. Susan was disarmingly honest, and out of each discussion there always came something surprising. I remember asking her once how she entered the New York art world. “I was a go-go dancer,” she answered. “In the late ’60s, Mary Woronov [Mary Might of Warhol’s Factory] and I were go-go girls for different bands in the city. For a brief moment, I thought I would be a performer or dancer. I had a lot of internal energy that needed to be dealt with.” Somehow it made perfect sense. The energetic brushwork and the restlessness of her horse images and other figures were not just static designs—they were complex painterly performances.

Susan Rothenberg, Cabin Fever, 1976, acrylic and tempera on canvas, 67 x 84 1/8". Photo: Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth.

Many of us thought it was a brilliantly weird idea for Susan to use the horse image as a bold antidote to the abstract purity of Color Field painting and Minimalism, and there is no question those paintings made us rethink what the future of imagery could be. “The truth is,” she later told me, “I did think the horse was an interesting shape, but mostly I used it to hang paint on. . . . I always felt that I was learning how to paint, how to make a special brushstroke that was mine, and that could create an atmosphere the images could move in. Atmosphere is better than pure flatness. Then, all of a sudden, everyone wanted me to only paint horses. I didn’t want to be the ‘horse painter,’ so I broke the horse up into parts. That was more important for me because it forced me to develop my imagery. All the images after that are pure me, and how I experience the world.”

While I didn’t understand it at the time, I later realized that smart artists don’t cash in on brand images. They keep moving, regardless of whether it confuses their audience. They go deeper into their art, discovering themselves as they go.

We talked about everything related to her paintings, including the subject of gender and art, which normally intimidated me, as I didn’t think I had the vocabulary. With Susan, I didn’t need to, and I could just be myself. I once asked her if she thought there was a difference between men’s and women’s art. Her response was: “I would hate to think that you could walk into a room and identify the sex of a painter by their painting. I think hard work makes art, not gender. I think art gets to a more guttural level. . . . One thing that I do think is a difference between men and women is that women generally go places that are deeper and messier than men, who generally want to make things coherent and iconic.”

Susan Rothenberg, White Deer, 1999–2001, oil on canvas, 91 1/2 x 112". Photo: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

The word guttural seemed to capture what I felt but often couldn’t describe in her art, whether it be in the cutting apart of the early profiles of horses into limbs and head fragments, or the subsequent “divorce images” from the late ’70s and early ’80s, of heads spewing black paint, following her separation from George Trakas in 1979. There was a dark side to Susan that was not menacing, but provocative.

The artist’s move to New Mexico in 1990 to be with her new husband, Bruce Nauman, generated a new and excited emotionalism in her work. Her palette changed from whites, blacks, blues, and grays to reds, pinks, and oranges. I assumed it had to do with the change from an urban location to a more colorful rural one. “Everyone thought that it had to do with red New Mexican dirt,” she corrected me. “The fact is, New Mexico is a bland landscape. I put extra color into the paintings to give it more life, and to highlight all the animal action I was seeing on the ranch.” Her pictures of jumping goats, dogs chasing and killing rabbits, and riders being thrown from horses would capture a ranch that always seemed to be in motion.

While many will always associate Susan with her early horse canvases, the New Mexico period yielded an exuberant reinvention of stroke and color that resulted in some of her greatest paintings. One such work, a stunning tour de force, depicts Susan’s floating head witnessing a stampede of wild deer (White Deer, 1999–2001). As she describes it: “I was walking down the creek with the dogs one morning, and I heard a pounding sound. All of a sudden this herd of deer burst out and came running by me. It was so startling, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. . . . I painted them white to get that sense of early morning, white light, and also to make them seem like these ghosts streaming by.”

I always thought of that image as a metaphor for how Susan moved through the world and her mind, picking up sensations from both. In one of our last interviews, in 2011, she said: “Let me put it this way. I’m not trying to be intellectual or calculated about what I paint. I paint what is happening around me, and I want people not just to see it happening but to feel how I saw it, if that makes any sense.” I so enjoyed those conversations in the studio, talking about life and painting, and trying to figure out how they come together.

Michael Auping is an independent curator based in Fort Worth, Texas.