Susan Rothenberg (1945–2020)

Susan Rothenberg. Photo: Jason Schmidt. © 2020 Susan Rothenberg / Artists Rights Society (ARS), courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York.

SUSAN ROTHENBERG was a visionary artist. We met around 1969 in New York and became friends. I asked her to work with me. Working together brings closeness.

Susan made a beautiful contribution to one of my catalogues in 1994. Reading it now reminds me of the wonderful times we shared. “I wandered into one of the richest periods of the avant-garde music/sculpture/dance/performance/theater, separate and combined, that New York has ever known,” she wrote. “#10 Chatham Square. We ate at Tina Girouard’s and Dickie Landry’s kitchen on the second floor, or Mary Heilmann’s on six. We were Sonnier, Smithson, Serra, Jonas, Hay, Saret, Glass, Reich, Graves, Matta, Lew, Trakas, Akalaitas, Windsor, and many many more. Gumbo usually. They talked, I listened.”

One’s memories are often inspired by photographs. I see Susan in my work and remember some moments clearly. In one photo of Mirror Piece, 1969, she is sitting on Keith Hollingsworth’s shoulders, holding his head. He’s holding a mirror. And then Susan and I rolling over and over on the floor, facing each other, with a piece of glass between us. Or leaning against a slanting piece of glass propped against my body, on her back, while in the background George Trakas and Hollingsworth work with a large piece of glass. Alan Saret cut a rectangular hole in the floor of his loft on Spring Street, where Underneath was staged in 1970. On a platform below this hole, Susan, Gwenn Thomas, and I lie naked under a large piece of glass, our bodies crushed a bit as two men, Trakas and Hollingsworth, roll big potatoes back and forth on the glass.

Jackie Windsor throws a bucket of water on the glass from above. The audience sees this indirectly, reflected in a row of tilted mirrors on the edge of the hole.

Susan Rothenberg, Untitled, 1978, acrylic and flashe on paper, 50 x 38 1/2". © 2020 Susan Rothenberg / Artists Rights Society (ARS), courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York.

Susan performed several actions in Jones Beach Piece, 1970, but one of my favorites is one where she is tied to a six-foot hoop, arms and legs outstretched as she is rolled around over the landscape by Trakas and John Erdman. Susan trusted the situations. She was always fully committed.

She liked my dog drawings, and she also loved dogs. I continue to be drawn to Susan’s work. During the last ten years, we drifted apart at times but were close when we met. We last spent time together when I visited her and Bruce [Nauman] in New Mexico in 2004. It was a special time. Susan had rescued several dogs, and she was devoted to them. We took long walks on the land near her house with the dogs. She showed me her stone collection. I also collect stones, and she found some for me on those walks. I still treasure these fossil-like objects, especially two small, round, rusted iron balls.

She loved New Mexico, the landscape. We talked of working on a piece together again. When such a friend passes on, one remembers these lost opportunities with great regret. I loved her painting, her imagery—so strange, so strong. Horses: not simple representations but divided, sectioned, silhouettes flattened. Later, the human figures were taken apart, brushstrokes in a surface that seemed to be moving, that was continuously becoming.

And images of heads in hands. In one drawing of a head, a small hammer hovers, in the brain, while an ejaculation flows out of the mouth. Susan was able to translate her specific emotions into images of disturbing beauty that embody the transitory.

Joan Jonas is an artist living in New York.