PRINT September 1993

Susan Rothenberg’s United States

TURNING-POINT SHOWS in art come with a sense that you know everything about them sub specie aeternitatis. You feel you have a key to artistic significance past, present, and future. This is a mistake. The key has you. The knowledge imparted replaces you, the knower. It assumes your shape, fills your needs as fluid fills a mold. Overload of gratification blows the fuses of your intelligence. You must wait years for your historico-hysterical epiphany to cycle back as cultured common sense. Finally you discover that you were largely right, largely wrong, or nuts.

I was right, wrong, and nuts—and inarticulate and sent—when I saw three big, gawky paintings by Susan Rothenberg at the post-Minimalist-gangster alternative space 112 Greene Street in the autumn of 1975. Those were laboratory days. The show was a eureka. That the paintings were paintings, perfectly comfortable as such in a savagely matter-of-fact raw space, was remarkable. Painting had been dead lately, burnt to a crisp by the phenomenological stare. I was right about this: these were paintings. That they were by someone I had only just heard of, a woman, made it better. An unsuspected reset button had been pushed. New game.

I was wrong about the new game mattering as much as I needed it to matter. I wasn’t conscious enough of my role in the transaction: a New York parochial art fancier, nostalgic for the tradition of Abstract Expressionism while committed to accepting the unfriendly news of each new esthetic adventure. Or maybe I did know that, except for “parochial.” I was unaware of how the centrality of New York’s world view had diminished with the rise of European, notably German wisdoms that I was five years from starting to grasp. If in 1975 you were Gerhard Richter, say, you could have seen at a glance that Rothenberg’s triumph was local and concerned mainly with the past.

The nuts part is the whole way of thinking that had me in thrall: comprehending yourself as an organic weather vane, a Romantic gismo for registering history via esthetic sensation. You should have better uses for your life. I didn’t. It was my desire to toss my otherwise valueless self into the tribal bonfire of art’s illuminati, to make the blaze brighter. This almost never happened. I was forever framing remarks preparatory or retrospective to the big moment. When the big moment arrived, as with Rothenberg’s paintings, I was dumbstruck. Nuts.

The critical significance of Rothenberg’s 1975 show is accounted in a one-liner that everybody got right away and that has not budged in 18 years: introduces symbolic imagery into Minimalist abstraction. Joel Shapiro was seen to be doing something similar in sculpture. His name and Rothenberg’s were often linked. A largely godforsaken movement eventuated, the last New York movement: New Image. You were impressed to the extent that you had been resigned to the imperative of abstraction as an ineluctable natural force pushing out to the horizon. What I sensed at 112 Greene Street was a global, terrific implosion.

Hello, horsie.

There were horses. “Horses,” actually, but the mere reference to something really existing was so astonishing that the distinction between the crude renderings on canvas and sizable creatures that eat oats seemed trivial. Rothenberg had embedded horse outlines and silhouettes, painted with densely black tempera, in feathery fields of black or terra-cotta acrylic gesso, struggling to adjust shape to support so as to yield the then compulsory effect of flatness, presentness, presence—however you wanted to characterize the self-evident, surfing-the-tide-of-history, drop-dead look of the era. The struggle succeeded by failing.

The large format of the pictures was a gesture of ambition that was also an act of obedience to going notions of what a “serious” artwork should be like. This scale was beyond the ready command of Rothenberg’s talent at that initial stage of her art. You could smell the sweat. Her palpable effort was fantastically poignant, carrying the charge of something half-forgotten and so wonderful I could hardly believe it: sincerity. (Sincerity is the purity of an intention that the observer understands and countenances.) One knew that Rothenberg meant this stuff by the intensity of her fealty to the very norms she transgressed with her equine apparitions. Setting herself outside the pale while clawing to get back in, she was the whole parable of the Prodigal Son in one stroke.

You had to be there for the full massage of rightness, wrongness, and nuttiness, but you still get to look at the paintings. I saw them again in Rothenberg’s recent retrospective. They look great. The impression they give of powerful vulnerability or vulnerable power—as if a gorilla were doing its damnedest to fit in at a tea party—has increased, if anything. They are the sort of nakedly achieved artworks that can make an aimless young person suddenly think “I want to be an artist.” Of course, the paintings seem smaller now than I remember. In my mental image from 1975, they remain stubbornly vast, because they occupied entirely and changed the world I knew.

Peter Schjeldahl