New York

Susan Rothenberg

Willard Gallery

New Image painting—is it subversive, reaching a “new dialectical high” that renders the representational and the abstract “indeterminate” and turns historical styles into “seductive signs” (Donald Kuspit)? Or is it regressive, willfully naive (as is so much other art today), painting whose “indeterminacy” is Pop-ish irony, whose new images are old ready-mades? This is one question (that is, if you want to look beyond the fashion of a new style), and Susan Rothenberg is one painter to ask. And yet with her such a question misses the point; her concerns, even with the horse paintings, cut under this. Her content is less topical than that of other New Image painters, more Primitive than Pop-ish, concerned with the primal identity of images more than with the cultural irony of signs.

This is even more true of her recent work. On each of five huge canvases, four of which are a gestural grayish white, there appears an outline, the bare blunt form of—what? It is hard to tell. A head? The images stare, the ovals are eyes, so, yes, a head. But what is the other form? In one painting it enfolds the head, in another it hides the head, in still another it holds the head. Only gradually does the form become clear—a hand, open, cupped or closed. And yet the hand signals nothing really, nor do the eyes see. The head-and-hands represents a consciousness before the word—a purely visual mind.

Simple and strange, the effect precedes recognition of the image. It is a tension, the tension between the tactile and the visual, the immediate and the removed. The tension is stressed here, doubled, in fact, because it is not only represented, but experienced. The hand, of course, is associated with contact, feeling, intuition; the eyes with perspective, control, reason. Touch means contiguity, a first apprehension of the world; while sight means separation, distinction and later knowledge.

Obviously this tension is crucial to our sense of painting, too. Rothenberg works on the tension, or rather works back toward it, for sight, of course, is now our sovereign sense. (Freud has much to say about the repression of the other senses.) She reinfuses the tactile with the visual, the intuitive with the rational. And there is an atavism in these paintings, an urge for a lost or unconscious sense of the world, an original state of being. The urge may be an honest one, but it is hard now not to be skeptical of any desire for origins.

Hal Foster