New York

Susan Rothenberg

Willard Gallery

Like some other painters of her generation, Susan Rothenberg seems tofeel the need to rediscover painting from the ground up, more in a structural than a historical sense. Her earlier images are studiedly childish; the crudely outlined heads and hands have something in common with graffiti in the unengaged way they lie on the canvas ground. In her earlier work, the paintings’ vertical division (like an open book), the x-ing out of the image of the horse, and the fragmentation of the human figure all seem to suggest a reluctance to represent—a denial of the validity of canons of representation, or a return to a ground zero from which to reapproach the whole question.

In the new work shown here—12 oil paintings and 2 charcoal drawings—the fragments seem to coalesce through a kind of inner attraction into roughly whole figures and groups of figures that emerge ambiguously from a kind of stygian gray ground of fretful brushstrokes. The paintings are built up from a multitude of visibly separate strokes, some hatched, some scribbled, some flying. Though black, gray, and white are still prominently featured, colors are cautiously introduced. The ground is worked as much as, or more, than the figures, bringing itself up around them like a palpable matrix. In fact, the ground is sometimes so densely worked that it billows up around the figures and engulfs them.

The investigation of representation and of the figure/ground relationship are enduring preoccupations of our culture, almost signatures of its particular cognitive style; they bear on its sense of what is known and what unknown, what is meaning and what is mystery. These investigations have psychological, philosophical, and political analogues, and at some level contain the whole operative structure of our society, our sense of meaning, selfhood, and of how to relate to the world. It is peculiar to our culture that when someone explores these questions again we feel that something has been wrested out of the abyss. But what? Are visceral reworkings of art history endlessly valuable? In a hidden way this activity is quotational on the part of both the artist and the audience. Rediscovery is an especially intense form of post-Modern quotation; it lends itself to ambiguous disguise as existential discovery. But the ’80s have their own sense of meaning, which is less about finding new things than about seeing anew In the return to ground zero—to the creation of the painting from its structural elements again—one sees the reconstituted painting as a question more than as an answer. And this crucial question is that of why painting exists at all, what this custom—this marking of cloths on a wall—means for us.

Certain things about painting we know: it serves to validate certain socioeconomic views of reality, it is a means of integrating feelings about childhood and about other cultures into our own heritage, and it offers that particular kind of entertainment known as the contemplation of beauty But there is a cognitive, psychological reason for painting, not yet really accounted for, that involves both making the world in one’s own image so that one’s own image has a way to exist, and, at the same time, finding one’s image by digging into the world. It is some communal identification with this project that seems to be the basis of the widespread appreciation of Rothenberg’s work. Fundamental creation is replayed before an audience, and both audience and artist can feel they fill the dual roles of creator and created.

Thomas McEvilley