New York

Susan Rothenberg

In the mid ’70s, Susan Rothenberg took the “perfect” step. By raising and answering all the accepted issues with just the right twist, her paintings of horses satisfied an audience that had become bored with Minimalism but was not quite satisfied by Pattern and Decoration. Her works fit neatly into the fiction that history was an orderly unfolding. They upheld the art world’s belief that it was on a steady pilgrimage toward the utopia of what is essential to painting. This exhibition consisted of a selection of paintings that Rothenberg made between 1974 and 1980.

Rothenberg approached Modernism’s version of utopia like a dutiful student. She took a flat image—the evocative silhouette of a horse—and placed it in a flat, loosely painted, monochromatic, abstract ground. Illusionistic space was denied because formalist criticism still shaped our view of what was acceptable. Among the other familiar devices the artist used were diptychs, abstract geometrical elements, and a physically layered surface. Color was largely restricted to black, white, and sandstone red. The generalized image of a horse established a link with society’s diluted notions of cave paintings and primal sexual desire, thus suggesting the possibility of psychological content. At the same time, they were layered process paintings with just the right amount of drips and splatters, just enough awkwardness to be considered sincere and existential. No wonder they entered history almost as fast as Secretariat.

Now that these paintings have achieved the status of being “Modern Classics,” it is time they were looked at more closely. By presenting an evocative, recognizable image within the conventions of figure/ground abstraction, they can be said to follow in the footsteps of Jasper Johns’ “flag” paintings. In their awkwardness and use of roughly painted geometric divisions, they can be said to acknowledge the achievement of the Abstract Expressionists. In their coolness, austerity, and monochromatic tonalities, they recall Minimalism.

This is art made by someone looking over her shoulder. Rothenberg has mixed together just the right doses of history, so that her paintings of horses are immediately palatable while fulfilling our notions of advanced art. The loaded image of a horse has been made to blend in with the critically accepted modes of abstraction, painterliness, color, and surface. Rather than challenging, examining, or transforming prevailing attitudes, they reprise them. Consequently, they are not formal accomplishments so much as tautological encodings of the recent past. The horse is a hook that reels in overdetermined observers by providing them with a well-known theme or subject. The horse is emblematic of “mystery.” Its heavily encoded image is synonymous with that of the artist struggling with authenticity and feelings. This is what the art world in all its insularity chose to see: something it knew and could feel comfortable with. Rothenberg’s paintings are indeed part of history, but it is an official history that ignores, overlooks, and falsifies. They are further proof that the art world is busy erecting an academic tradition.

John Yau