Washington, DC

Susan Rothenberg

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Organized by Michael Auping of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, this exhibition of Susan Rothenberg’s paintings and drawings from 1974 to 1992 could have provided the opportunity to reexamine her work in relation to the political and social art produced during those years. However, Auping chose to adhere to the standard retrospective format, concentrating on stylistic and chronological developments, thereby enshrining and isolating the work. What the show did offer, though perhaps unwittingly, was a juxtaposition of Rothenberg the draughtsman and Rothenberg the professional artist highly attuned to the picture-making strategies of the art world.

Rothenberg first gained notoriety for a series of large paintings of horses rendered in outline or solid silhouette against grounds of various colors divided into panels, either by a line or by painting panels different colors. By the late ’70s, as her brushwork became looser, she began using frontal silhouettes of horses combined with neatly cropped images of horse parts, usually a head or inverted hindquarters. In the best of these works, such as Squeeze, 1978–79—in which two inverted hindquarters “squeeze” a horse’s head—visual and spatial tension is created by the careful balancing of the fragments rendered in black outline against the white ground. The negative spaces become active compositional elements, something that also occurs in many of the untitled paintings of arms and of human heads spewing vomit that Rothenberg made in 1978. In the early ’80s, the artist made a series of works that combined human heads and hands, which were perhaps the most successful in the show. Black Head, 1980–81, beautifully captures the spontaneity and freshness of the small crayon drawings that initiated the series. Mysterious and symbolic in its presence, it also conveys a sense of the archetypal and primitive qualities generally absent from the horse pictures.

The works produced in the mid ’80s represent another radical shift for Rothenberg, who at that point turned to figures in motion. Unfortunately, these paintings are probably her least effective. Though rendered in a looser, more expressionistic style, the brushwork seems calculated and repetitive. Falling into regularized pat-terns, it doesn’t convey any real sense of spontaneity or motion. In one of these works, Bucket of Water, 1983–84, a time-lapse image of a person dousing himself with a bucket of water only just manages to illustrate the idea of motion, as the broken brushwork blurs the scene. In Orange Break, 1989–90, using similar motifs but returning to a simpler format, she draws two interlocking nudes (in black) against an orange ground. Here, the tension created by the donutlike shape of these two figures, one male and one female, is heightened by the spontaneity of the coarse, erratic brushwork.

This impressive work demonstrates that Rothenberg is, above all, a draughtsman. It is her drawings that consistently impress us with their conviction—the untitled drawings of horse parts from 1979, though modest in size, are gripping in their tortured brushwork which echoes the presence of the artist’s hand. Yet she seems determined to turn her back on this talent, struggling to translate her drawings into big paintings. Perhaps she has sensed that in the art world success too often means making large, museum-sized works.

Howard Risatti