New York

Susan Rothenberg

What is most intriguing about Susan Rothenberg’s new paintings is the tension between gesture and object, as if an ironic reciprocity existed between them. The accidents involving horses that she depicts in her paintings are emblematic of the almost random quality of her brushstrokes. Peculiarly inhibited—on the verge of a spontaneous discharge stifled by reluctant control—her gestures denote a struggle with instinctive aggression rather than with Eros. In a 1994 painting, the skull, rocks, and bones float on a poisonous yellow background with which they seem on the verge of melding, epitomizing the death they bespeak.

Death and violence, accidental and otherwise, are in fact the “themes”—both subliminal and explicit—of Rothenberg’s paintings. They are ultimately less evident in the objects depicted than in their entropic scatter across the picture plane, which evokes a sense of isolation, abandonment, and vulnerability. They seem grounded in personal experience (her life on the ranch with husband Bruce Naumann), which is a relief from all the recent painting that circles, in self-defeating hermeticism, around the idea of painting. It is a pleasure to look at works that find an emotional use for the medium. The presence of what appears to be Rothenberg’s hand in several works—for example, Maggie’s Ponytail, 1993–94—suggests an intense personal engagement with paint as well as with subject matter.

Rothenberg, however, is also answerable to the history of painting, and when considered in this light her work seems, at times, to emulate—with an almost caricatural flair—that of Georg Baselitz. This comparison immediately serves to foreground the peculiar inadequacy of these works: her painterliness is less adventurous and mysterious than Baselitz’s, and her upside-down forms—ironically conspicuous in Yellow Skull (Kiki’s Legs), 1993–94, and Calling the Dogs, 1993–94—have less existential import than his. Rothenberg is generally more descriptive and less sublimely abstract than Baselitz, as a comparison between her Hawk, 1993–94, and almost any of his eagles suggests. She paints a scene, rather than hovering on (and ultimately subverting) the line between symbol and sensation, while Baselitz intensifies an emblem-idea until it shatters into raw sensation. Rothenberg tried but failed to achieve such an effect in her earlier horse paintings, which is perhaps why she has begun to do the opposite: to gather irksome sensations until they seem just on the verge of becoming a broadly meaningful symbol. Here her “sensational” horse never becomes a schematic universal, as it has in the past; it remains living and emotionally disturbing, an incoherent conglomeration of random parts. The result is, after all, perhaps as brilliant as Baselitz’s, even if it leads us in a different direction. This direction is perhaps the work’s main virtue, for Rothenberg’s use of fragmentation and the oscillation between idea and feeling in these works create an ambiguity that seems true to feeling.

Donald Kuspit