New York

Susan Rothenberg

Though superficially the resemblances are few, Susan Rothenberg’s new paintings kept reminding me of her Mondrian homages of the mid ’80s. Only when it struck me that the off-center, off-angled card table in Red Poker, 1996–97, would make an ideal shape for an Ellsworth Kelly did the import of this recollection finally dawn on me: many of Rothenberg’s new paintings revolve around what has emerged as a pivotal issue of how to incorporate geometry as a vehicle to impose pictorial order.

The problem is an important one for Rothenberg because, as her paintings become more complex, they cry out for a perspicuous organizing principle. She obviously doesn’t have Robert Ryman’s option of modulating a pure flow of texture, nor does she seem capable of implying an underlying order amidst a welter of crunching disjunctions, like Robert Colescott. Rothenberg wants the basic marks out of which her images are constructed to function nondescriptively and yet they are still there to describe an image. As a result, her unkempt surfaces with their dryish, grainy texture and dour palette typically look searching and approximative, even indecisive, as though she resisted or avoided the easy facility of just hitting the mark.

That she overcomes this indefiniteness, after all, and succeeds in defining an image is part of the pathos of Rothenberg’s art. Inherent in her method is a possibility that the painting will work at cross-purposes to itself, that the surface will utterly fail to organize. Only when the image attains a certain simple representational force, the almost brutal concreteness that was the strength of her best early horse paintings and, even more, of the spectral heads that followed them, do her images cohere, their unsettling indirectness lending them an alluring mystery. Here that force is most manifest in a remarkable small painting, Cat-Fists, 1996–97; yet for all its strength, this work looks back toward Rothenberg’s previous accomplishments rather then forward. In an ambitious mess like White Poker, 1997, on the other hand, the image turns out to be as unfixed as the marks that delineate it. The painting’s contents slip in and out of position. Even in a simpler painting like Head With Arm (Yellow), 1996–97, the hits of imagery just sort of float disconsolately in an atmosphere to which they bear no determinate relation, not even one of antithesis.

So Rothenberg’s problem—her gestural paintings’ hunger for order—has something to do with locating things in her compositions rationally. In Red Poker, whose tilted overhead angle has more to do with Expressionist cinema than Expressionist painting, the clear delineation of the table makes possible its centrifugal pressure against the enclosing rectangle of canvas, creating the tension that permeates this quotidian subject. It is this geometric tension that sets off the painting’s thematic resonance (its disconnection, for example, of the players’ heads and hands).

Such paintings have a curious quality of muffled intensity that is characteristic of Rothenberg’s work. In Canadian Geese, 1996–97, two birds make their way through the thick atmosphere of grayish paint with palpable effort. From the upper-left corner of the canvas the head of an unseen figure observes them through a window—another geometrical device. The fact that this window is improbably located above the flying geese does not register as arbitrary; rather, this is how Rothenberg touches on an essential paradox of viewership, the way it creates a sense of mastery even over what slips away from it.

Barry Schwabsky