New York

Susan Rothenberg

Modernism was riddled by searches for origins, but it was also marked by near-fatal fixations with real or imagined ends. Pace Hegel, T. J. Clark has suggested that “every modernism has to have its own proximate Black Square.” But Susan Rothenberg would probably substitute Lascaux for Malevich, a nod to a beginning that was already terminal, marked by a conflicting admixture of prolepsis and hindsight that also finds form in the exhibition structure of the retrospective.

Still, “Susan Rothenberg: Drawings 1974–2004” aimed to chart the progress of the artist’s career through more than seventy radically heterogeneous, albeit chronologically installed, works. First came drawings of horses, then drawings of human heads and bodies, then movement studies, and finally more fragmented figures. Despite the unassuming size of many of Rothenberg’s early works, not to mention their seemingly equivalent and teleological placing, their nervy intensity and rapt presence stymied any attempt to move smoothly from one to the next. Whether shown in stasis or in action, horses and dancers alike quiver with frenetic energy, by turns arrested and wildly accelerated.

The manic pathos of certain drawings almost succeeds in transcending their physical substance, but with Rothenberg’s sooty graphic sensibility—sometimes translated from drawing to painting, sometimes left alone on paper—thingness never feels far sublimated. Many works display fingerprints or stray hairs, while others bear the highly visible remnants of an eraser. As part and parcel of the composition, these erasures and their lingering traces become as compelling as the marks themselves in their admission of obdurate material trans- parency and in their refusal of illusionism. Torn paper, archival cellophane tape and masking tape, pencil, crayon, graphite, watercolor, tempera, and acrylic abet this too, but nothing is so primary and inviolate as the x’s and bars that score the surfaces of many horse pictures from the mid- to late ’70s.

Around this time, Rothenberg wrote, “The lines and bars are intended to flatten and clarify what is happening with the image and also allow the viewer to read, reassemble, or in some way get involved with two different kinds of occurrences. The center line keeps one from illusionism, from reading depth into the painting. It can only be read from side to side so that the image is kept very flat.” Although this was clearly meant in relation to her paintings, the point obtains for Rothenberg’s drawings as well, maybe even more so. These formal devices allow for spatial complexities while offering paths of friezelike access that lead you not into but across the support, out of and against which images emerge. The cognitive dissonance customarily wrought by figure/ground relationships is toyed with, yet the effect is neither to introduce depth nor to stabilize the pictorial field.

In contrast to these earlier works, Rothenberg’s manipulations of oil on paper made between 2002 and 2004 finally allow a recognizably corporeal and highly sensate world to flood back in. Glimpses of content manifest and simultaneously threaten to disperse, together with hints of deeper space and those who might inhabit it. Lusciously tactile and surprisingly viscous, limited views (of ears, of limbs, of animals, even) fleetingly coalesce and centrifugally dissolve out from the works’ centers. Figuration is here made partial; perspective is duly contingent. There are no graffiti-like marks this time around, but there is, in the place of canceling x’s and other acts of affirmed negation, a newly seductive iconoclasm.

Suzanne Hudson