New York

Susan Rothenberg

Nearly impossible, it seems, not to start with the horses, even though they make no appearance in Susan Rothenberg’s latest canvases. Indeed, it is telling how very thoroughly, since first materializing in her work (over three decades ago), Rothenberg’s equine forms have become identified with the artist and how, in a sense, they would seem to shadow every form she has turned to since (to say nothing of the critical discourse attending her oeuvre). Appearing at a moment—the mid-’70s—when newly minted postmodern ideas were putting heat on painting, Rothenberg’s horses seemed at once to reintroduce representational content and to defer it. Included, for instance, in Richard Marshall’s “New Image Painting” show at the Whitney Museum in 1978 for, presumably, her turn to recognizable images, Rothenberg was nonetheless the first to denounce any attachment to the animal. “The interest in the horse,” she explained in the catalogue, “is because it divides right.”

That Rothenberg has continued to make paintings that would seem to contaminate the lines between abstraction and figuration has been long remarked by writers of different stripes, both admiringly and with frustration. When, responding critically to “New Image Painting,” for instance, Douglas Crimp noted that Rothenberg’s horses “might just as well be grids,” he was not bestowing a compliment but arguing that the artist’s compositions aligned themselves with—rather than disrupted—legacies of modernism. Others have claimed the opposite, implying that an inherent, productive instability prevents Rothenberg’s work from being quite like anything before it. But at the heart of the artist’s practice—one that holds in abeyance any conclusion about her intentions with regard to the larger context and histories of Painting—is a kind of persistence; though of course her images and touch have changed over time, one can see in Rothenberg’s work a commitment to staying the course, undaunted by (though I would argue obviously aware of) whatever conjectures are made, then or now, about the medium’s relevance or trends.

The ten moody, textured canvases in her latest show are variations on another of Rothenberg’s themes: the body in pieces. Here were schematic, rawly rendered heads and arms, legs and torsos, against atmospheric grounds. While ostensibly human, however, the fragments are themselves rendered rather obtuse, things animated but not necessarily alive. For if in a canvas such as Red (all works 2008) there would seem to be more than a hint of pathos and a flicker of consciousness in the unsecured head’s eyes, in other compositions, such as Collapse, the bits and parts tenuously amounting to a human form seem little more than prosthetics, empty signifiers, doll parts, molded plastic and metal joints. And where a work like The Corner would seem to present a more holistic being (a body at least half assembled), it evidences, nonetheless, a kind of emptiness, undercutting assumptions of just what (or who) is represented there.

A number of the paintings show the various body parts as literally strung together (or partially strung together), making overt reference to puppetry, with one picture (Green Bar) even including a pair of hands that seem to be manipulating an arm hanging akimbo from a slender beam. Looking at these images, which portray the human form as suspended between mechanization and materiality (showing, perhaps, the ways that certain forms refuse to “divide right”), I was reminded of Heinrich von Kleist’s famous 1810 essay “On the Marionette Theatre.” Discussing with a dancer friend the irony of the human condition—that consciousness interferes with physical grace—Kleist concludes that the puppet (with its utter lack of will) might best express human emotion simply because it has none of its own.

Johanna Burton