Susan Rothenberg, Cabin Fever, 1976, acrylic and tempera on canvas, 67 x 84 1/8".

Susan Rothenberg, Cabin Fever, 1976, acrylic and tempera on canvas, 67 x 84 1/8".

Susan Rothenberg

Miami Art Museum

Susan Rothenberg, Cabin Fever, 1976, acrylic and tempera on canvas, 67 x 84 1/8".

With a mere twenty-five canvases dating from 1976 to 2008, “Susan Rothenberg: Moving in Place” succinctly conveyed how, over the course of the artist’s low-key, four-decade career, she fulfilled her early promise and matured into an insightful, sensitive painter whose latest series may well be her most poignant. This mini retrospective also suggested that the standing interpretations of the sixty-six-year-old artist’s famed early output need revising.

When Rothenberg’s equine paintings were first shown in 1975 at New York’s 112 Greene Street (and, six months later, uptown, at the former Willard Gallery), the now iconic works caused quite a ruckus. Without knowing the work but instead reading what had been written at the time, you might think her six-by-ten-foot horse silhouettes were picture-perfect portraits of Secretariat, who had recently won the Triple Crown. Yet her subjects could more accurately have been described as ungainly, lumbering workhorses. Fleet-footed? Hardly. Rothenberg may have been looking at Eadweard Muybridge’s stop-action photographs—and who wasn’t back then—but she didn’t depict racehorses midstride. Nor was she reining them in. Rather, as hindsight now shows us, when Rothenberg split her horses in two, or painted slash marks across their chests, or doubled them to make shadows, she was right in step with the mid-1970s period style—her simplistic, hieratic, singular shapes on backgroundless canvases were closer to irony-free examples of Minimalism than to figurative works painted a decade later by Eric Fischl or Francesco Clemente or, two decades after that, by John Currin or Lisa Yuskavage. In the Miami exhibition, canvases such as Cabin Fever and Four Color Horse (both 1976), seen alongside Rothenberg’s later works, epitomize the not-so-smooth transition from late-’60s nonfigurative art to the more representational styles that emerged soon after.

It wasn’t long before Rothenberg deconstructed her breakthrough hulking forms, though. By the late ’80s her signature beasts would morph into other objects, or even actions—a frontal view of a horse became a two-pronged shape, and hands would appear, disembodied, alongside heads, sometimes silhouetted by smoke. Never much of a colorist, Rothenberg has always been at her most masterful when limiting her palette to black and white. However, there are moments when, reflecting the hues of New Mexico (where she has lived since 1990), her Indian reds, mustard yellows, and verdant greens serve the work well in creating emphatic passages.

Commentators have long been transfixed by Rothenberg’s imagery and, in turn, have given the more painterly aspects of her work little attention. But in this wonderful retrospective, the artist’s technical development is clearly evident—a whiz with a brush, her broad, practically bald surfaces throbbing with gestural energy, she might at times even be compared to Willem de Kooning. Check out With Martini, 2002, and Yellow Studio, 2002–2003. In both, Rothenberg enlivens even the most ordinary surfaces, whether depicting a tabletop on which a game of dominoes is being played or the floor of her atelier.

This is not to say that Rothenberg’s more recent subject matter is insignificant. Indeed, lately she has gone off in a whole new direction, one that is central to the work’s contemporary reception: Red, 2009, The Master, and Tilt (both 2008) encapsulate the aging body in the form of marionettes’ legs, arms, and a head or two. Depicting body parts swinging, suspended by strings, these three paintings are practically portraits of the places where aches and pains dwell and suggest that Rothenberg has come full circle. Whereas her early work looked as though it were created by a child, Rothenberg’s perspective now encompasses the rough-and-tumble world of adults—a place where dogs maw rabbits, birds make unearthly sounds, and, amid it all, people grow old together.

Phyllis Tuchman