Susan Rothenberg, "Pin Wheel", 1988.

Susan Rothenberg at Modern of Fort Worth

“Moving in Place” opened at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (through Jan. 3, 2010), with future, condensed versions of the show planned for the Georgia OKeeffe Museum in Santa Fe (Jan. 22-May 16, 2010) and the Miami Art Museum (Oct. 15, 2010-Jan. 9, 2011).

Michael Auping, chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth condensed Susan Rothenbergs 35-year career as a performer-turned-painter into a focused exhibition of 25 paintings, titled “Moving in Place.” Auping has known Rothenberg for three decades and worked closely with the artist to select a small group of paintings from her diverse body of work. The choices suggest patterns of seeing and imagining the figure in space, part of a kinetic, often circular pictorial drama. The body of work includes horse paintings, spinning figures, jumping dogs, goats, rabbits and people playing dominoes. It does not include snake paintings, fences, masks or drawing.

“In broad terms, [this exhibit] is about how an artist sees and then reconstructs the world though the frame of a canvas,” Auping writes in the catalog accompanying the show.

Susan Rothenberg

Susan Rothenberg

Auping has pulled together a selection of Rothenbergs disparate paintings to find a link between her early horse paintings and her recent series featuring hanging limbs, suggesting puppets or prosthetics. Standing in her studio surrounded by a group of these paintings created over a year, Rothenberg could offer little explanation to Auping as to their meaning, he recounts in the catalog. “I dont know exactly what they are, or how, or if they relate to any of my other work. Im not sure how I ended up here,” Rothenberg said.

Yet, one thing is evident, this is a series of paintings. They are connected. One leads to another. This was something Rothenberg was searching for in 2005. During a video made about her in season 3 of Art:21  she said: “Id like to get a hold of something and be on that idea for a couple of years at least.” Not since her horse paintings has Rothenberg created a series of more than two paintings.

Susan Rothenberg, "Ghost Rug"

Susan Rothenberg, "Ghost Rug"

For Auping, the biggest obstacle to recognizing the threads that tie the work together lies within her much heralded early horse paintings that marked what critic Peter Schjeldahl called a Eureka art moment, at the time. Painting and drawing a horse whose body floated but was contained in background-less square deemed Rothenberg the defacto head of New Image Painting, a movement that explored ways of making figurative painting surprise. (The group included Robert Moskowitz and Neil Jenney.)

New York, 1975, marked Rothenbergs debut.  The center of the art world rode the waves of American art movements Pop Art and Minimalism.  The alternative space 112 Greene Street was home to downtown performances and shows busily breaking boundaries between disciplines, even as Postmodernism was ushering in such things as Photo-realist painting. When Rothenberg boldly showed three large horse paintings in a solo exhibition at 112 Greene, Peter Schjeldahl, then senior editor for Art in America wrote: “the large format of the pictures was a gesture of ambition,” and that “the mere reference to something really existing was astonishing.”

Susan Rothenberg "Cabin Fever"

Susan Rothenberg "Cabin Fever"

By1993, Schjeldahl was less effusive. He wrote in Artforum: “That the paintings were paintings…was remarkable. Painting had been dead lately, burnt to a crisp by the phenomenological stare.” Those 1975 Rothenberg horse paintings were similar to “Cabin Fever, 1976” the earliest work exhibited in Fort Worth. “[The horse was] my Jasper John flag,” she said in Art:21. “They were acceptable as paintings and acceptable as not going backwards.”

She began to dismantle the horses and reconstruct them with a sense of radial motion. At this time she also began to realize that these horse paintings were surrogate self portraits expressing a type of body empathy and emotional conditions. “I didnt feel comfortable making a complete figure, but I did want to explore the idea of the body. So I started with parts and wholes,” Rothenberg said. “My head is the thinking part and my hand is the painting part, and I wanted to get my hand inside my head.”

Auping curates “Untitled (Black Head)” (1980-81), “Folded Buddha” (1987-88) and “Pin Wheel” (1988) as works that stretch the boundaries of figuration and explore the disorientation between the human body and our perception of it in a space (a theme Rothenberg also explored with Joan Jonas, in performance).

Another shift in the show is 1990, when Rothenberg moved to Galisteo, NM, where she still lives with her husband Bruce Nauman. Rothenberg describes the move as very disorienting and a time of significant change in her painting. Auping suggests, “The restlessness of the artists psyche seems to have merged with the unpredictability of rural life.” His entire exhibition swirls around “Orange Break” (1989-90). Its not the color that is the key for Rothenberg; it is the break in the figure depicted as flipping back on itself. “I think the figure in this painting represents an extreme stretching of emotional energy,” Rothenberg said in the catalog.

Susan Rothenberg, "Folded Buddha"

Susan Rothenberg, "Folded Buddha"

But Auping supposes that since 1990, Rothenbergs paintings have been more influenced by art history and specifically her memories of early Modernist art she examined at Albright-Knox Gallery, in her hometown of Buffalo, NY.  He inscribes as influential Pablo Picassos “Nude Figure” (1909-10), Morgan Russells “Synchrony in Orange: To Form” (1913-14), Chaim Soutines “Page Boy at Maxims” (1927). He infers that Rothenbergs figures are formed around instability and dislocation, which he ties directly to her dislocation from New York to New Mexico. He laments her disconnection from an avant-garde that mined the photographic and the purely abstract. Auping then says that Rothenberg has taken a reverse trajectory.

“She has become an outsider of sorts, practicing her art on a ranch in relative isolation,” Auping writes in the catalog. Moving away from her avant-garde roots her imagery has turned back toward early Modern figuration.

The link between Rothenberg and early figurative painter Chaim Soutine is point of view. Soutine painted many of his figures, looking down upon them, such as in “The Mad Woman” (1919). Soutines rabbits are found on a plate with forks.  Rothenbergs rabbits are being chased by dogs, But in both perspectives the viewer is looking down at the subject. A perspective Rothenberg only adopted since moving to New Mexico.

In a way, Rothenberg has ended up back where she began. Schjeldahl wrote of Rothenbergs marionettes in the March 16, 2009 New Yorker that “stubborn psychological imbroglio yields, here and there, to passages of breakthrough mastery.” The puppet paintings are not so different from her first horse paintings. Parts come together to create a tension between stillness and motion. The marionette fragments sway in fields of color. They are not complete portraits but fragmented figures controlled by an invisible force. Perhaps that force is truth. Rothenberg said in Art:21 “Im trying for truth. Some kind of truth about some kind of thing.”

Susan Rothenberg, “Pin Wheel”, 1988. 95 x 142¾ inches (241.3 x 363 cm). Collection Miami Art Museum, promised gift of Mimi Floback

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