Susan Rothenberg was a painter committed to abstract figuration in her more than four-decade career. In the 1970s, she was part of the New Image artists who chose figuration over abstraction. She is known for the rich painterly surfaces of her work done with broad, strong, energetic brushwork.
Rothenberg graduated from Cornell University in 1965 with a B.F.A. She studied at George Washington University and at the Corcoran Museum School in 1967. She was as an assistant for artist Nancy Graves and worked with performance artist Joan Jonas.
In the late 1960s, she was painting in the abstract style popular at the time. However, in the early 1970s, she was painting acrylic semi-abstractions of powerful horses. These iconic images established her reputation in the New York art world. When these life-size equine paintings were first shown, they caused a sensation because Rothenberg re-introduced figuration during the period when Minimalism reigned.
She painted numerous horses – in side view and frontally, stationary and moving – rendering each composition by squeezing paint onto her brush and mixing colors directly onto the canvas. Her six-by-ten foot horse silhouettes were of ungainly, lumbering workhorses. At times Rothenberg would split her horses in two or paint slash marks across their chests or double them to make shadows. Her simplistic, hieratic, singular shapes on canvases without backgrounds combined aspects of Minimalism with figurative art.
Her 1976 “Cabin Fever” and “Four Color Horse” completed the transition from her late 1960s nonfigurative art to the more representational style that emerged soon after. By the late 1980s her signature beasts morphed into other objects or even actions – a frontal view of a horse became a two-pronged shape; hands would appear – disembodied – alongside heads and sometimes silhouetted by smoke.
Never much of a colorist, Rothenberg was always masterful with a palette of black and white. However, reflecting the hues of New Mexico, where she lived since 1990 with her artist husband Bruce Nauman, these colors have been supplemented by rich Indian reds, mustard yellows, and verdant greens. In the 1990s, Rothenberg adopted oil as her favored medium for her paintings.
Her technical use of broad brushstrokes in her “White Deer” 1999-2001 created a fast and furious action of an animal running, as seen from above. The surfaces of her paintings throbbed with energy in “With Martini” 2002 and “Yellow Studio” 2002-2003 where she enlivened the ordinary surfaces of a tabletop and the floor of her study. Her paintings from 2008-2009 showed the aging body in the form of marionettes’ legs, arms, and heads. Depicting body parts, swinging or suspended by strings, suggested the world of adults as they age.
Rothenberg participated in dozens of solo and group exhibitions in galleries and museums throughout the United States and Europe. In 1978, her work was shown in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s survey “New Image Painting.”
Her work is in the permanent collections of more than 40 museums worldwide including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Tate Gallery in London, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Broad Museum, and National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.