“You have to fight yourself at every turn, so that you’re not repetitive or taking an easy solution.”
“You have to find things that interest you and find interesting ways of rendering them,” the artist Susan Rothenberg has said. “You have to fight yourself at every turn, so that you’re not repetitive or taking an easy solution.”
Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1945, Susan Rothenberg became interested in art at an early age, inspired by her grandfather, a house painter, and trips to Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery. After studying painting at Cornell University, she traveled, landing in New York, where she became involved in performance art, working with artist Joan Jonas. By 1974 Rothenberg painted her first picture of a horse, the animal that would soon become the subject of the iconic series of paintings she made over the next few years. “This image of a horse was also more emotionally charged,” she would later reflect. “People look at the image of a horse and they have associations—of power, movement, heaviness. It’s a living thing.” For the artist, the horse served as a device for undermining the prevailing conventions of painting. Though plainly representational, the subject allowed Rothenberg to experiment with new forms of abstraction, diverging from the largely minimalist and conceptual practices of her peers.
In 1975, Rothenberg had her first solo exhibition at 112 Greene Street, an artist-run space that was a nexus for artists in Soho. Comprising three large horse paintings, the show proved to be pivotal for the artist and was widely acclaimed by critics, who recognized then and now that Rothenberg’s paintings “introduced symbolic imagery into Minimalist abstraction.” The exhibition marked the beginning of Rothenberg’s 45-year career, and established her ability to translate nearly any subject matter into an emotionally charged and aesthetically innovative painting language.
By the 1980s, Rothenberg had expanded upon her horse motif and introduced new subjects, nearly always drawn from her surroundings: she painted disembodied heads and limbs, dancing figures, other animals, interior spaces. Throughout the decade she participated in many solo and group exhibitions, though never as the sole female artist: “I’m not going to tell them who they should put in,” she said in 1982. “But from now on I won’t be the only woman.”
Rothenberg moved from New York to New Mexico in 1990, joining her husband Bruce Nauman, who was living outside of Santa Fe. There, Rothenberg incorporated a new perspective into her painting, introducing a high vantage point inspired by the landscape. In addition to painting her environment and what she saw out of her window, she also began basing paintings on memories of observed events.
Rothenberg died in May 2020. Several years earlier, speaking to an interviewer about the public reception of her work, she remarked, “I certainly don’t expect to get a lot of applause for this. They getcha or they don’t.”
Lydia Mullin, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2022