Remembering Susan Rothenberg, 1945–2020
Artists and curators pay tribute to a painter who reinvented figuration.
Susan Rothenberg has left an indelible mark on the art world and on MoMA’s collection. Her work has been admired by multiple generations of curators and supporters. As a result, the Museum’s holdings reflect all of the mediums she explored—painting, drawing, and printmaking—over much of her long and remarkable career.
Susan, however, was first and foremost an artist’s artist. When Angela Westwater, her longtime gallerist and fervent advocate, and I spoke about how best to honor her memory, we thought it fitting to weave together the voices of a few artists close to Susan. Joan Jonas, Guillermo Kuitca, Amy Sillman, and Michael Singer answered our call. They were soon joined by Kathy Halbreich, director of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and MoMA curator Michelle Kuo.
—Christophe Cherix, The Robert Lehman Foundation Chief Curator of Drawings and Prints
Susan Rothenberg. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 1988
Susan Rothenberg was a visionary artist. We met around 1969 and became friends. I asked her to work with me. Working together brings closeness. One’s memories are often inspired by photographs. I see Susan in my work and remember some moments clearly.
In one photo, Mirror Piece (1969), she is sitting on Keith Hollingsworth’s shoulders and holding his head. He’s holding a mirror. And then Susan and Jonas rolling over and over on the floor, facing each other, with a piece of glass between them. Or Susan leaning against a slanting piece of glass propped against my body, on her back, while in the background George Trakas and Keith work with another large piece of glass.
Alan Saret cut a rectangular hole in the floor of his loft on Spring Street; Underneath was staged there in 1970. On a platform below this hole Susan, Gwenn Thomas, and Jonas lie naked under a large piece of glass, their bodies crushed a bit as two men, Trakas and Hollingworth, roll big potatoes back and forth on the glass. Jackie Winsor throws a bucket of water on the glass from above. The audience sees this indirectly, reflected in a row of tilted mirrors. Susan performed several actions in the Jones Beach Piece (1970), but the most iconic image is the one of her tied to a six-foot hoop, arms and legs outstretched, as she is rolled around over the landscape by Trakas and John Erdman.
Susan trusted the situations. I continue to be inspired by her sensibility and imagination. She encouraged me. She liked my dog drawings and she also loved dogs. During the last 10 years we drifted apart at times but were close when we met. We last spent time together when I visited her and Bruce in New Mexico in 2004. It was a special time. Susan had rescued several dogs and she was devoted to them. We took long walks on the land near her house with the dogs. She showed me her stone collection. I also collect stones and she found some for me. I still treasure these fossil-like objects, especially two small round rusted iron balls she gave me. I loved her painting—her imagery so strange, so strong. Horses—not simple representations, but divided, sectioned, silhouettes flattened. Later the human figures taken apart, brush strokes on a surface that seemed to be moving, that was continuously becoming.
—Joan Jonas, artist
Susan Rothenberg. Untitled Drawing, No. 41. 1977
Susan and I met in 1963, as freshmen in Cornell’s Fine Arts Program. Susan’s major was sculpture and mine was painting. Our classmates in the Architecture Program included Gordon Matta-Clark and Alan Saret, who were among several architecture majors who later became noted visual artists. As Susan used to say, “So much for relying on the academy to define our future work.”
After graduation, I moved to New York and for $100 a month, rented a 3500-square-foot abandoned synagogue on the corner of Canal and Ludlow Streets, my residence and studio. Susan had returned to Buffalo where she grew up. It was the late 1960s, and the dawn of a new artistic vibrancy centered in lower Manhattan. I remember many late-night phone calls encouraging Susan to come to New York, where several of our Cornell friends had settled, and I invited her to stay with me. I still smile when recalling Susan’s arrival at my converted studio. She wheeled in a large suitcase on a skateboard; it remains among my possessions. Soon, Susan decided that New York was the place to be, and moved to her first loft on the Lower West Side, where she lived and worked for several years.
George Trakas was a close friend in my early New York days. Susan, George and I would hang out at various SoHo lofts where performing artists like Joan Jonas invited folks to explore improvisational movement, often asking us to join in one of the performances taking place at various sites around the city. I also recall the Thursday evenings we spent with dancers and artists, helping to develop some of Yvonne Rainer’s work at her place on Green Street. In 1970, 112 Greene Street opened. George was one of the first artists to show there, as were Cornell friends Saret and Matta-Clark.
Life in Soho in the late ’60s, early ’70s, was as inspirational as it was aspirational. Susan and I spent long hours discussing our and others’ work, sharing ideas. As she became more involved with the two-dimensional, she encouraged me to explore sculpture. She became a fervent champion of my work, just as I was of Susan and her newfound love of painting.
In 1971, George and I were selected for the Guggenheim Museum’s Ten Young Artists Theodoron Award Exhibit. As I pondered what became for me a life-changing event, Susan’s support and encouragement were elemental to dealing with my fears of the expectations and constraints the art world might place on me.
Soon after the Guggenheim exhibit, I left the city and moved to a remote area of Vermont. Surrounded by the natural world, I found the expression that had become elusive in the urban environment of lower Manhattan. In the late 1980s, I greatly enjoyed learning that Susan left the city to live in her far-off world in New Mexico. Despite our distance, Susan’s wisdom—and her clear understanding of an artist’s research, questioning and exploration—will remain close to me.
—Michael Singer, artist
Susan Rothenberg. Biker. 1984
Last year, I was lucky to join Angela Westwater as she visited Susan Rothenberg and Bruce Nauman at their ranch in Galisteo, New Mexico. At a time when the words isolation and seclusion define our daily lives, the ranch takes them to epic proportions. The artists we were visiting were truly epic.
Susan was working on what would be her last exhibition, and showed us the paintings scattered throughout her studio. This was her private space, where she had the freedom to lose herself and produce without scrutiny. The place expressed her way of being; there were only a few canvases, but I never felt her work so vividly.
Susan spoke about one painting in particular. She referred to the woman in the painting as a “pianist playing Schubert.” She said that she had watched her on YouTube. I was curious to know which piece she was playing. There was nothing in that painting yet that anticipated the finished work, except for the ghost of the figure and the piano.
A while ago, the New York Times published a story about some of most surprising moments in music, and included one from a late Schubert sonata, in which the music fades, giving way to a long unnerving trill. I can’t help comparing Rothenberg’s late painting Pianist Playing Schubert with the composer’s late piano Sonata in B-flat major. For me, there is no doubt that this is the piece being played in her painting. In the painting, the piano that I admired has also vanished, leaving us face to face with the pianist holding an impossible pose. This is not just one of Susan’s many wonderful paintings—it’s also one of the most surprising moments in art.
—Guillermo Kuitca, artist
Susan Rothenberg. Untitled (Geese). 1999
Susan Rothenberg. Black in Place. 1976
Susan was a few years older than me. When she received critical accolades for her first solo exhibition, in 1975, I was four years out of college and still imagining that I would someday, maybe, become a real painter or writer. I wasn’t certain what it meant to be a real artist, but suspected it required a recognition of necessity I wasn’t sure I possessed. I didn’t know what I needed to paint.
Seeing Susan’s next show, at the Willard Gallery in 1976, made me a little itchy. There was nothing familiar about it. Confronted with cartoon-like imagery that flirted with humor— something that was not generally appreciated as a sign of serious art—I remember being perplexed. Perhaps this was because my teachers, practitioners of color field painting, were allergic to illusion and adamantly, flatly, engaged with abstraction. Susan’s paintings were of big, galloping horses with Xs drawn aggressively across their curiously inelegant bodies as if to cancel what I was seeing while simultaneously calling into question what was going on. These pink-inflected action figures were not the delicate ponies young girls yearned for.
The horse paintings provided a delayed pleasure accompanied by a sting; almost everything I knew about painting looked different from these canvases and, consequently, I had to begin learning all over again. Susan made her own rules: the paintings weren’t exactly figurative nor were they entirely abstract. What they were was a purposeful and slightly loony exegesis on the possibilities of painting at a time when attention had shifted away from the expressionist hand of the painter towards a manufactured minimalism. But it was impossible to stand back from the rush of her fleshy brush marks and the vibration of the repeated black outlines searching for the central horse shape. Susan knew what she wanted to paint, how she wanted to paint it, and why. While her “why,” appropriately, allowed for more questions than answers, the work still threw off an air of intellectual assurance.
Those were turbulent times, and Susan, in fighting for her way forward, was at least unconsciously mocking the drained heroics that shaped so many of decade’s political and artistic leaders. Below the well-worked surface of her canvases lurked a critique of the systems of authority that were responsible for public monuments celebrating a victorious general on his faithful steed. A symbol that has grown empty over time, these figures don’t convey the specific reasons that prompted the brutal actions that preceded those victories. In the spring of 1975, after nearly sinking five US presidents and taking well over one million lives, the protracted Vietnam war resolved in a unified communist regime. Many of us didn’t care then that the war had been lost, only that it was over. In October of the same year, the Daily News ran a headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead in 1975.” New York City was going broke and you had to be tough to survive and to find a community.
Susan danced with Joan Jonas and was good friends with Elizabeth Murray, a like-minded artist whose first retrospective of abstract, shaped canvases containing pictures of daily life I co-organized in 1987. Sometimes Elizabeth and I would laugh about how autobiographical her inventions were—and how men would never dare to do this. Just as in Susan’s paintings, it was easy to find references to the art history she loved filtered through her own private life. These two women shared a lot and were generous in sharing it with other female artists: a fearless pursuit of imagery that speaks unapologetically of care, a brave willingness to pursue tenderness as the loaded brush hit the canvas, and tenacity even though they often were forgotten when attention-grabbing international exhibitions of cigar-smoking men were being organized in Europe. Susan and Elizabeth, along with many other women artists, just continued to go about their business, making bits and pieces of their emotional life as physically and formally convincing and inventive as possible.
I learned a lot about what it meant to be a “real” human being from both of them: how it was possible as a mother to pursue a life in the arts, how to be generous but in no way saccharine or sentimental, how to show up even on those days when nothing got defined or chaos reigned, and how to stay close to the things you loved and that gave meaning to your life. A life that for me ultimately found its form in reimagining institutions and organizing exhibitions—I organized two with Susan’s husband Bruce Nauman. During research for the first, I remember us silently watching, in early 1990, televised bombings of the Gulf War while sitting in big chairs in the living room of their New Mexico ranch. I also remember marveling at the extraordinary Native American pots Susan lovingly reconstructed from the shards she found on her walks; that is patience I can not imagine. I believe I only was invited into Susan’s studio once, but I can still see her returning to the house for lunch with a face smeared with paint, as if she had made a meal of her pigments.
I last saw Susan at the opening of Bruce’s second retrospective at MoMA in October, 2018; she told me she hadn’t been well, and she did indeed seem tiny. I was surprised because I always thought of Susan firmly holding her place in space just as she held her own in an argument. My worries about Susan’s frailty were eased some by what I saw at the exhibition that closed at Sperone Westwater Gallery in February, 2020. Her paintings were bigger than what I imagined to be possible, and possessed her customary hard earned rigor and emotional clarity. One drawing I stayed with a long time and took a photo of now reads like something of a premonition: it was a sweet and touching portrait of a sleeping or dead mouse, a creature I imagine routinely found its way into her studio, as did the mice that appeared in one of Bruce’s video installations.
After reading about her death, I was listening to some earlier interviews with Susan; at one point, speaking about a painting that depicts her two arms embracing a beloved dog that had been put down, she says, “If I could put my bleeding fucking heart in it, I would.” That’s probably as succinct a definition of what it means to be a real artist as I have heard. Susan did this every day. We should never forget that.
—Kathy Halbreich, Executive Director, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Susan Rothenberg. Untitled. 1977
Susan Rothenberg’s paintings are built like walls—obdurate, unmoving—yet they seem like portals, always beckoning to a world beyond. When she first showed her work at 112 Greene Street Gallery in New York in 1975, her canvases must have been imposing, like ruins from another time. (The critic Peter Schjeldahl called them “asteroidal.”) Paintings in acrylic and tempera stood nearly 10 feet tall; archaic-seeming, spare, graphic outlines of horses emerged in fields of white-on-white, or earthen crimson and black. In their rawness, Rothenberg’s works echo the brutal cuts into actual buildings and walls (drywall, sheetrock, stucco) made by her peer, Gordon Matta-Clark.
A number of Rothenberg’s landmark paintings are in MoMA’s collection, and together they form a frieze-like unspooling of animal movement, like Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of horses in motion, or the world’s slowest and grandest film strip. A slightly later work, the charcoal and gouache drawing Untitled (1977), is equally kinetic; a single dark hole sits at the center and exerts a palpable gravitational pull. We’ve featured the drawing in the current exhibition Artist’s Choice: Amy Sillman—The Shape of Shape, and Sillman’s inclusion of Rothenberg made me see her work differently. Her art is normally understood as an eruption of representation (or “New Image Painting”) at a time when abstraction reigned. But to me, Rothenberg’s figures never cohere into reference. They never simply become horses or holes; they begin to dissolve. They are not so much pictures of something as they are things themselves, always on the verge of being dismantled: leaps into the void, traces of an unknowable loss.
—Michelle Kuo, The Marlene Hess Curator of Painting and Sculpture
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