Confidential Evaluation of Your Susan Rothenberg

Susan Rothenberg

Susan Rothenberg was born on January 29, 1945 in Buffalo, New York. She grew up in an affluent family where her father was a very successful produce wholesaler. She studied sculpture at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and earned a BFA in 1967. However, the instructors of the young artist said that Susan Rothenberg had no talent for sculpture. This discouraging advice compelled Susan Rothenberg to travel to an island in Greece for five months. 


After her time abroad Susan Rothenberg returned to the United States and studied briefly at the Corcoran School of Art and George Washington University in Washington, DC. Neither educational setting engaged Susan Rothenberg enough to remain there, so in 1969 she moved to New York City with the intent to study dance with Deborah Hay and Joan Jonas. In 1970, Susan Rothenberg began to work as a studio assistant to Nancy Graves, which would be the role that propelled her into the contemporary art community. In 1971, Susan Rothenberg married a fellow artist, George Trakas, and in 1972 their daughter Maggie was born.


Through the position of assistant to Nancy Graves, Susan Rothenberg was able to enter the art world in a way she had never been able to before. At the time Nancy Graves was working on life-size sculptures of camels, and Susan Rothenberg began to pursue finding her own influential figure. Starting with the sketch of a horse she made in 1973, Susan Rothenberg developed a series that would become an introspective body of work for the next decade. In 1974, Susan Rothenberg exhibited a series of life-size horse images that would begin her fame as an artist. Instead of adhering to the abstract style that many painters in the 1970’s were influenced by, Susan Rothenberg embraced the two-dimensional horse figure, turning her work into a group of strong symbolic images. This series highlighted Susan Rothenberg as a leader of the New Image painting movement. This movement was causing painters of the mid-seventies to leave behind the techniques of minimalism and explore more expressive marks. During her career, Susan Rothenberg became widely recognized as a skilled semi-figurative expressionist painter and printmaker. 


The seemingly childlike series of images by Susan Rothenberg is an accomplished blending of abstraction and figuration that she created as an outlet for self-expression. Many began to see the horses as a series of self-portraits due to how clearly her emotional state was represented in each painting. The New York art community in the early 1970’s was still very male-dominated, and Susan Rothenberg was soon seen as one of the influential female artists of the time. Throughout the 1970’s Susan Rothenberg would continue to evolve the horse figure, breaking it down to essential forms, and always utilizing her strong mark that would allow her to think through the paintings she created. Susan Rothenberg spent time with her series, developing it to its fullest until she was able to recognize it as her own vehicle for psychological consideration.


Susan Rothenberg continued to explore the new era of figuration into the 1980s, attempting to express her imagination in a more complex and engaging way. In 1980, Susan Rothenberg put aside the horse icon and created a new series that focused on paintings of the head and the hand. This series of body paintings was originally a reaction to the fundamental way Susan Rothenberg perceived herself when she created art. When Susan Rothenberg painted she saw herself as only a head and hands, feeling that those were the components she directly owed the creation of her art to. Susan Rothenberg also grew to see the head and hand paintings as an expression of emotional need and confusion, some of which was triggered by her recent divorce with George Trakas in 1979. The series dissolves the majority of the human form leaving only hands and head painted in thick, aggressive layers alone in space. There is a lot of restrained emotion within this series that creates the sense of withheld information, yet maintains a confronting quality. The head and hand series marked the beginning of an artistic technique in which Susan Rothenberg would combine a painterly stroke with the visual impact of a figure in space. The painterly quality of her mark would continue to be a component of the paintings that Susan Rothenberg would be well known for.


In 1981, Susan Rothenberg spent the summer on Long Island experimenting with oil paints instead of acrylics, and found a wealth of inspiration in depicting the landscapes around her. Susan Rothenberg became entranced with the feel and look of oil paints while she worked with them that summer. In previous paintings Susan Rothenberg had been very frank about creating a flat, blunt painting. Through the fluidity of oil painting Susan Rothenberg allowed herself to expand the use of depth and dimension in her paintings. Susan Rothenberg became playful with her mark and explored a new way to locate herself through the marks she made as her relationship with oil painting blossomed. The subject matter of her work in the early eighties continued to focus on body awareness as Susan Rothenberg painted movements and actions that inspired her. Susan Rothenberg encountered the exciting challenge of representing movement as both chaotic and controlled in her work. In order to do this Susan Rothenberg explored the elimination of gravity and greatly expanded the color palette in her paintings in order to represent the feelings created through action. This preference of creating a series of paintings instead of one painting at a time would prove to be a consistent trend in her career. The attraction Susan Rothenberg had to the format of a sequence of paintings provided her with motivation for experimentation and development as an artist. 


From 1983 to 1985 Susan Rothenberg began to feel a need to depict something different than what she felt within her, and focused on having family, friends, and pets be the new figures in her artwork. Susan Rothenberg became fascinated with the feelings that resonated from others through action and expression. One of the studies of another person’s expressive self is the portrait series Susan Rothenberg created of Piet Mondrian, an artist who had been a great influence to her. Beginning with an untitled drawing Susan Rothenberg thought resembled Mondrian, she developed several other paintings that represented her artistic idol. In this series Susan Rothenberg allowed herself the freedom of experimentation with body movement, an array of colors, and the defining light source. The process of inspiration for a painting from a drawing or sketch was common for Susan Rothenberg. Rarely satisfied enough with a drawing to call it finished, Susan Rothenberg grew to see painterly potential in the doodles and pencil marks she would make in reflective moments. However, the initial painting of the Mondrian series was the first time Susan Rothenberg felt compelled to create a painting that closely mimicked the mark and quality of one of her drawings. Through this painting of Mondrian Susan Rothenberg began to see a closer connection between her drawn mark and painted stroke.


In the late eighties Susan Rothenberg would continue to experiment with speed and motion by painting dancers, bikers, vaulters, and jugglers. Susan Rothenberg learned to depict these scenes through erratic brushstrokes and diverse colors that often represent each step of the figure’s movement. These paintings depicting motion express a sense of freedom that is a great contrast to the attempts Susan Rothenberg had made to restrain emotion in her past art. Utilizing drawing to expand her use of line variety, Susan Rothenberg experimented with the effect broad, gestural lines had on her paintings. Susan Rothenberg was influenced to create these works from her study of dance and performance art. Susan Rothenberg delved into a new project of creating dancer paintings, which were a surprise to her audience due to the combination of their graceful and frantic characteristics. Throughout the motion paintings there are autobiographical references to her past experiences with dance as well as references to aspects of her other paintings. One of the final endeavors of the motion era is a six-piece mural of the moving dancer image that had been such an important inspiration to Susan Rothenberg throughout her life. The key motivation behind the dancer icon was to integrate the earlier attempts in her work to rid her figures from anatomical confines while also eliminating the distinction between figure and ground. In 1988, Susan Rothenberg took a regression in her subject matter and created paintings that were based on figural abstraction. Several of these paintings revolved around the image of the Buddha, and were painted with a deep blue color. Susan Rothenberg explained this phase as an attempt to look at the concept of motion at a much slower pace.


In 1989, Susan Rothenberg married the artist Bruce Nauman, and began to consider the idea of leaving her home in New York City to live with Nauman in his home in New Mexico. Susan Rothenberg experimented with colorful portraits of her daughter and husband, often using a specific U-turn shape to depict the body. Susan Rothenberg saw this curved image as a representation of how she felt in that period of transitions. The paintings represent confliction, but also emotional exuberance based on the idea of change. In 1990, Susan Rothenberg decided to move with her husband to New Mexico due to their recent marriage and her lack of inspiration and fulfillment in her life in New York. Initially Susan Rothenberg traveled back to New York often to stay connected with the urban art world, but as this community became less exciting to her she began settling into life in New Mexico. As Susan Rothenberg left New Mexico less and less she abandoned the pursuits of depicting emotional conflict due to transition. When she became comfortable and curious about the idea of living in such a different environment, the work of Susan Rothenberg underwent a transformation. 


After years of painting horses, Susan Rothenberg began to interact with and ride living horses for the first time in her life. Susan Rothenberg formed a new connection to the horse figure in an athletic, intimate way that was very separate from her initial horse series. Returning to such a familiar figure in a completely different setting inspired Susan Rothenberg to paint the animals, landscapes, and experiences she encountered in day-to-day life. By replacing urban New York with this new rural environment Susan Rothenberg saw a great deal of beauty in the array of natural moments and began to take more liberties with her methods as an artist. Susan Rothenberg began to embrace the colors of New Mexico in these paintings, evoking a new passion in her work through the deep oranges, reds, and browns. After observing workmen plastering the exterior of her home with clay, Susan Rothenberg added a palette knife to her collection of tools, creating thick foundation layers on her paintings. As she settled into New Mexico Susan Rothenberg realized the energy force in the environment around her was much greater than the creative force within her. This life force tapped into her inspiration and Susan Rothenberg utilized art to express her process of becoming acquainted to this new environment.


In New Mexico Susan Rothenberg gained inspiration from the dark side of nature, such as the ferocity she saw between animals and the brutality that existed in an unforgiving landscape. Susan Rothenberg referred to this dynamic as “the melodrama in nature”, and this concept assisted her in creating a new body of work. Susan Rothenberg would paint the bloody scene of what her dogs dragged in from the woods, or the painful event of a horse that had stumbled on a run. By reducing these scenes to a composite sequence of events Susan Rothenberg gives enough information to allude to the narrative, but not to over analyze the event. These narratives are an attempt to explain the emotional experiences Susan Rothenberg has had that she feels painting is the best format of description. Along with her transition to more dramatic subject matter, the perspective Susan Rothenberg uses in her paintings became more extreme while living in New Mexico. The viewpoint is often from a bird’s eye view, or as if you are looking at the scene from the lowest ground level. This tilted perspective adds to the uneasy feeling of the energy her paintings create. Susan Rothenberg believes that through depicting these moments she will not only exude the feelings the event created in her, but she will be able to capture the memory. It is what Susan Rothenberg sees as an artistic expression of memory, which she believes to be superior to other documents of events in one’s life. 


The work that Susan Rothenberg pursues in New Mexico continues to engage the viewer emotionally through the passionate scenes, while maintaining the mystery that is often only solved through an explanatory title. In her current work Susan Rothenberg depicts how she engages with her environment in order to create a collection of psychological and autobiographical work.


Sources include:

Susan Rothenberg: Moving in Place, Michael Auping and Barbara Buhler Lynes, Prestel Publishing USA, New York, NY, 2009

Susan Rothenberg, Joan Simon, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, NY, 2006

Susan Rothenberg: Paintings from the Nineties, Cheryl Brutvan and Robert Creeley, Rizzoli New York, New York, NY, 2000

Susan Rothenberg, Michael Auping, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Monterrey, Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico,

1996-1997 (catalogue)

Susan Rothenberg: Paintings and Drawings, Michael Auping, Rizzoli New York, New York, NY and Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, 1995

Susan Rothenberg, Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art, Malmo, Sweden, 1990 (catalogue)

Susan Rothenberg: Recent Paintings and Prints, Eliza Rathbone, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, 1985