Gray is pleased to present On Both Sides of My Line, a solo exhibition celebrating the life and work of renowned American painter Susan Rothenberg (1945 – 2020) through key examples of her most iconic series: the profile horse paintings.
Organized with curator Michael Auping, formerly the Chief Curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and with loans from private collections and institutions, On Both Sides of My Line brings renewed focus to the artist’s oeuvre presenting ten early examples from her breakthrough series. First presented at Gray Warehouse, Chicago, the exhibition continues at Gray New York from October 29 through December 10, 2021.
To explore the exhibition in person, schedule a visit to Gray New York.
It was important that I was painting something that was alive. I didn’t want to paint something inanimate. It needed to have flesh and spirit. I guess I wanted to paint the kind of energy you find in the real world rather than the abstract world.
Susan Rothenberg [i]
Created between 1974 and 1977, Rothenberg’s profile horse paintings exemplify a shift in the artist’s approach to abstraction through the introduction and exploration of figuration. Moving away from the influence of Abstract Expressionism, Rothenberg began this seminal series in response to the contemporary zeitgeist of the 1970s.
During this formative period, the horse became Rothenberg’s central instrument for exploring expressive gesture and developing her keen understanding of the picture plane.
The following passages unless otherwise noted are extracts from Auping’s essay “Not Just One Thing,” published in On Both Sides of My Line: Susan Rothenberg's Early Horse Paintings, forthcoming from Gray. Purchase the book here.
For any given period in art history, aesthetic lines and boundaries are established, become a part of that generation’s aesthetics, and then, as history has continually shown us, are invariably crossed by a new generation. It is during such moments that degrees of confusion and excitement reign in the art world.
These moments are often branded by strangely specific, but seemingly out of place, images. In the late 1950s and 1960s, following the apogee of Abstract Expressionism in American art, one thinks of Jasper Johns’s Flags of the late 1950s, Andy Warhol’s Marilyns or Soup Cans of the early 1960s, and Philip Guston’s haunting self-portraits of the late 1960s. These images muddied the pure, otherworldly space of abstraction, at the same time as they kept the train of invention moving in an ever-changing dialogue of action and reaction. By the 1970s, one could add Susan Rothenberg’s early horses in profile to this list of powerfully transitional images.
When I first visited Susan in 1975, I entered a studio filled with mature paintings which were obviously rebelling against the art-world lexicon. It was outrageous to be making paintings, no less ones with figurative images. I was dumbstruck and loved their contrariness.
Miani Johnson [ii]
As Rothenberg said, she was following a lot of interesting directions that she had to trust. For all their apparent directness and simplicity, the early horse paintings were unique hybrids of their time. The 1970s were described as “the pluralist decade.” It was a moment when Minimalism and Color Field painting were being forced to share the stage with Conceptual Art, performance art, contemporary dance, and Neo-Primitivism. The young and inquisitive Rothenberg found herself attracted to all of it.
Rothenberg was one of a number of women—Jackie Windsor and Nancy Graves were among them—who [were] intuitively defying the machine-made slickness and geometries of Minimalism with a more primitive ethos... [Rothenberg’s] blunt, forceful depictions of horses confronted the pervasiveness of Minimalism and Color Field painting, which had cleansed themselves of figuration for two decades. These horses crossed a line.
The horse was just something that happened on both sides of my line.
Susan Rothenberg [iii]
Non Mobilier is a simple, declarative statement in which a blunt, black silhouette of a horse inhabits the center of the painting. The dark profile of the animal etches itself into a sienna background. For all their apparent directness and simplicity, the early horse paintings were unique hybrids of their time. Rothenberg’s interest at the time in the ancient cave paintings in Altamira and Lascaux was one of numerous references for the horse paintings.
The artist’s choice of a sienna background was deliberate, providing the appropriate earthen-looking surface of a cave. The sienna background would appear in many of the artist’s paintings over the next few years. The concept of making a “postmodern cave painting” appealed to the artist’s ironic side, as did painting an image of an animal that was one of the first subjects in the history of painting.
In Two Tone (1975), the horse is divided into two equally sized color planes, white and sienna. The abutment of the two colors animates the entire space of the painting, creating a kind of binocular vision. The horse profile seems to flutter slightly in this space.
I loved her painting, her imagery—so strange, so strong. Horses: not simple representations but divided, sectioned, silhouettes flattened.
-Joan Jonas [iv]
Many of the early horse profiles were black, a color that the artist thought of as having "an inner presence that wasn’t just about the surface." In fact, the surfaces of her black figures and grounds are stunningly textured, but they also suggest a psychological plane. Georgia O’Keeffe once observed that, "There’s something about black. You feel hidden away in it."
Rothenberg’s use of black fits this thought. Flanders (1976) presents a black horse on a black ground. The dark brushstrokes play with the eyes, creating ambiguous shadows in and around the figure. Thin white highlights trace the horse’s profile, which can give the impression that the animal is backlit or has some sort of inner light. Flanders is part animal presence, part atmosphere. One is teased to not just look at the image, but into it as well.
To say that this exhibition consists of horses would be literally correct, but somehow misleading. For it is the quality of the painting that is so impressive—the authority with which a highly simplified image is transformed into a pictorial experience of great sensitivity, even grandeur.
Hilton Kramer [v]
“I didn’t want the horse to be neutral," Rothenberg has said. “I wanted it to have more guts, if that makes any sense. The same way an abstract painter would want their gestures to say something about them or the world. I don’t know exactly how that happens, but somehow in the course of painting it does, if things go well... It was never about making a pretty horse. It was something else."
In 1974, as she was developing her horse imagery, Rothenberg had Polaroid photos taken of herself mimicking a four-legged animal. Nude and facing left profile against her studio wall, she appears ready to spring into action like a horse out of the gates. These Polaroid photographs were a transition in a kind of shamanistic transformation from dance and performance into painting.
Physically as well as emotionally, Rothenberg projected parts of herself into each of the horses. Cabin Fever (1976) is almost balletic in appearance. The horse glides over the surface of the painting, its legs posed in an equine leap from the floor. The horse’s lean, muscular build is comparable to Rothenberg’s body in her Polaroid photographic studies.
Rothenberg’s horses deal with relationships of shape to edge, figure to ground, surface to depth, and part to whole. By bisecting her canvas vertically or diagonally, she makes the viewer reassemble the halved horses. The result is the denial of illusionism. These split horses are never allowed to roam in the field, but, well trained by modernism, they stay on the field.
By 1978, only four years after she painted First Horse, she began to tear her horses apart, literally disembodying their heads and legs. In some cases, the horse was turned forward, like a standing person looking directly at us with nothing but a shadow behind them. Over the short course of a year, the horses were completely re-internalized, and then somehow reincarnated into a wide range of expressionist and autobiographical images that engaged Rothenberg through the 1980s until well into the next century.
The early horses were gone, but they remain hard to forget. Now, after almost half a century, their impact, like that of other great images in art history, is that of poignant markers of a particularly dynamic moment—in this case, the pivotal experimentation of the 1970s. It is very hard to imagine that decade without Rothenberg’s horses charging their way through the center of it.
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Artworks © 2021 The Estate of Susan Rothenberg / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Susan Rothenberg (1945-2020) was an American painter, printmaker, sculptor, and draftswoman. Born in Buffalo, New York, Rothenberg first gained recognition as an artist in 1975 with her first New York solo exhibition at 112 Greene Street, and, in 1978, was thereafter included in New Image Painting at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Celebrated for the iconic profile horse paintings she created during this period, Rothenberg only painted horses for a short period and quickly moved on to explore other subjects through the 1980s including heads, hands and other fragments of the human form. These subsequent motifs evolved into a series of figures in motion including dancers, vaulters, spinners and jugglers. These complex and symbolic figurative works were characteristically full of color and movement.
Rothenberg lived and worked in New York until 1990 when she moved to New Mexico with fellow artist and husband, Bruce Nauman. Inspired by her new physical surroundings, Rothenberg’s later work drew upon imagery from her daily life in the New Mexico desert. As in her earlier works, these paintings are characterized by thickly layered, energetic brushwork and exhibit the artist’s enduring interest in exploring the relationship between images and surface. Susan Rothenberg died on May 18, 2020, in New Mexico.
i. Susan Rothenberg, quoted in Michael Auping, Susan Rothenberg: Moving in Place (Fort Worth: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth), 13.
ii. Miani Johnson, quoted in Joan Jonas, "A Visionary," in On Both Sides of My Line: Susan Rothenberg’s Early Horse Paintings (Chicago: Gray Chicago/New York) 14.
iii. Rothenberg, quoted in Michael Auping, "Not Just One Thing," in On Both Sides of My Line, 45.
iv. Jonas, "A Visionary," 14.
v. Hilton Kramer, "Susan Rothenberg," New York Times, April 24, 1976, 17.