Susan Rothenberg at a Drawing Class

susan rothenberg. untitled. charcoal on paper. 1988

Susan Rothenberg is one of the best painters of the post modern era. Her horse paintings of the 1970’s brought something so shockingly new to the art world, which at the time was saturated with pop art and minimalism. As Peter Schjeldal put it: “It was like a great malevolent joke in a year of solemn cuteness, and “the mere reference to something really existing was astonishing.”

Michael Auping, who was a friend and champion of her work elaborates in this video.

 “She forged a remarkably effective matrix that combined a figurative element (the horse), a rudimentary but forceful grid or scaffolding that crossed and/or divided the image, and a rich, tactile abstract surface ground.”

Distill this into simple terms and each image contains:

A figurative element (evoking meaning, or maybe not)

The grid, the scaffolding that holds the composition.

A rich, tactile, painterly surface. 

I like to think of this as she figured out a way to have her cake and eat it too; abstract and representational, in a way that wasn’t kitsch or contrived. In the 1970’s it seemed like you had to pick a side and stick to it.

In “Susan Rothenberg: Paintings and Drawings,” Michael Auping conducts an interview with Rothenberg, in which he asks her about taking some drawing classes. This probably took place around 1991:

“Yes, at one period with Elizabeth Murray for about a month or two in her studio. I also did a whole summer’s worth of it with John Duff. Both of us took a course just a few years ago at the School of Visual Arts. The instructor thought I was terrible. He didn’t know I was an artist. He said, “What are you making all these hairy lines for? I want you to look and observe and use a nice simple, clean clear line.” I had told him I was a housewife. Duff said he was a construction worker.”

I think about this anecdote a lot. I can imagine her laughing about this (she had a mischievous streak), and also maybe seething under the surface. But not too much. By that time she had already taken her seat at the table.

elizabeth murray, 5 drawings
Susan Rothenberg. The Height The Width The Weight. 2009
John Duff. UNTITLED (SPIRAL). 1981
Susan Rothenberg. Galisteo Creek. 1992
Maggie’s ponytail. 1993-1994