The press package, including catalogue and 21-page bio, for Susan Rothenberg's new exhibition of paintings at Sperone Westwater, weighs in at just under five pounds. The sheer tonnage of positive press garnered during Rothenberg's successful 20-year run seems daunting in its unanimity. Everyone from Hilton Kramer to Robert Storr, Eleanor Heartney and Peter Schjeldahl agree on the significance of her achievement.
Many of the rest of us, needless to say, remain baffled at the positive critical chorus, not to mention her art-market success. Some of my confusion was assuaged, however, by her recent exhibition of new paintings.
We are all, by now, familiar with Rothenberg's signature horse paintings that seemed to spring fully formed from the rigor mortis of formal abstraction in the early '70s. With her iconic equines, Rothenberg managed to convert the formidable lexicon of non-objective painting to figurative ends. Rothenberg's revolutionary horses proved to be Trojan, however, when the Neo-Expressionists of the '80s clambered through the esthetic gap she had opened and sacked art's citadel. When the '80s art boom pooped out the Neo Boys escaped with their booty. As for Rothenberg, she married Bruce Nauman and moved out West to a 600-hundred acre ranch in Galisteo, N.M.
Over the years she had sent her horses to the knackers, and thereafter bobbing forlornly on the surface of her paintings were vivisectioned heads, hooves and other equine parts. The horse parts then begot human parts, with these heads and hands eventually melding into rubbery attenuated full figures that were formed of the same dry arhythmic strokes that formed the fields of brush-work they swam in.
Now Rothenberg shares her spread with the wild animals of the region, a number of (real) horses and a pack of dogs. The landscape of Galisteo is as dry and inhospitable as the surface of Rothenberg's paintings. Human and animal residents of the ranch, living and dead, now populate her works.
In the new paintings exhibited at Sperone Westwater, Rothenberg continues her ongoing project of caricaturizing her nightmares. Inherent to that act is the belief that by parodying horror we can banish it for a moment.
In Out the Window, a graphic figure framed in one corner of the canvas appears to be tossing a vibrant orange dog carcass through a window into a field of dirtied snow. The grimacing figure averts its gaze from the unpleasant task -- five quick lines, shorthand for a face, are all that's needed to convey a visage of tight-lipped repugnance. An impossibly long red arm thrusts diagonally out and across the picture, setting up a sophisticated compositional tension. A corona -- a veritable jet stream -- of ethereal glowing orange brushstrokes emanate from the dog's body. Borne aloft by ambiguous force, the animal's forepaws strain beseechingly upward, reaching for the merest hint of horizon.
Rothenberg is a painter whose work has often been described as purely existential and devoid of transcendent themes. But the references to the sublime here (from the aura of light that envelops the dog's carcass to the high-keyed hues) are unmistakable. From the shallow pictorial depth of the painting there can be sensed a distrustful aspiration to something that supersedes the conditional nature of existence.
For my money Rothenberg is at her best when working in smaller scale. In these works, her usual dry parsimonious brushwork congeals into something approaching luxuriousness. A more intimate composition allows Rothenberg a frankly sensuous surface that in larger scale might appear immoderate. Cat Fists, which measures 25 x 32 in., is such a painting.
Two brilliantly red arms, palms up, snake their way into the picture from the left. Seen from above, as if we're looking down dream-like at our own transformed arms, the hands proffer two mysteriously identical rounded objects. They glow internally with warm and cool yellows, and have little black eyes -- like a potato, or a wildcat's spots, or the impressionistic eyes that float in the glassy nacre of some seashells. Around the arms a nimbus of cool white strokes glistens against a field of warm putty gray. Outside the frame must be an unseen recipient. If the unseen recipient accepts the offered objects something will change. Is it us?
In some of the larger paintings Rothenberg's ambition shows. Impending Doom is a kind of Frankenstein monster stitched together of Guston, Bacon, Giacometti, Johns and yes, Nauman. White Poker, which measures 87 x 113 in., is the largest painting in the exhibition. A group of card players sits around an oversized table, brusquely indicated by three black strokes, the card players rendered merely as a head and torso or a pair of forearms. The pot in this card game is a scattered jumble of dismembered arms and legs, white, black and red. Limbs that seem to hover and dance macabrely above the table surface.
Each player sports a playing card on his forehead, as in Indian Poker, a game that relies less on skill than on psychic ability. The cards lend a smug gravity to the players' faces, like the expression found on ancient carved stone heads -- a sort of unlocatable archeological aspect. Are these card-playing ghouls gambling for their own missing limbs, or for the parts of others? And what is that amorphous mass of cross-hatched strokes that lies like a piss-colored shadow across the table? As with the best of Rothenberg's rebuses, we find that all such queries answer only to our own individual conditions.
Pink Paths is a painting that unites the atavism of Rothenberg's New Mexico ranch with a sense of urban psychological distance. Images of the rigidly prone corpses of six hares and two larger animals are strewn about a Pepto-bismol expanse of choppy brush flourishes and hatched tinted whites over a deep gray underpainting. The constellation of bodies describes a rough vortex, as if the animals died while running in futile circles, as hares often do when chased by predators. Each carcass has an accompanying complement of pink bloodied snow which serves as both shadow and vivifying double.
From what sector does this narrative of beastly carnage come? From experience or the imagination? Or are the terrors depicted in this image the tragic flotsam left at the confluence of two dark rivers with headwaters in imagination and experience? Did Rothenberg's pack of domestic hounds spend an early winter morn savaging corrals and rabbit warrens in a lupine atavistic entertainment? Did desert coyotes, whose unearthly nighttime choruses reportedly turned Rothenberg's studio practice from nocturnal to diurnal, ascend from the arroyos to do what comes naturally? Or is this killing field the handiwork of Nauman, in a latter-day role as bear hunter? The dead tell no tales.
Pink Paths recalls for me a photo my father shared with me as a child, a photo taken during the jackrabbit round-ups on a ranch where he grew up in eastern Colorado. The photo pictured a steamy mound of still-warm jackrabbits stiffening under a slate-gray winter sky. In the foreground exultant hunters grinned and brandished bloody clubs, while scattered willy-nilly at the hunters' feet lay the ungathered carcasses of still more rabbits. On the snowy ground was the scribed red record of the rabbits frantic attempts at escape.
Then there are those images of winter war dead, enduring images of limbs frozen and askew in ungainly poses, mouths open or rigidly clenched, eyes frozen and vacant -- uniformed, naked, in striped pajamas. All undignified citizens of an unknowable country, strangers familiarized by death.
With this exhibition Rothenberg triumphs by surrendering, by capitulating to the inevitabilities of the natural world -- the new locus for her moral-less dramas. In the mercilessly penetrating light of the New Mexican sun, Rothenberg's somnambulistic dream of the interior tentatively gives way to a frankly dark vision of our waking lives.
Susan Rothenberg, "Paintings," Oct. 25-Dec. 13, 1997, at Sperone Westwater, 142 Greene Street, New York, N.Y. 10012.
ROGER BOYCE is a New York artist.