Susan Rothenberg’s painting, “Untitled” (1974), couldn’t be more basic — brushstrokes of dusty red ochre scrubbed across a canvas; the image of a galloping horse bisected by a vertical line — but you’d be hard pressed to find a more compact expression of what painting is and what it can be.
Rothenberg was thrust into the limelight in 1978, when the exhibition New Image Painting opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Curated by Richard Marshall, the show also featured the work of Nicholas Africano, Jennifer Bartlett, Denise Green, Michael Hurson, Neil Jenney, Lois Lane, Robert Moskowitz, David True and Joe Zucker.
While most of the artists went on to substantial careers, the glue holding them together as a distinct entity didn’t hold. In a 1987 New York Times article titled “A Painting Landmark In Focus,” Roberta Smith described New Image Painting as “a refreshing alternative to the unflinching abstraction and industrial forms of minimal art” but one that “is often viewed as transitional, an art movement that never took off.”
Part of the reason, in Smith’s view, was the imminent onslaught of Neo-Expressionism, “whose combinations of exuberant brushwork and provocative figures generated a glamorous amount of controversy, international attention and market support.” Another reason was the artists’ resistance to labeling and their determination to go their own way. Smith quotes Rothenberg as saying:
We weren’t a movement, we were a bunch of individuals who were reintroducing images. It seemed strange to me that we could all be brought together and called something.
In the quarter-century that has elapsed since Smith’s reassessment of New Image Painting, the Darwinian upsurge of Neo-Expressionism, which ushered in a newly aggressive and vainglorious art market, has given way to the neo-academicism of the current Whitney Biennial and the neo-conceptual follies flowing by the ton from the world’s top-selling galleries.
The clamor and confusion of the intervening years have served to underscore the clear-eyed potency of New Image Painting, which gave equal weight to structure and image. Tactile and handmade, most of the work is modest in scale and simple in design; like Analytical Cubism, it reduces the elements of painting to the bare minimum, conferring upon the artist the freedom and anxiety of starting from scratch.
The horse paintings of Susan Rothenberg are among the most emblematic works of the movement that never was. The exhibition currently running at Craig F. Starr Gallery on the Upper East Side, Susan Rothenberg: First Horse, provides a rare overview of these works, which feel as fresh and strange as ever.
The show includes, as its title suggests, the first horse painting Rothenberg completed, appropriately called “First Horse” (1974), a smallish work (26 x 28 inches) done in tempera, matte, flashe, pencil and gesso on unstretched canvas. Framed under glass and attached by four white map pins to the mounting board, the painting’s frayed edges and muted pigmentation evoke a Native American rawhide shield. The application of color is rough and sketchy but the all-over textures carefully equalize the relationship between figure and field.
“First Horse” includes another characteristic of the series, a vertical line that divides the canvas down the middle. The same device appears in the one non-horse painting in the show, “Mary III” (1974), which features the silhouette of crouching nude woman.
The line serves several purposes. By imitating the border between the halves of a diptych, it creates two off-balance compositions out of a centered, stable one, subtly heightening the overall visual interest.
It is also a reminder of the painting’s artifice, in that the contour of the horse’s body is as much of a conceptual construct as the purely abstract vertical line. And in a very understated way, it subverts our subconscious expectations of the format, in which the horizontal “landscape” aspect ratio is divided into two vertical “portrait” schemes.
The traditional reading of these shapes is that a horizontal framework, which allows for a greater play of incident and detail across the painting’s surface, implies a narrative, while a vertical format, through its association with semi-abstract devotional pictures (which evolved over time into secular portraits), is considered iconic.
The vertical line in Rothenberg’s pictures stops the eye from sweeping across the canvas and asserts that the image is both narrative and iconic, just as the resolution of the figure and field is both representational and abstract, and the use of materials melds painting and drawing.
When the artist shifted her imagery from a standing horse to a galloping one, she drew upon the sequential photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, namely the pictures he made to win a bet with the racehorse owner and former governor of California, Leland Stanford, who didn’t believe that all four hooves of a running horse leave the ground at the same time.
Rothenberg’s “Untitled” (1974) depicts the image that won the bet, showing the horse in midair (in the other works there is least one foot on the ground) and for that reason it is the most dynamic piece in the exhibition, and in many ways the most revealing.
The silhouettes in the other works are more interconnected with the outside edges. They feature at least one vertical, usually a leg, that rhymes with the painting’s physical borders. Otherwise, they anchor one or more hooves to the picture’s bottom edge, which breaks the cohesion, and the strength, of the surrounding field.
In “Untitled” (1974), the figure floats freely, unanchored and unrhymed, but at the same time the horse’s forward thrust is checked by the wide field enveloping it. This contributes to a countervailing sense of stasis and ratchets up the painting’s internal tensions. Unlike the other works in the show — many of which, such as the solidly painted, rust-colored “Untitled 2/4” (1974) and the black-on-white “August” (1976), are elegant in their clarity — “Untitled” (1974) seems to represent a ragged, unsettled condition that is simultaneously “both/and,” as suggested above, and in between.
It was painted in 1974, the year between the withdrawal of the last American forces from Vietnam and the fall of Saigon. Its image depicts an animal between earth and sky, suspended in a state presaging propulsion or collapse. Its aesthetic swings between Minimalism’s self-enclosed materiality and an iconographic impulse toward the outside world. Its source material marks the transition between still photography and cinema, while its silhouette bridges the cutouts of Matisse and the cave paintings of Lascaux.
The work’s elemental use of color and shape, and its embodiment of an era’s shifting aesthetic, social and political ground, present a clearly discernible staging area for paint as a tool — a marriage of stimulus and material, forged in indeterminacy and executed through an unfettered simplicity of means.
The paintings in this show are materially dense but pictorially fluid, as if the imagery could peel off in any direction. Rothenberg begins with negation, cleaving away all that’s inessential, then reaches forward and backward in time, gathering whatever she needs, probing inward toward formalism and outward toward experience, one hand in the clay and the other in the air.
Susan Rothenberg: First Horse continues at Craig F. Starr Gallery (5 East 73rd Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 29.