Jasper Johns, with his Flag and Target paintings of the 1950s, helped to change the way that we looked at paintings. He showed us that there are never truly distinct and separate categories of names for what we see and (as he phrased it) "things the mind already knows." Everything is always contingent on something else. His works begged questions such as "what is the image of?" "what is contained in the picture?" and "where does the role of the artist end, and where does the viewer’s job begin?" Susan Rothenberg was asking some of these same questions in the late '70s. In her nominal images of horses, she presented us with some of the most visually complex puzzles in art since Johns. What we assumed were abstracted depictions of an equestrian nature were anything but. Shadowy horsey outlines, painted with horsehair brushes on grounds made of ground hooves -- they gave us everything but a horse. Rothenberg long ago evolved from such painterly philosophizing, focusing instead on a brand of abstraction that hovered somewhere between Monet's large-scale, Impressionist landscapes and Alberto Giacometti's nervous figurative portraits.
At Sperone Westwater, Rothenberg revisits some of her earlier painterly concerns, adding onto, rather than reverting to, the questions she once addressed. She continues her investigation into image making, extending both her thought process and ours in her exploration of light, form, and color, of images of human body fragments, dogs, and ravens. Juxtaposed against heavily scumbled backgrounds, bodies become shapes and outlines, creating a tension between figuration and abstraction that harkens back to the early horse paintings.
Rothenberg continues to use animals as surrogates for the human body, transforming the representation of the figure into a cipher, which operates much the same as Johns's Numbers and Alphabet paintings. For example, the silhouette of a black bird with open beak in "Raven" (2009-10, above) is depicted against a white, heavily worked background. In Ring Necks, Covering (2011) she paints two doves at the perimeter of the canvas, perched on branches that extend outside the picture plane, bisecting it diagonally, setting up pictorial tension. "White on White Head" (2010) gives us the profile of a large head outlined in gray and black, which refers obliquely to the work of Philip Guston -- another artist who, in the late '70s, was influential in the New Image movement, which Rothenberg pioneered.
Although it would seem, on the surface, that this combination of flat ground and abstracted figuration would leave little room for narrative, it is in our nature to create stories around the images we see in paintings, and Rothenberg leaves enough room for us to do our job as viewers by removing the object of the painting and leaving a silhouette, or visual hole, to create a space (literally) that we can fill. Ravens (with their references to Poe), other animals, and decapitated heads are ripe with narrative potential. Frank Stella called these areas in a painting the "working space" of the painter, and that is as good a description as any of what is happening in these works. Rothenberg is not merely rehashing the modernist phenomenology of Minimalism, or Post-Pop art, she is building on the vocabulary that developed out of these movements. She is writing, if not a new chapter in art's history, at least a damn good story. - Bradley Rubenstein
Sperone Westwater is at 257 Bowery in New York, New York.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.