On ViewSperone Westwater
January 9 – February 29, 2020
To approach the eight paintings and six works on paper, produced between 1990 and 2019, that are currently on view at Sperone Westwater, we might think about Susan Rothenberg’s relationship to cave art. Anthropologists rattle on about what cave paintings mean, but we really have no idea why our ancestors decorated caverns. Susan Rothenberg’s work, like that of the cave painters, is fundamentally ambiguous, and that may well be the source of its inexplicable allure. She rarely provides a context for her animals, people, or body parts, and she leaves it up to the viewer to invent meaning.
Take the earliest piece in this wonderful show, an untitled oil on paper from 1990. It displays a disembodied, yellow-brown human right arm, three fingers erect, smoke of some sort wafting away above. A Boy Scout salute seen from behind? A fare-thee-well? Some sort of obscene gesture? It is simply there in vaguely phallic glory, and we may ponder its significance until we somehow break free from the enchantment it projects. But what exactly is that enchantment? It is the magic Rothenberg creates out of a precious few details. We want the arm to mean something, and we will only be happy when we tame the image by affixing to it some significance of which the artist is blissfully unaware.
The same lure of the enigmatic appears in the large-scale Pianist Playing Schubert (2019), which pictures a grotesque female figure posed before an invisible piano. Here Rothenberg grounds us in what is conceivably a plausible moment, though it’s only thanks to the title that we actually know what is happening (also present is a graphite on paper drawing from 2019, perhaps a preparatory piece, which does include a detectable, if ghostly, keyboard). Elusive it may be, but the painting highlights one of Rothenberg’s recurring themes: art about the act of making art, the notion, also central to her paintings that incorporate gambling as a motif, that making art is taking a chance. Here, the pianist’s face is hideous, suggesting that Rothenberg’s art is also about the release of mad energy. In that sense, Pianist Playing Schubert echoes Goya’s late, “Black Paintings,” but rather than reflecting artistic or personal despair, as Goya did, Rothenberg’s pianist is a chthonian deity with what appears to be splatters of blood on her right arm. Perhaps she is “attacking” the music or simply “murdering” poor Schubert, a gruesome violence emphasized by the red border, reminiscent of Motherwell, that frames three sides of the composition.
Two works here contain another of Rothenberg’s favored motifs: hands. Both Band + Hands (2018), an oil paint, charcoal, and graphite work, and an untitled and undated oil on paper show hands holding vaguely circular forms. These meaning of these powerful icons remains infuriatingly mysterious. We might imagine Rothenberg alluding to the artistic breaking of preordained unity as a necessary prelude to creation, or, in the case of the oil on paper, which shows hands bringing two circles into close proximity, the artist’s constructed unity juxtaposed with the organic unity of the natural world. As in all her works, the key element is creative destruction, the hands that destroy are also the hands that make. This may bring us closer to Rothenberg’s artistic essence: no creation takes place without destruction. Wherever we look in Sperone Westwater’s gallery, we find disjecta membra, the fragments of an aesthetic cataclysm.
We see this idea of creative violence in Rothenberg’s vision of nature: it is a place of conflict, a stark setting. Her Twisted Tree (2017–19), an oil on canvas, has been through a lot. It stands between light and darkness and leans into the brightness, but it bears the scars of effort, perhaps reflecting the artist’s struggle to express the energy within herself and withstand the conflict inherent in art-making. Stack of Birds (2017), another oil on canvas, might seem a bit of whimsy, but in order to pile up the reddish birds that give the painting its title, someone had to metamorphose them into art, and in so doing, kill them. The larger Four Red Birds (2017) shows either the birds flying—they are clustered in the upper half of a portrait-format canvas—or, alternately, a single bird fading out of sight into the distance. This is not a representation of the natural world but an enigmatic icon derived from a natural context that must be destroyed in the act of creation. Extracted from their lived environment, Rothenberg’s motifs, like cave art, can only mean what we want them to mean.
Susan Rothenberg has been showing in New York since 1975, when she displayed three large paintings of horses—traditional images of unrestrained passion. She has worked with Sperone Westwater for many years, but despite her longevity she remains a parsimonious artist, and has produced relatively few works over her long career. The only thing we can ask of this great artist is that she never stop working and never abandon the commitment to radical ambiguity that fuels our own creative and imaginative responses to her images.