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Susan Rothenberg is an important figure in the transition from Minimalism to Neoexpressionism. Rothenberg was born in Buffalo, New York in 1945. Her family was very supportive and encouraged her to develop her interests in drawing and painting. Rothenberg attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, first concentrating on sculpture and then on painting. After graduation from Cornell in 1967, she enrolled in the Corcoran School of Art at George Washington University but then changed her mind and moved to New York City. In New York City, Rothenberg resided in the lower west side and intermingled with a community of interdisciplinary artists including the sculptor, George Trakas whom she eventually married in 1971.
At that time, Minimalism was still the dominant art mode and Rothenberg was creating a series of geometric pattern paintings. However, she grew tired and bored with the geometry except for the simple pencil line she would draw down the center of the canvas. In 1972, Rothenberg gave birth to her daughter, Maggie and shortly thereafter the image of a horse emerged from her canvas.
Over the next six years, Rothenberg completed a series of approximately 40 horse paintings through which she has gained critical attention and recognition. The first horses were outlined and somewhat primitive in appearance with the figure and ground of the same color of either black, white, or an earthy sienna. The horse often was depicted in a stationary, profile pose. Her surfaces were heavily worked giving her paintings expressive energy. She kept her palette monochromatic for the most part with one or two vertical diagonal lines dividing the strong contours of the horse. These geometric forms combined with her imagery created tension and raised questions of meaning. The horse was both a symbol of humanity as it was also a vehicle for her to explore the concept of symmetry.
Rothenberg's horse paintings evolved over the years as the image itself moved from being a static profile of a horse to one that had action. Her painting, "Cabin Fever" (1976) depicts a sienna-colored running horse with a vertical line cutting through its torso. The energy of her paintings intensified further as her horses turned to confront the viewer directly as if leaping from the canvas.
Rothenberg also began to replace her diagonal and vertical lines with white bone shapes. She felt that the bones gave her paintings more psychological intensity since bones have many connotations. Rothenberg would also sometimes dismember the horse's limbs and place them in human like configurations. Her painting, "The Hulk" (1979) depicts a white horse who looks like it is struggling to exit the black, human torso looking mass behind it. The two bones appear to belong to the horse, as it's two front limbs. Rothenberg was not interested in depicting the whole human form, and eventually the horse series came to an end.
In the early 1980's, Rothenberg divorced George Trakas and began painting dismembered heads and hands. She created five 10 ft square paintings of her head and hand as studies. Her painting, "Beggar" (1982) was a simplified outline of a head and an outstretched arm to the right. Again, her surfaces were heavily worked and full of tension and question. The meaning of her paintings is kept a mystery and is meant to be made by the viewer after they have searched their own conscious and subconscious.
After her divorce from Trakas, Rothenberg decided to learn how to use oil paint. She began to paint sailboats and became interested in motion, space, light and depth. She painted boats, bicyclists, and dancers but kept the images representational rather than realistic. Rothenberg was more interested in capturing a feeling rather than telling a story. Her brushwork certainly captured the viewer's attention and went without igniting a feeling within them.
Rothenberg lived in the western edge of Tribeca in New York City until 1990 when she and her new husband and artist, Bruce Nauman moved to New Mexico. She continues to paint with the influences of her new surroundings. An important show of her work from the 1990's was on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston during late 1999 and early 2000.