Moving in Place meets the criterion for museum show titles: It is vague and paradoxical in a way that hints at profundity. But it does a pretty good job of locking in on an essential component of Susan Rothenberg’s work—namely, the depiction of motion in a still medium.
The artist, who has been working for 35 years, continues to draw upon the same themes and formal devices evident in the works that launched her career. This is not to say there isn’t evolution, but most of her recent paintings still demonstrate the sparse canvas, bold scale and limited palette with which she made her name. That’s not to mention the artist’s unshakable love of unattached limbs, equine and otherwise.
Rothenberg does seem to have shed some of her discipline over the years. Whereas she used to execute images in a minimum of hues with a controlled hand, her paintings of the last 15 years or so have moved from the gestural to the extravagantly sloppy—so much so that a few of the subjects approach illegibility, a fact made clear by the matter-of-fact descriptions in the artist’s own words displayed next to the works. I spent a great deal of time admiring the marks, even while thinking, for example, “That’s a rabbit?”
As someone who appeared out of (indeed toppled) long-standing traditions of purely abstract works, a loosening of Rothenberg’s reins is fitting. And she seems to have come by it honestly, in stages, as opposed to a conscious decision to reinvent herself.
The newest works, with their frenetic marks, feel more satisfying and less academic, like the artist is permitting herself to simply paint, not to set out to make history. This is shown and elucidated by the artist in the episode of PBS’s Art: 21, also on view. The dazzling pace at which the artist mixes and applies the paint is fun to watch, providing a real sense of immediacy to the finished works. It’s no wonder the rabbit doesn’t look like a rabbit. Rothenberg’s hand slashes and smears the pigment in much the same way her devious dogs must have shredded the subject in the initial violent event.
This clash of memory and representations thereof is present in much of the newer works. The artist seems obsessed with the idea of depicting actions and multiple views at once. The result is disjointed parts that tear across the canvas with no sense of perspective or gravity. The effect keeps the eye swirling, moving into and out of the image. Not all of the works are impressive. Some of them suffer from a caked-on appearance, resembling crackled old makeup kits. But more often than not, Rothenberg knocks it out of the park.
Despite her gradual slide toward abstraction, the works remain grounded in the figurative realm. She continues to use “parts” to represent a whole, and spatial concerns—breaking the frame of the canvas to imply points of view, surrounding the contents of the canvas—are still regular components. In a way, Rothenberg continues to work through the same problems she set up for herself in the ’70s.
In the video, Rothenberg emphasizes the importance of being in the studio, even when one is not working, in order to continue looking at the work. She mentions “the block” and how she forces herself to work through it. I find her naked honesty about painting very endearing. Like any artist, she is engaged in a laborious struggle to keep working. Great ideas may only come once in a lifetime, but it is those who can sustain their practice who stand apart from flashes in the pan. The important thing is to keep moving. It is not always necessary to go somewhere new.
Moving in Place
Through May 16
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
217 Johnson St.