A Matter Of Horsepower

Ever since the advent of photography more than 150 years ago, painting has been getting periodic attacks of insecurity. It frantically gives itself mass-media face-lifts, enlists in political revolutions and spends a lot of time in the rare-book room prepping for dinner parties with French philosophers. When that happens, a talented, tough-minded Artist has to give painting a swift kick and remind it, "You've got the richest tradition, the most esthetic bang per square inch of gallery space and, if you'll notice, the most intelligent admirers. So let's stop whimpering and make some stupendous pictures."

Susan Rothenberg, 48, a short, trim woman with a grown-out gamin haircut, a big disarming smile and a rare if not unique reading of just about zero on the pretentiousness scale, performed that civic function in the early l970s. "Susan Rothenberg: Paintings and Drawings," a concise, 70-piece retrospective exhibition at Washington, D.C.'s Hirshhorn Museum through May 9, demonstrates just how important her good deed was. (The show originated at Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery and travels to St. Louis, Chicago and Seattle.)

Rothenberg is the daughter of a Buffalo produce wholesaler who struck it rich on a literal cut of the cards to settle an impasse with his supermarket partners when he was bought out for a million bucks. She started out studying sculpture at Cornell, was told she had no talent and went off to a Greek island for five months. She next tried the Corcoran School of Art but found the faculty of color-field painters as charmingly harmless as their work. On her way to think things over in the Canadian boondocks in 1969, she changed trains on a whim and showed up in New York. She latched on as a studio assistant to Nancy Graves, making fake dinosaur bones for the sculptor's installation pieces; she also apprenticed in Joan Jonas's performance art troupe, doing things like using her body as the spokes of a wheel. She married the sculptor George Trakas in 1971 and had a daughter, Maggie, in 1972. Finally, it dawned on Rothenberg that between performances and bar talk, the downtown set went back to their studios and worked long hours making art objects. So she tried it, first as an imitator of Eva Hesse's sculpture, then as a painter.

In those days in New York, painting, even the most reductive abstract painting, was dissed as being hopelessly illusionistic. Its space, the theorists said, wasn't physically real. Sculpture, although starting to melt down with the decline of minimalism, still held the high ground in influential, densely written magazines like Artforum. Painting badly needed a new image, and not the public-relations kind. One day Rothenberg doodled a horse's profile on a small piece of unstretched canvas and something, perhaps an allusion to painting's original occurrence in caves, clicked. Her stiff, solid but intriguingly brushed modernohippuses were the hit of the 1974-76 seasons. Even the conservative New York Times critic Hilton Kramer liked them. In "Untitled" (1979), from the second and better horse series, the animals come at you head-on, with big, muscled chests, powerfully sloping shoulders and mysterious idol-like heads. They're as ominously human as an NFL fullback and two pulling guards.

Rothenberg however, didn't court the thoughtless, glitzy fame of the 1980s, like that guy (who was it?) who did the broken plates. Although she kept painting horses for a while, her attitude was always introspective. "Black Head" (198081), the biggest piece in the show, is the most powerful example of Rothenberg's change, in the wake of her 1979 divorce from Trakas to figure fragments. It also boasts a rare, outright clash of colors, a wobbly red-orange ring against a soiled chartreuse one. If there's any semi-credible rap on Rothenberg, it's that she never really pits one full-blown color against another. Her lesser pictures sometimes seem like Matissean line drawing bulked up with paint surface. But you can hardly ask any painting to hit you harder graphically than "Black Head" does.

Since 1989, Rothenberg has lived on what she calls "a mile of high desert land," a ranch in northern New Mexico, with her second husband, the world-class multimedia artist Bruce Nauman. His wry laid-backness and her barely harnessed nervous energy seem the best match since yin and yang. The two have separate studios, hers with a window in the direction of the sparse neighboring lights so she can be assured there are still a few people around. In constant demand in art capitals a long way from Galisteo, Rothenberg and Nauman try to travel for only a few days at a time. "That's because we don't want to leave the animals alone," Rothenberg says. "Bruce worries about the horses; I worry about the dogs."

She's a smoker who's just quit (and will quit again after indulging herself in a month's reprieve while this show and its travels sort themselves out). Rothenberg went through Alcoholics Anonymous back in the early 1980s, but treats herself to a Jack Daniel's before the Hirshhorn opening. She finds pushing herself into the studio and making her characteristic ragged, edgy marks on canvas isn't that much different in wide-open New Mexico than it was on the crowded Manhattan streets. "I never had a routine then, and I don't now." Rothenberg adds a rhetorical wink, "I bring my own little angst with me."

Significant artists have a way of circling back on themselves. In the 1989-90 oil "Orange Break," Rothenberg, who switched from water-based acrylic in about 1981, alludes to her old performance days and bends a body impossibly into a loop. The body fractures and bleeds gray. What makes it amount to more than an orthopedic tragedy is Rothenberg's relentless stroke, a love/ hate scolding of the canvas with the brush that invites you back for any number of visual encounters. "The thing about painting," Rothenberg says, "is that a person looks at, say, a mountain and wants to paint that mountain. Then the whole thing has to be sieved through his or her nervous system. And it never comes out the same for anybody."

Susan Rothenberg may not be a great artist ... yet. Her body of work is only two decades old. When she gets there it'll most likely be in the vein of Marsden Hartley or John Marin; that is, with a thorny, pragmatic Americanness to her style. Rothenberg is, however, our best painter's painter: just canvas rectangles, tubed oil paint, some dirty brushes and a couple of palette knives. An optimist without delusions, Rothenberg admits to thinking occasionally about the state of painting in general. "A lot of people like to do it, and a lot of people like to look at painting, so I think it will always be there ... I haven't seen anything for a while, just all that flashy retro stuff. But I know that a surge of new young artists will come along. I'm sure of it." If they take a nice, long look at Rothenberg's show, it'll be sooner rather than later.