You would not guess it from her golden laugh or from her straight-on, streetwise moxie, but Susan Rothenberg, the painter, knows how to summon spirits. Her pictures give no peace.
Shades and visitations, sensed but not quite seen, lurk like nervous muggers in the shadows of her art. She calls them "the unnameable." One can feel their restless writhing in the fidget of her brush strokes. Dark subsurface powers agitate her paintings the way Manhattan's subways shake the city's streets.
Fourteen of her oils and two of her new drawings go on view today at the Phillips Collection here. Among the small and sweetly colored School of Paris paintings in that intimate museum, Rothenberg's big pictures seem monumentally New Yorkish. She was born in Buffalo in 1945, studied at Cornell and dropped out in the '60s to hang around in Greece, but is now in many ways fastened to Manhattan. One feels its weight in her coiled energy, and in the cut-the-guff quickness of her talk. And with her paintings now selling for more than $50,000, she is among the hottest younger painters in that art-infested town.
Once, she tried to make it here. In 1968 or 1969 -- Rothenberg is not sure; "those were lost years," she explains -- she enrolled at the Corcoran. "I couldn't bear the classes. I was drifting. Thomas Downing and Ed McGowin, who were teaching at the Corcoran, came to my house to see me, and they were very sweet, but I had nothing to hold on to. And so I floated out."
She decided on the country then, and dreaming of a rural life, bought a train ticket to Canada. But something held her back. At the last minute, as if obeying some command, she headed for Manhattan. She has been there ever since.
At first she started hanging out with sculptors and performers, dancers and musicians. Few of her friends were painting, but Rothenberg kept at it. Then suddenly she hit.
She was 31, and struggling for cash, when no less than William Rubin, the imperious guiding spirit of the Museum of Modern Art, came thumping up the broken stairs of her downtown studio. "It was the shock of shocks, the honor of honors," she says. "He pointed his cane at three of my paintings and said, 'Have them brought to the museum.' " She was not a master then. She is not a master yet, but her art is dense with promise, and its strength is unmistakable -- and the New York art world's scouts don't have time to waste.
Rothenberg herself won't rush. She spends most of her studio time "sitting in a chair, looking at the painting." She says her method is "corrective." "I make a mark and then retreat, and wait, and wait some more. And then I make another. It's all very mysterious. And gradual. You sort of sneak up on the picture and get one piece at a time."
The postwar Action Painters of the New York School, who seemed to dredge their subjects from their souls, made their pictures quickly. But Rothenberg is patient. "A painting needs something else," she says, "something from another state of reality." It is not her soul alone she searches. It is that zone within the canvas where her spirits wait. They emerge at their own time.
The image of a horse was the first of many ghostly shades to show up in her art. For seven years it reappeared in painting after painting, sometimes in dark outline, sometimes head-on, or in pieces. Minimalism then was still in vogue, and Rothenberg was painting wholly abstract pictures -- "the rule was keep-it-flat" -- when suddenly the animal began to stamp its shape on the flatness of her fields. Rothenberg can't tell you whether that strange beast was the dark horse of the nightmare, or the grand steed of the heroes, or the sweet colt of the spring, or all of these, or none. Nor did she stop to ask.
Her horse pictures astonished. (Rubin purchased one of them.) They seemed to contradict themselves -- and to prophesy the future. Half-depictive, half-abstract, half-fleshy and half-flat, they tied the restrained cool of 1970s New York art to the hotter figuration that was yet to come.
The horse has since departed, but other ghosts have appeared. The shade of Mondrian is one of them. The arrival in her art of that 20th-century master -- who died in 1944 -- was completely unexpected. It happened late at night, she says. She was alone in her studio, feeling frustrated and blocked when, in exasperation, she told herself, "Damn it, do one drawing." She has described what happened next to The New York Times: "Within 30 seconds, Mondrian's face emerged. I wasn't intending to paint Mondrian. I was just moving my hand on the paper. It was like a Ouija board. All of a sudden, there were the glasses and that white nose and a little piece of curl in the hair . . ." The other day she told an audience at the Phillips that she recognized him instantly. "I said, 'Oh my God. Mondrian has come to visit.' "
Why Mondrian? Much as she admires him, Rothenberg is not sure. "We're opposites in many ways. He was so neat and strict and disciplined. I'm messy." Since his first visitation, he has often come again. His face appears four times in the present exhibition. In "Mondrian" (1984), he is standing there in stiff astonishment as if surprised to find himself once again alive. In "The Golden Moment" (1985) he is seated in his studio, carefully adjusting two squares of colored paper; he does not seem to notice that he has been embraced by a web of golden light. "He was so severe," says Rothenberg. "I want him to have fun." In "Mondrian Dancing" (1984-85) he is doing the boogie-woogie in a Harlem nightclub. It is said that shades abhor the sun, but Mondrian's enjoys it. In "ING-Spray" (that's pig Latin for Spring) he is standing in the midst of a freshly plowed Long Island potato field, his glasses shoved back on his head. He is drinking in the sun.
The light that warms his neck is a peculiar vivid orange. Beyond the dark plowed earth, beyond that orange sunlight, the landscape turns to green. "Mondrian hated green," says Rothenberg, "but I thought I ought to tease him. I used this ghastly green. But then -- in fear -- I fell back into black and white."
Though Rothenberg will tell you that she is "totally afraid of fear," one fear rules her painting. She is afraid of color.
It is that apprehension that chains her pictures to Manhattan -- and makes them feel so alien amidst the sunny, subtly colored French pictures at the Phillips. Much advanced Manhattan art is ferocious black-and-white. Think of Franz Kline's blacks, and Rothko's and Frank Stella's, and the grays of Jasper Johns. Even when Rothenberg turns away from strict black-and-white -- to give her white dog's coat a sickly yellow sheen ("Al With Bananas" 1984), or to hint at sexual passion ("Red Blush" 1984-85), or to tease the ghost of Mondrian -- her colors are not colorful. "If the image is really loaded, color seems a cheap shot." Her paintings yearn for night.
"Green Ray" is the oddest. Two huge grinning pandas, part human and part puppet, dance together underneath a beam of greenish light. "Doubling and twinning," Rothenberg explains. "That's what it's about."
Night belongs to ghosts, to peculiar double visions and recurring memories, and all these fill her art. "L.R." (1984), one of her strangest pictures, recounts a family story she swears is true. It shows a figure playing cards. The light that lights the table sits like an iron weight upon his head. L.R. is Leonard Rothenberg, her father. He has just drawn the ace, and, despite his dark dismay, "won a million bucks."
"He and his brother were part owners of a chain of stores in Buffalo. They couldn't get along with their partners, so they decided to draw cards. The first to pick the ace got the million dollars, the others got the stores. To his dismay, he lost."
Dismay, or something like it, even when it's undercut by a kind of mirthless laughter, activates her painting. Even when she drifts toward the sentimental, as she does in "Grandmother" (1983-84) -- a work that shows a woman hugging a small girl ("her junky daughter's daughter") -- something close to terror shivers in her art.
At first she made abstractions, then the horse appeared, then Mondrian. Here, in these new pictures, the viewer can begin to sense another sort of presence approaching . There will be, one is sure, portraits in her pictures -- not just personages, not just figures, but people who stare out at us. They have yet to appear.
"I make a fact out of a fantasy. That's what my art's about," she says.
Her exhibition at the Phillips closes Nov. 17.