Early in her career, Ms. Rothenberg painted in the conventional abstract, minimalist style of the time. Most painters of that era recoiled from using recognizable features or faces out of fear of being tarred as Philistines.
Finding that abstract art lacked a connection with human lives, Ms. Rothenberg suddenly began to paint shadowy, large-scale images of horses in 1973. It was almost an involuntary, unbidden urge.
They were not always realistic, yet amid vertical lines and monochromatic backgrounds, the phantom horses began to gallop into her imagination, giving her paintings the spark and emotional undercurrent that had been missing.
“A painting needs something else,” she told The Washington Post in 1985, “something from another state of reality.”
For her, the horse became “a symbol of people,” she told the New York Times, “a self-portrait, really.”
When Ms. Rothenberg began to exhibit her new works, they were a revelation. In some ways, they resembled ancient cave paintings, yet they were undeniably of the moment. Her horses, sometimes only vaguely sketched in, seemed to be reaching deep into the past, yet somehow pointing toward a future not yet defined.
Critics and her fellow artists were puzzled at first — What, create a painting with a recognizable object? — then soon were won over.
“These were more emblems than descriptions: bold, rather clunky equine silhouettes embedded in flat, abstract space with the totemic air of cave paintings,” critic Robert Hughes wrote years later in Time magazine. “Their ‘primitive’ look was, in fact, quotation; it was clear . . . that she was already an artist of considerable sophistication.”
Critic Peter Schjeldahl, writing this week on the New Yorker’s website, declared Ms. Rothenberg “the best thing that happened to the art of painting in New York in the nineteen-seventies.”
Over time, she began to introduce other figures to her paintings, along with a bolder use of color. Her depictions of dancers and gymnasts, caught in the midst of fleeting moments of grace, reminded some critics of Pablo Picasso’s early paintings.
Disembodied human forms took shape, often just heads and hands — the parts of the body needed to produce art, Ms. Rothenberg said. Her use of symbols and faces led critics to detect the influence of Jasper Johns and Willem de Kooning in her developing style. Others viewed her as an artistic descendant of Edgar Degas, Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse.
Ms. Rothenberg’s divorce in the late 1970s was reflected in her art, which became darker and more threatening, shot through with hints of depression and anger. She switched from acrylic paint to oils, giving her work more texture and depth. In the 1980s, she began to draw a male figure — “I was just moving my hand on the paper. It was like a Ouija board” — and decided it was Dutch abstract painter Piet Mondrian, who died in 1944.
Even though Mondrian’s precise, mathematical style had little in common with Ms. Rothenberg’s hazy lines, he became a spectral presence in many of her works, walking, dancing or slipping into shadows.
“I just sort of had a little mental engagement with him for a while,” she told the Buffalo News in 1992, “thinking about him as an opposite, yet wanting the same kind of essences in painting that he wanted.”
Ms. Rothenberg worked late at night, “having short and very intense bouts with the paint,” she said.
“I make a mark and then retreat, and wait, and wait some more,” she told The Post in 1985. “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.”
Beginning in the late 1970s, her works were regularly exhibited at top galleries, museums and international art fairs, and she was credited with bringing attention to other female artists.
“I got sick of people saying, ‘How does it feel to be the only woman in the show?’ ” she told the Times in 1984. “And I would reply, ‘It feels lousy, it’s not fair.’ Finally, I said, ‘If I’m the only woman, I won’t be in it.’ ”
In 1989, Ms. Rothenberg married conceptual artist Bruce Nauman and moved to his ranch in New Mexico. (Nauman works in virtually every medium — video, sculpture, neon — except painting.)
Ms. Rothenberg found new inspiration in the desert landscape and, whether she wanted to or not, began to be considered an indirect inheritor of the tradition of another New Mexico artist, Georgia O’Keeffe.
“The light was excruciating for the first year that I lived here,” she told the Times in 2010. “Most of New Mexico is brown, so anything that had color sort of popped.”
Her paintings were marked by fresh perspectives and a brighter palette, as animals found their way back into her paintings, including goats, deer, dogs — and horses, which she had stopped painting years before.
Susan Charna Rothenberg was born Jan. 20, 1945, in Buffalo. Her father was part-owner of a grocery chain, and her mother was president of the local chapter of the American Red Cross.
She studied art and often visited Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery while growing up but was also a high school cheerleader and, in her words, “a very social person when I was younger.”
At Cornell University, she studied sculpture until one of her professors told her she had no talent and asked her to leave the department.
“I was devastated,” she later told the Buffalo News, but she switched her concentration to painting and graduated in 1967. She briefly did graduate work in Washington at the art school affiliated with the Corcoran Gallery of Art but soon dropped out.
At loose ends in 1969, Ms. Rothenberg boarded a northbound train, thinking she would move somewhere deep in the Canadian woods to teach English. She got as far as Montreal, where she abruptly changed her mind and headed to New York.
She was an assistant for artist Nancy Graves, making facsimiles of dinosaur bones, then studied dance and worked with performance artist Joan Jonas. In 1971, Ms. Rothenberg married sculptor George Trakas. They had a daughter a year later and were divorced in 1979.
During the early 1980s, Ms. Rothenberg entered an alcohol recovery program, which she said doubled her productivity as an artist. She was profiled by the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Vogue. Today, her works are in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others, as well as many private collections.
Survivors include Nauman, of Galisteo; and her daughter, Maggie Trakas, of New York.
Whenever she felt blocked and unable to create art, Ms. Rothenberg would force herself to put pencil to paper, and a drawing would inevitably come forth.
“I almost feel I can take the most banal subject matter and made a good painting out of it,” she said in 1984. “I can’t understand those people who tell you they stopped working because they weren’t good enough. I feel, ‘How can you judge that you’re not good enough when you haven’t done the next one?’ ”
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