Susan Rothenberg, 1945–2020

Susan Rothenberg, who swam against the 1970s trend for abstaction with her understated figuration, has died. The painter first attracted attention in 1975 with her debut solo exhibition at the nonprofit gallery 112 Greene Street, in which she showed just three canvases, each depicting a horse. The animal was to become an early motif, often replicated in silhouette, and deployed in numerous subsequent works, including those she showed in New Image Painting at the Whitney, New York, in 1978, and Zeitgeist at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin in 1982.

The horses were always depicted in motion, and this became her long-lasting modus operandi, with paintings showing, among other subjects, birds, dancers, parts of the body all seemingly in movement. They are united too in their spareness of detail: ‘The viewer should be challenged away from it,’ she told The New York Times in 1984. ‘Almost repelled by its stiffness and gassiness.’ That year she was the subject of a US travelling survey exhibition that opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, before crossing the Atlantic to the Tate Gallery in London.

During the 1990s she exhibited repeatedly with the likes of David Salle and Julian Schnabel, and at the time, critic Peter Schjeldahl assessed Rothenberg as, ‘Quite simply, one of the most thoroughly convincing artists in the world, one of a handful who have laid hold of a medium and muscled it into perfect accord with their temperaments’.

In 1971 she married George Trakas, having met the sculptor a year prior, while performing in a work by Joan Jonas. They divorced in 1979 and in 1989 she married Bruce Nauman. The environment of their ranch in New Mexico provided more recent inspiration.

A 1976 horse painting, Butterfly, was chosen by Barack Obama to hang in the White House.

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