Two of the important threads that run through all of Susan Rothenberg’s work are the human touch and the nature of human engagement. The Walker Art Center is fortunate to have in its collection prime examples from her long and productive career that reveal an increasing comfort in allowing these elements to come to the fore.
Rothenberg achieved prominence in the mid-1970s for her paintings of horses. Initially composed of flat, uninflected outlines or silhouettes, these paintings evolved into works such as Tattoo (1979), whose milky white field, languid movement, and silent narrative offer greater evidence of humanity than earlier versions. The artist has said the horse was a surrogate for the self. The title refers to the animal’s head drawn inside the inverted outline of a leg, “a tattoo or memory image,” as she describes it.
The image of overlapping head and hand that followed the horses was first introduced in Pinks, a series of unique hand-painted woodcuts. The familiar elements of the heavy outline and the contrast between solid and hollow link these works to earlier efforts such as Tattoo. In Pinks, Rothenberg moves from animal to human image, albeit a disembodied one. But the handprint on the left side of the image and the hand-coloring on the right side underscore the human touch. The artist says of this series, “I was thinking that all I have is a head and a hand to paint with and eyes in my head.”
Painted almost a decade after Tattoo and Pinks, Night Ride features what is unmistakably a human figure on a bicycle. Rothenberg has moved from symbol to reality and added new dimensions of sound and movement. Full figures in motion and a signature thicket of brushstrokes—she terms it “the weather”—now define her painting. Like the horse, the cyclist appears ready to burst through the picture plane. The ghostly image in motion calls to mind the photographic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, but Rothenberg is aiming for something different: the unconscious memory of moving through space and time and of negotiating life that has always been in her work.