The horse in profile: Renowned artist’s equine works on show

Susan Rothenberg's Layering (1974-1976).
Susan Rothenberg’s Layering (1974-1976).

An exhibition featuring the equine paintings of the renowned American painter, the late Susan Rothenberg, will be on show in the US until early December.

The solo exhibition On Both Sides of My Line will be on view at the Richard Gray Gallery’s Gray Chigaco from September 10 to October 9, and then at Gray New York from October 29 to December 10.

Organized with the support of curator Michael Auping (formerly the Chief Curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth), and with loans from private collections and institutions, On Both Sides of My Line brings renewed focus to the artist’s body of work, presenting 10 early examples from one of her most celebrated series.

Created between 1974 and 1977, Rothenberg’s profile horse paintings exemplify a shift in her approach to abstraction through the introduction and exploration of figuration. Moving away from the influence of Abstract Expressionism, Rothenberg (1945-2020) began this seminal series in response to the contemporary zeitgeist of the 1970s. With Color Field painting, Minimalism, performance, and neo-primitivism at the forefront, Rothenberg employed tactics from various schools to define her own pictorial language.

“For all their apparent directness and simplicity, the early horse paintings were unique hybrids of their time,” Auping says in his catalogue essay.

“[Rothenberg’s] blunt, forceful depictions of horses confronted the pervasiveness of Minimalism and Color Field painting, which had cleansed themselves of figuration for two decades. These horses crossed a line.”

During this formative period, the horse became Rothenberg’s central instrument for exploring expressive gesture and developing her keen understanding of the picture plane. At once subtle in her monochromes and exacting in her compositions, Rothenberg vocalized her prime intent to push the limits of abstraction over rendering the subject’s ethereal form, stating, “The horse was just something that happened on both sides of my line.”

Although Rothenberg’s horses appear in a variety of formats – some painted as solitary subjects locked into place, while others are layered as if to suggest phases of motion – all possess a distinctive push-pull approach to abstraction. Rothenberg often bisected her canvases vertically or diagonally as a means to challenge form-to-ground, part-to-whole, and shape-to-edge relationships.

Susan Rothenberg, Double Masked Heads, (1974).
Susan Rothenberg, Double Masked Heads, (1974). Photo by Thomas Hawk

“She almost always used a line to divide her horses in half, creating a horse in parts, the front and back end,” Auping says.

“While the horse profile has figurized, as it were, the abstract space, the two [divided] planes have abstracted the horse. The horse is standing still, but strangely the whole picture seems to be gently moving and flickering on either side of the vertical line.”

Through experimentation and variation, the horse offered the artist a clear yet inscrutable silhouette on which to experiment with formal and conceptual techniques. Rothenberg’s early horses not only tested the limits of abstraction through figuration, scale, palette, and composition, but also through their seriality.

As is made evident by some of her earliest and most iconic works presented in On Both Sides of My Line, Rothenberg’s horse paintings are powerful statements that reverberate beyond their literal description.

In the words of the artist, “I didn’t want the horse to be neutral. I wanted it to have more guts … The same way an abstract painter would want their gestures to say something about them or the world. It was never about making a pretty horse. It was something else.”

Susan Rothenberg's profile horse paintings will be on show at twoi Gray galleries in the US.
Susan Rothenberg’s profile horse paintings will be on show at two Gray galleries in the US. Photo by Monkfry

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