October 29 – December 10, 2021
Gray New York has rounded up 10 of Susan Rothenberg’s horses, all produced between 1974 and 1979. This is a rodeo of a very special kind: there are no riders as in a Marino Marini sculpture, no bronco busters, no human figures at all to distract us from the presence of the horses. In his catalogue essay, curator Michael Auping quotes Rothenberg, who is being deceptively modest about her use of horses: “The horse was just something that happened on both sides of my line.” She couldn’t know her offhand remark would provide the title for this stunning show, but for her to say that the horse was merely the fleshing out of her initial gesture, her painterly assault on the void of the canvas, well, it tosses us out of the saddle.
When we recover our composure, we find ourselves trying to understand just what all those horses are about. Certainly, Nancy Graves—with whom Rothenberg worked—gave quadrupeds a good name with her camel sculptures during the 1960s, but Rothenberg’s nags are creatures of a different nature. In order to appreciate how, we have to look back in time, back to Lascaux and back to Plato. Rothenberg was fascinated by the Lascaux cave paintings, and the horses there, also in profile, also on walls (albeit cave walls), were surely a point of departure for her.
The question, however, is not what such horses may mean for anthropologists, who have seen cave painting as instrumental. The images depict animals the painters would have hunted, so representing them served as a way of controlling them. Or could they have been part of some mysterious initiation rite? Let’s assume the horses in Lascaux were a conduit between the culture of the painters and the animals themselves. For Rothenberg, that conduit is not between hunter and prey, nor even between herself and nature. Instead it is a mystical fusion of the artist with the Platonic idea of the horse, a representation of the essence of the horse, the eternal, timeless horse. The paleolithic painters did not ride horses but simply hunted them; Rothenberg finds in the horse the animal that best embodies her creative power, the energy that needs to be harnessed and directed if it is to be something in the world.
This we see in the monumental Hector Protector (1976), which measures 67 by 111 inches. Rothenberg’s title derives from a nursery rhyme:
Hector Protector was dressed all in green;
Hector Protector was sent to the Queen.
The Queen did not like him,
Nor more did the King;
So Hector Protector was sent back again.
There is hypnotic rhythm in the nonsensical ditty, and of course it was illustrated by Maurice Sendak in 1965, so it may have been echoing through Rothenberg’s memory, but it is not the title that arrests the viewer. Rather, it’s the size of the painting. Reflecting the transformation of gallery spaces that took place during the 1970s, artists began producing larger work, a challenge to the notion that art was decorative and domestic. This horse takes control of the room.
But what are we seeing? An icon, the massive and still black silhouette of a horse with no tail, painted on an ochre background and framed in black. Jung and his followers have often seen the horse as a maternal image, the magical side of humanity, intuition rather than analysis. Couple that notion to Plato’s rejection of mimesis on the grounds that perceived reality itself is merely an emanation, a fiction: to imitate an imitation would be folly. Rothenberg, however, is putting before us the Platonic idea of the horse as the expression of her own internal power, crystallized on the canvas in the shape of a horse. Hector Protector commands our attention, demands we recognize him not for what he appears to be, but for what he represents.
This idea is confirmed in Two-Tone (1975), another large painting hung in the gallery adjacent to Hector Protector. This truly magical painting, measuring 69 by 114 inches, looks incomplete: on the right we have half the horse in outline washed in ochre. On the left, the other half of the horse is washed in white. What better representation of an image coming into focus in the artist’s mind is imaginable? This is a still life of the mind, Rothenberg capturing the amazing moment when an idea coalesces, passing from vague intuition to concrete image.
Rothenberg depicts this aesthetic advent from another perspective in a small mixed-media work on paper composed in 1979. Here she captures her horse head-on: it’s galloping toward us, or rather, toward Rothenberg. The powerful black stroke flanking the charging steed is Rothenberg’s gesture of self-affirmation. This is her horse, and she’s bringing it to us. Though the loss of Susan Rothenberg in 2020 was a major blow to the art world, we feel her presence still, communicated powerfully by the paintings on view here. We are fortunate to have this extraordinary show to commemorate her origins, the moment when the horse of intuition takes shape in her mind.