Contributed by Sharon Butler / Susan Rothenberg’s invariably forceful and confident paintings have a beguiling twitchiness, created out of layers of agitated brushwork from a restless hand. In her latest solo at Sperone Westwater, she continues to embrace a non-serial approach, presenting paintings and drawings of various objects and animals she encounters in everyday life. Two of the paintings, Stone Angel and Buddha Monk, appear to be images of inanimate objects, although painted quite differently from each other.
Stone Angel features Rothenberg’s dirty white palette, charged with warm and cool greys. The figure of a statue positioned in the middle of the canvas consists of an expressionist face, painted in naturalistic if blocky colors, on a white body. Unlike many of Rothenberg’s canvases, the subject is placed in a vague environment: sparse, scrubby brushstrokes indicate grass in the foreground, while branches and red tree blossoms are loosely painted in the upper left corner. The figure, despite the laxity of the paint, appears reliably solid – indeed, like a stone statue.
In the next gallery, Buddha Monk, which I also take to be an image of a statue, is in stark contrast to Stone Angel. The image is all open green-black brushwork, like a loopy line drawing, on a yellow ground. The seated figure is tilted on its side and appears to be falling out of the picture plane. Here the Buddha’s traditional stillness gives way to a tremulous, off-kilter uncertainty, as if he is experiencing the jolt of 7.0-magnitude earthquake.
After contemplating the paintings of inanimate figures, I looked at the largest painting in the show, Pianist Playing Shubert. Curiously, the pianist, whose torso faces the viewer, looks to the right with arms outstretched, as if about to play, yet the piano seems to have disappeared. Like Stone Angel, the pianist has a face reminiscent of Emil Nolde or Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Weimar Republic-era work, and the whole painting is rendered in a low-key palette as if the scene took place on a stage. Rothenberg goes with big black-on-black brushstrokes to craft an elegant, low-cut dress. Having just listened to the Senate impeachment trial, I wondered if she was suggesting a connection between pre-Second World War Germany and our own times.
Upstairs, several earlier paintings – a couple of 2017 red bird paintings, a 1990 drawing of a truncated arm holding a cigarette – return agreeably enough to natural imagery. But it is Twisted Tree, from 2019 and one of the larger paintings in the show, that so satisfyingly anchors the exhibition and situates the viewer in the larger picture. Was I, looking up at a naked trunk and winter branches of muscularly painted greys and blacks, overly optimistic in hoping that this might be the last winter of our discontent? I’m not sure what Rothenberg intended, but her sublime paintings made me ponder the question.
“Susan Rothenberg,” Sperone Westwater, 257 Bowery, New York, NY. Through February 29, 2020.
Susan Rothenberg’s disparate images
Charlie Finch on Yusavage and Rothenberg: The not-so-innocent girl child vs. the older woman who has actually lived
Katherine Bradford: Deep image painting