FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - Friday, August 20, 2021
CHICAGO / NEW YORK — Gray is pleased to present On Both Sides of My Line, a solo exhibition celebrating the life and work of renowned American painter Susan Rothenberg (1945 – 2020) through key examples of her most iconic series: the profile horse paintings. 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 oeuvre presenting ten early examples from one of her most celebrated series. The exhibition will be on view at Gray Chicago from September 10 through October 9, 2021, and will travel to Gray New York where it will be on view from October 29 through December 10, 2021.
Created between 1974 and 1977, Rothenberg’s profile horse paintings exemplify a shift in the artist’s approach to abstraction through the introduction and exploration of figuration. Moving away from the influence of Abstract Expressionism, Rothenberg 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 ruminates in his catalogue essay. “Rothenberg was one of a number of women—Jackie Windsor and Nancy Graves were among them—who [were] intuitively defying the machine-made slickness and geometries of Minimalism with a more primitive ethos... [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. “She almost always used a line to divide her horses in half, creating a horse in parts, the front and back end,” Auping elaborates. “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. “A true iconoclast, Rothenberg set out to find, as she put it, ‘my Jasper Johns Flag,’” says Paul Gray. “As with Giacometti’s intensely layered portraits, Rothenberg contained the remarkable duality of confidence and insecurity that, as with many truly great artists, contributes the tension needed to make paintings that cause us to question what they really mean.”
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.”