I was living in NYC when the 1980s turned into the 1990s. I was in my early 20s living in a tiny room in a large Soho loft on Spring Street. When I folded out my queen-sized futon, it filled the whole room. My roommate had a parakeet that liked to land in my friend’s hair when she visited my 6th floor walk-up. The 6 train ran under the building and I remember one of my first nights there thinking that we were having an earthquake. Ultimately the 6 lulled me to sleep. I was swept up, in love with my new city.
At the time, Soho was still rich with galleries and every weekend I looked forward to swimming through dozens of openings. I was finding my way as a young artist. This is where I started to develop my contemporary aesthetic, outside of the art history classroom where I had spent my time only a few years earlier.
I developed a crush. An art crush. She was Susan Rothenberg. Whenever she had a show at Sperone Westwater I would have to go and wander past her monumental graphic horse silhouettes. Her visceral mark making sculpted these sensual boney forms. The images were figurative yet for me they resonated more of an anthropomorphic anatomical presence.
How was it that I painted nothing like my art crush? How was it that her paintings made me feel so alive? I had made a choice to be trained in academic realist painting. Maybe seeing her work was sort of a relief. Her work transcended the classical rules while still anchored in some sort of image-based experience. She was coming out of male-dominated abstract expressionism with her own strong voice. She rocked.
After many years, I left NYC and persisted with my evolution as a painter. My work reached a sort of realist crescendo in the late 90s when I thought, “Now what?” Where do I go from here? I didn’t want to jump through any more technical hoops…I just wanted to paint. I shifted to landscape painting and this necessitated a looser, more reactive approach.
Rothenberg still exists in my peripheral awareness. She has never been a destination. Her work just makes me believe in the act of painting. A few years ago, I was walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Contemporary wing. I came upon Rothenberg’s 1992 “Galisteo Creek”, a gorgeous, RED, large-scale painting. It had been many years since I had seen this painting. I sat on the bench face to face with it.
Rothenberg lives in New Mexico with her husband, Bruce Nauman, a sculptor and multi-media artist. In New Mexico, she is inspired by the small dramas that play out in the parched landscape around her. She walks the land most mornings before painting. “Inspired by a walk along the creek that runs near her home, in this aerial view, the artists’ dogs run across the white bending creek as black ravens fly overhead, impervious to the rotting corpse of a calf lying to the right of the water.”-Met. Museum
So I sat in front of this painting and began to cry. I just cried witnessing that sea of red, sweeping brush strokes. There was some sort of bedrock she was hitting. I felt both my connection and my distance to that place. In painting Galisteo Creek, she was soaring, fearless above the desert…like a bird of prey liberated with huge out-stretched dark-feathered wings. Was the canvas her physical wing-span? How many of us suffer feeling the distance between where we are and where we know we need to be? I sat there thinking, there is so much more to uncover…to let go of. Am I brave enough to taste my true potential? Is one lifetime enough?
In my studio, I am working on a new series extracting juicy abstract passages from observed landscape paintings and reworking them into larger paintings. There is something elemental and physical about these passages. I am starting to feel a bedrock energy that has been percolating for years. Maybe my paintings are starting to look more like me…like my authentic energy. Maybe Susan Rothenberg feels this at times.
Pay attention to what sparks you…even if it doesn’t have anything to do with what your work is like. If you are sparked by it, that is a communication. The spark can reveal aspects of your aesthetic and process you may not have realized existed. It might take years to unravel and mature to meet it.
Until next time, weave it in and let it enrich your practice. CREATE.
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