Late Nights at the Whitney
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ADAM WEINBERG: Evening, everyone. I’m Adam Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum. Thank you for all being here tonight. It’s good to see such a packed crowd. I’m pleased that we were all able to get together here under the tent so we can all see and join in the discussion tonight. I want to welcome you to the sixth Walter Annenberg annual lecture. This program highlights the distinguished artist who has made a significant contribution to American art and culture. In our previous speakers, we’ve included Chuck Close, Horoti Sutamoto, John Simpson, John Baldessari, and Bill Viola. We would like to acknowledge this evening the members of the Annenberg family who are here with us; Stephen Ames, our esteemed Whitney trustee, chairman of our drawings and our acquisition committee, and a longtime supporter of Susan Rothenberg’s work; Elizabeth Kabler, who is an active member of our acquisitions committee; Lizzie Kabler, who has a budding career in the arts and has been spending more and more time around the Whitney, with which we’re delighted; and Dennis Dupden, who is a member of our chairman’s council. Thank you all for being here with us, and thank you all for your support of the Museum. It is a great honor and a pleasure to present Susan Rothenberg for this year’s Walter Annenberg lecture. Her singular style, her pioneering work reintroducing the configuration of the 1970s, and her current work exploring figuration and abstraction establishes her as one of the most important painters working today. The Whitney is dedicated to supporting the work of living artists, specifically the current work of artists, highlighting the present moment in the context of the past. While we are going to talk about some history tonight, we’re going to try to move you up to the present as quickly as possible. Rothenberg’s current work is an extraordinary exploration of the act of looking and the act of representation. Describing her art, Peter Schjeldahl described the canvases as “marvels of surface and color.” Her lush, yet not extravagant brushwork, and the precise use of palette make her painting particularly rich and varied. Her work is often characterized as kinetic, with a masterful sense of movement even in its stillness. Rothenberg’s art celebrates the process of painting, embracing impurities, accidents, and discoveries made along the way. She rigorously investigates pictorial space, and the viewer’s sense of perspective. She has an extraordinary capacity to surprise and delight with her constantly evolving subjects. The Whitney has long believed in Rothenberg’s vision. She was featured in the landmark exhibition New Image Painting, curated by Richard Marshall in 1978. She has been included in 3 biennials, 9 thematic shows, and she is represented in the Whitney collection by two major paintings For the Light of 1978-79 and Holding the Floor of 1985-86, as well as numerous works on paper. Rothenberg’s work has been included in numerous exhibitions around the world, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Walker Art Center, Hirshhorn Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. She is the recipient of fellowships from the NEA, National Endowments for the Arts that is, the Skowhegan Medal of Painting, and I’m also delighted that we have with us tonight Joan Simon, whose monograph on Rothenberg, produced nearly two decades ago, which is a wonderful read. I don’t even know if it’s still available. I have to say, I read it again in preparation for this lecture, and it was really a terrific book, but it was done two decades ago, it’s sort of astonishing to me it’s a twenty year old book, but it’s truly groundbreaking work, and a lovely book to behold. And I wanted to point out also that the cover of that book, should you see it, has one of my favorite paintings called Hands and Shadows, which actually is owned by Stephen Ames, who is here with us this evening. Susan’s work is currently on view in a solo exhibition, curated by Michael Auping at the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth. It is actually not there at the moment, it is now in Miami, where it will be there through March of 2011. So those of you who are going to Miami Basel, you’ll have a chance to really take a look at it. I was going back to the New Image Painting catalogue the other day, and there was a little quote there from Susan that, to me, sums it all up, and I think you’re not supposed to sum things up at the beginning of a lecture—it’s usually at the end—but Susan wrote, and I don’t even know if she remembers, “I am an image maker, who is also an image breaker, trying for a little bit more.” And to me, that’s, actually, it’s all there. So maybe you don’t have to speak this evening, but it’s amazing because this is a show that was done now about thirty years ago, and yet the language is so precise (5:00) in understanding what she was doing, even at this early phase of her career, which I find very touching. So, it’s a tremendous honor and pleasure to welcome Susan, and I’m really looking forward to our discussion. Thank you all for being here.
SUSAN ROTHENBERG: Thank you.
AW: So far so good!
SR: Thank you, thank you all for coming.
AW: Okay, so we’re going to start off maybe at the beginning. And maybe the best way to start off is the way you would begin in the morning, when you get up in the morning and go to the studio. How do you begin your process, and is it a process that you’ve followed over the years the same way, or has it changed over time?
SR: No, it hasn’t changed very much. I learned very early on. In the beginning, I was very influenced by minimalism and anti-frame painting so I would strip canvases, weave them, paint them. I used to make holes in canvases and cover them with screen, and take the parts out, and put the whole next to it and cover it in tape. It was a very minimalist oriented, process oriented. And eventually learned that it wasn’t for me. And gradually went to a stretcher, and gradually lost the stretcher, but my process to date, for the last twenty five years, has been—it comes from yesterday and the day before. You think what you want to make, which is hard enough, you think what it should be, is it big, is it little, is it tight, and then I tear a piece of canvas off, and I staple it to the sheetrock walls with four inch borders that will wrap around the stretcher. And I size it twice with matte medium so it seals the canvas, and the oil paint can sit on the canvas, not soak through the oil paint, and I usually have on yellow pads and referential drawings, and then I have a lot of cans of dirty paint.
AW: Meaning you put dirt into it, or you’re mixing the paints?
SR: No, I don’t wash my brushes ever. What I do is add turps and oil painting medium in them, and I used a dirty pink, a dirty brown, a dirty white, a dirty black, and I start drawing in fairly, in one inch brushes, of what I think the image is and where I think things are going to go in it. And when I get sort of a hit on that, I bring in usually white to size the canvas once again with oil, lead acrylic. And I make it thin so I can read my previous drawings through it, and the reason I stapled my painting to the wall is because I paint hard, and I don’t want the palette line from a hard brushstroke to hit the stretcher bar. And when I get somewhere comfortable I start thinking about the palette, and that often changes during the course of the painting, but that’s the beginning of the painting. Size, composition, and I order my stretchers later when the painting is ninety percent done. Leave the margins for error, and that’s the beginning.
AW: And when you know the size right off, do you have an image in your head?
SR: I have an image on yellow legal pads, and I think is this big or is this little? Is this 4×5, is this 10×12, is this 8×7? Is this vertical? Is this horizontal? Is it square? And I study that for a few days, and I do more legal pad drawings, they’re no great sketches. The drawings are another part of the process, but this is how I started painting.
AW: I mean, do the paintings often look like those sketches that you first do on those legal pads? I mean, if you were to go back—are they still very much connected?
SR: I keep all those. It is connected because once I zone in on a subject, whether the head is in the left hand corner and the horse hoof is in the right hand corner or have migrated to the middle, if I clip (10:00) the image, I’m willing to do anything. I’m very big on composition. I think parts of paintings have different weights and balances and color can change it. My basic thinking is monochromatic almost; the color is to bring it up and bring it down.
AW: Looking at some of the horses that are going, how did you come up with the idea of the horse to begin with?
SR: I was very influenced by Jasper Johns. Numbers, flags, maps. I also decided that it couldn’t be arbitrary, that it had to be a physical blood—it couldn’t be something out there—it had to relate to the figure, or an animal, or something like that. It was just by nature.
AW: Yeah, because with Johns it was numbers or flags or things that were inanimate, abstract.
SR: He abstracted himself from his images, and I’m not an abstract thinker or painter.
AW: Although, with a painting like this when you’re putting a cross through it, you have nature, but you’re also sort of affixing nature or cancelling it too.
SR: You have to remember, I grew up at a time when painting spatially, so layers, landscape, head, chalice, table, book. It was quite dead. So I tried to find a way to flatten my paintings, and one of the ways I flattened them was with line. You couldn’t read it in depth; you had to read it from side to side like a book. So I was very much a product of my culture, which was, when was I doing all of these things?
AW: The early 1970s.
SR: Yeah, well I came to New York in 1969.
AW: These paintings are about 1975, 1976 . . .
SR: Right, these are a little bit later. The early ones were cruder. They were more like also interested in the cave paintings. And then, first it was see it in black, then it was see it in white; every horse painting I tried to do, the horse was just an image. I went to City Hall Park to see horse hooves because I was doing such a miserable job with them, but every painting I did, I tried to perform a different act: both keep it flat in times with the culture, and to not repeat myself.
AW: But clearly also you were overlaying systems with this as well.
SR: Yes, I was.
AW: And so it was sort of a tension between an abstract system and sort of nature as you imagined it.
SR: Well when you think about the early 1970s, it was, people were thrilled with minimalism and conceptualism, but they were also, as people do, they hunger for an image they can relate to, whether it’s . . .
AW: If you could just talk a little about when the New Image Painting show was here at the Whitney, that was a pretty startling moment, and could you talk about what it was like at that moment to be introducing images in an art world that was very involved with minimal and conceptual production.
SR: It’s almost like there was a strange bloom. It was the bloom of me, and Joel Shapiro, Lois Lane, Neil Jenney, Jennifer Bartlett, people who felt the need for images, but felt the need to present them in a new way. Not traditional modernist.
AW: And did you feel very connected to those people.
SR: No, we grew up all over little pockets of New York. We hardly knew each other’s work, or each other. It’s almost like a little strange bloom happened. And Richard Marshall saw that and put it together.
AW: So a lot of the artists that were in that show you met for the first time around the exhibition.
SR: Or socially, but it wasn’t a coven. We knew each other at a party.
AW: So as you get to the later 1970s and early 1980s, the images, you start to break them up and fragment them.
SR: Yeah, my idea was (15:00) the early horses I used to draw, once I committed myself to that image, I drew them on the backs of envelopes. I didn’t even bother with the legal pads. And they just boomed out from about 1973 or 1974 until 1980.
AW: Were you aware—
SR: We’re going a little fast here
AW: Yeah, a little fast.
SR: But what you’re seeing here is the horse didn’t repeat itself. How it became frontal, how instead of using geometric line, I used a bone to stop the frontal image. That’s called wishbone. It’s kind of where a horse could be and then the image of a horse. I mean, the horse kept evolving for me and if you ask me why the horse, I really can’t answer you except that it’s the closest approximation to not doing the human figure.
AW: Did you know Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of the . . .
AW: You knew those?
SR: Yeah, I found that they were so very beautiful, but they weren’t very helpful to me. I think I consulted once or twice if I wanted to do something but it wasn’t what I was doing. It was a fascinating study but . . .
AW: And had you ridden horses at all at that point?
SR: Yes, I did as a teenager. I think I once won a red ribbon in a horse race at camp. It just wasn’t a human. It was a big flesh and blood thing, and also the flesh color became very important to me in a way, because on a trip back from Cony Island, I was all blind from the sun and the beach, and I wondered, what if everything in the world was one color?
AW: This is the perfect analogue into that, to the light, in the sense of the kind of bleaching out of the light almost.
SR: Yeah, but my color was a flesh color and then, again, a bone instead of a line.
AW: I mean, in the earlier horses it’s always the entire horse that’s in the frame pretty much, whereas later on you start anchoring it and edging it, and cropping it very, very tightly. How was it—was that part of the fragmenting process? Manipulating the horse to go to other . . .
SR: At this point, I wasn’t taking it apart. Very soon we’ll start to see where I was taking it apart. There you go. So these paintings, just for a reference, these paintings are all about 8×9. These are bigger than me, but this one’s the last horse painting, and I didn’t . . . a lot of the work is intuitive. And I got interested in an idea called “hollows and solids.” I made the shadow solid—this is called Tuning Fork—and I wanted the image of the horse, which was leaving me, because I didn’t have any more ideas about it. I realized I was going to human figuration anyhow, whether I wanted to or not.
AW: Now, you talked a little bit earlier when you were talking about the studio, is that you’re really thinking more monochromatically. When does the color start to come into it? These are good examples.
SR: Minimal color. The horse had left me, and I left the horse. I rented a friend, Chris Robinson’s, empty studio, and I put up five ten foot by ten foot canvases, and I thought all I have is my head and my hands. I don’t have an idea in my head. So this is a hollow fist with a head staring through it, again following the idea of hollows and solids. This is kind of like a night x-ray. I forget what it’s called. This was sort of, I forget what it’s called too, but it has a hand and a head. These are very big.
AW: In the introduction of blue and yellow, at what point do you start thinking about color, and introducing the color into it, or does it just happen as a part of process?
SR: I wanted this to be very cold. I wanted the black one to have orange and green as those strange lights you sometimes see at night. The fist, that was a rock, a hollow rock, was meant to be almost like earth metal. I mean, what is weirder than a rock that’s hollow that is a hand? So, and this was sort of an x-ray idea.
AW: I love (20:00) the way that some of these things have kind of binary qualities. It’s like inside and outside at the same time.
SR: What’s binary?
AW: Two sided. Double sided. You know, you have kind of an up and a down. There are two elements that are placed on top of one another and there’s always this kind of tension between one or more elements.
SR: Yeah, and this was a solid shadow of empty space. An upside down fist, again, ten feet by ten feet. And that was that. This is the only—no, one of two self-portraits I’ve done.
AW: Can you talk about how that came about?
SR: Well, when you jump off the horses and you know they’re gone, there’s a time of “Oh my God,” what’s there. And then I took a jump about my head and my hand, and I did five paintings and that completed that issue for me, so I . . . this is very small. This is about two feet by one foot, and it was just me, and I put those tabs on because I felt like a paper doll. Any girl here knows how you put the tabs around the back and dressed up the paper doll, so that’s what those tabs are. A little smoky, a big problem.
This was . . . once you drop out of a series of big paintings where you know where you’re going, if you’re open enough, you tend to go anywhere, and I started with those three black things. I just thought, I’m going to make a composition, maybe I owe something to Clyfford Still for this, I don’t know, but I got this idea for how am I going to approach human figuration, and I just ended up with . . .
AW: So the figures came in—you knew you wanted to use those three forms, and then the figure elements came in afterwards?
SR: Yes. I’m a big nut on composition. I like to know where the weight on paintings is going to go. And those black areas determine where that figure went, and then I lightened up and let the arm extend to three.
AW: And you’re also playing a lot with scale. The previous painting was rather small, this one is quite large.
SR: This one is very big. And that line there is a floating spine.
AW: I mean also this reminds me of the puppet or prosthetic paintings that you’ve been doing more recently with the arms. It seems very predictive of what’s to come.
SR: It’s all becoming very circular, now that I’m old enough to see that I’ve gotten to a certain amount of painterly mental information. This one, this was another try out, it’s called The Monk. And I was interested in Buddhism, I never practiced it, but it just seemed like, how do you paint the body? There’s a head, there’s arms, that was my way of putting a whole body together without being specific, and I was trying to make it pass through space and mental states. It’s a complicated one, trying out color, called The Biker, and it may be hard to recognize the elements, but there’s a bike, a hand over his head, a wheel, a tree, water.
AW: See this one, I mean, seems to be very composed in color, more than other ones.
SR: They’re in naïve color, I think, because I still don’t know my color.
AW: So you don’t think of yourself now as having mastered color really at all.
SR: I think I’ve mastered it to about an eighth of the extent that I could master it. But I’m more interested in my image, and if I think color enhances it, I will bring it in. If I don’t, I won’t. What is this? Head Roll?
AW: Head Roll, right exactly. Head Roll.
SR: Well I started, after doing all those very still paintings, I got very interested in how do you paint movement without looking like an Impressionist or something? And by God I looked like an Impressionist. (25:00) I didn’t know how you make something look like it’s going to move unless you get all wacky about it.
AW: So you don’t mind borrowing from other styles or thinking about borrowing from other styles?
SR: Oh, you have to think about your history.
AW: But do you have it in your head as you’re going or is it just you look at it afterward and say, oh this has an Impressionist, or a futurist quality?
SR: No, but if you’re suddenly looking for movement after doing, you know—my paintings used to have an image ground in very often a shadow or a secondary image that was in third place. I thought paintings needed a third place in the transition between the image, the background, and the ground. We didn’t talk about that in some of the paintings, but in this one, I was just learning. I was learning, and it seemed to me, if you’re going to make a juggler . . .
AW: You know, the element it seems to me that comes up in a lot of works is the element of play and playfulness. I mean jugglers and teddy bears and domino games, and things like that.
SR: There’s a lot of that.
AW: I mean, because I find in your work—oh, here we go—dominoes. I mean, there are literal representations of play in your work, but I feel like there is a real playfulness in this idea of things being turned around and seen from different directions, and, you know, that you are playing games in some way.
SR: Yes. I think I am, and I do. Some of them are more serious, and they’re not games. Part of our social life in New Mexico was forming relationships with people or finding things to do at night, not including watching television or movies or something. I do play dominoes regularly for half an hour.
AW: Can you go back to that one for a second? The dominoes?
SR: That was on a trip that my daughter and I took to the Azores. It’s just one of a kind.
AW: Okay, now keep going.
SR: Yeah, sorry. But there were these weird birds that woke us up at night, and we were in this very strange hotel in a very isolated part of one of the Azores, and we’d go out our window, but these were birds that were sort of like seagulls. But since I never saw them properly, I painted them as Canadian Geese.
AW: See, this one has a very different sense of space to me.
SR: But it’s all these people in these windows, and the lights went on because they would (imitating bird noises). So everybody was turning their lights on, and trying to see them, but they were like grey and silent in the night. We have flocks of Canadian Geese flying over our house, so I substituted the geese. But that’s like the way the hotel was, upside down heads. It was like a really funky compound hotel. And all these people were looking (imitating bird noises), like what is that sound? It was very spooky.
AW: See it’s interesting, this one . . .
SR: It’s responding to a situation.
AW: But also though it tells a story much more than the other paintings. Sometimes the Mondrian series would tell a story of sorts, but this one is really about . . .
SR: It was observed. It was observed and then reimagined back home.
AW: And when you paint it do you paint it in a sense piece by piece, as if you’re telling the story, as opposed to treating it differently? I mean, here’s another one that almost has an implied narrative to it. It’s a bit more—when you go back to the horses, or you know even the early figures, the single image, whereas this is really about telling more of a narrative.
SR: Well yeah, periodically throughout my career I would give out of gas.
AW: And how do you get yourself back into gas?
SR: I paint in my studio. That’s my hands reading a book, that’s a table with books on it, that’s a dog, that’s my painting table, that’s a working painting, another dog, ladder, door.
AW: And do you paint every day, even if you’re out of gas?
AW: I mean, do you try to force yourself to paint even when an idea isn’t coming?
SR: If I’m in a really bad mood I just say . . .
AW: It ain’t gonna happen.
SR: I usually stay in my studio from eleven until four (30:00) and go in for lunch. But I mean, if I can’t get any reading from what the painting wants from me, I stomp on it.
AW: And how do you know when the painting wants something from you?
SR: I spot a problem. I say that corner, that center, that color. This is an observed painting so some of my paintings come from here, some of them come from observation. This was the dogs chasing, there’s rabbits there, there’s a rabbit there, and these are dogs. The color isn’t quite right, it’s much more harsh in the painting, the white dog in the middle. But, you know, we’ve got rabbits, we’ve got dogs, so that was semi observed, as was the next painting. This was when they killed one.
AW: Now how often, this seems to be part of some series of sorts. Do you consciously work in groups of paintings or . . . ?
SR: No, and I’d actually have to check the dates, but when I see something going on at the ranch that is usually strikingly violent, I take parts of what happened, and I reinvent them in the studio.
AW: Can you go back a second and talk about the two little heads up there? I love those heads.
SR: What little two heads?
AW: They were up in the other one. Can we go back one?
SR: Oh, that’s Bruce and me screaming.
AW: At the rabbit or what?
SR: No, to stop the dogs.
AW: And was that something—had you painted the whole painting and then added the two heads, or . . . ?
SR: Oh no, I felt the necessity.
AW: The heads were in there already, early on?
SR: Yeah, and then I thought of painting them better, of filling them in, but I left them just like “You stop, you leave that rabbit alone!”
AW: I love them because they change the whole scale and feeling of the painting. They have a kind of wildness to them.
SR: I invented the horses being part of the scene; they were nowhere near those horse legs, but the scene was so chaotic that I felt that they may as well have been there. You know how skittish horses are, and they would’ve definitely run away.
AW: And how much of this is based on observation, or how much do you make up?
SR: In this one, half and half. You can’t say. You see a dog killing a rabbit, you think if the horses were there, they would’ve been hysterical, and if Bruce and I were there, well maybe if Bruce wasn’t there, I’d be like “Stop! Leave that rabbit alone!”
AW: So it’s equal portions of . . .
SR: Gumbo, gumbo, gumbo.
SR: This is much later!
AW: Yes, we’ve jumped way ahead.
SR: But you had a theory about this.
AW: Yes, what was that? I can’t remember.
SR: Taking wholes and parts, which is basically the theme of my entire life’s work. Wholes: W-H-O-L-E-S.
AW: And when you say wholes and parts, are you thinking about the way the whole thing comes together as a painting as well as the pieces within it, or are you talking about . . . ?
SR: Yeah, yeah, I’d say that’s a fair answer. This is the first painting I did in New Mexico, and I was trying to paint the horses drinking at night out of the horse tank.
AW: So this is looking down on the horse heads.
SR: And somebody said to me, “Gee, that looks like a bunch of limp asparagus.”
AW: I always thought it looked like snakes myself.
SR: No, those are supposed to be horses with their long necks over the tank. You know, it was at night!
SR: So, this is the accident painting. A horse bucking, a leg, a foot, another piece of leg.
AW: Are you always thinking about the edges of the painting as you work? Because it seems like everything is so strategically placed. And you know, in terms of anchoring (35:00), it’s one of the things I’m always struck by; every little inch of the canvas really matters.
AW: And do you work from the inside out, or the outside in, or is it . . .
SR: All over, all the time.
AW: All over, all the time.
SR: This is . . .
AW: Green Deer, 2001
SR: Yes, yes, a single deer, legs being thrown off balance, the white legs, and, I don’t remember this painting that well to break down. Sorry, I’d have to look at it for a while. This is, again, a domino painting. And I fell in love with green because I found I could use it in a non-landscape way.
AW: This is one of the most intense in terms of color. The hand with the cigarette reminds me a lot of Gustin. Is Gustin someone who has been very important to you as a painter?
SR: Very. Very important.
AW: Both the earlier and the more Impressionistic work as well as the later?
SR: When he took images from his life, not the Ku Klux Klan. I have an appreciation for the middle field paintings, but when he stopped caring about the art world where . . . somebody recently made a funny comment to me who wasn’t in the art scene: “So how’s your art area going?” or “How’s the yard area going?” It was so funny!
AW: So how is your art area going?
SR: How’s the oil area going? How’s the economic area going? It’s so funny. I’m sorry.
AW: No, that’s okay. At one point you said, sometimes painting what you didn’t see but what you think you might have seen, is what you do because it’s more interesting is what you do. It’s cheating, but painting is about cheating to create an exaggerated effect.
SR: For me, yes. I’m not tied whatsoever to the reality of the scene or event or even my imagination. I would like to take back the word cheating because I don’t feel that’s the right word, but extrapolating, inventing, something would be the right word.
AW: Do you think at all about what is going on today in terms of contemporary art as you work? I mean, do you pay attention to it or do you really just do your own work and don’t care?
SR: It’s not that I don’t care, but that I get most of my information from magazines, and we all know that’s not really a great idea because they’re flat pictures, and you need to be in the room with the work and making an effort to get into the artist’s mind and intent. So I have to kind of dodge that question because—well, I can’t get into Anime. And I can’t get into a whole lot of installation art, and I can’t get into video art. And I don’t get to the galleries so much, so I have to say that I’m a little bit of a desert rat doing their own work.
AW: Michael Auping, who you’ve worked with for many years, in his essay in your recent catalogue, the Fort Worth catalogue, he talks a lot about your work and relationship to Pollock, to Modernism with that all over canvas and the idea of it being oriented in all different ways. In fact, Pollock sometimes signed things in multiple ways so that they could be seen in multiple directions. Can you talk to me about this, or am I setting you up?
SR: This was going to be my amusing answer. Adam called me up the other day, and he mentioned this question, and I thought: “Pollock? Not my man.” (40:00) And then I thought Modernism. And then I said, “Adam, I’m not really good with those large, broad questions about art historical movements.” And he said “Okay, well we can cross that question off.” And I thought: “Well God, thank you.”
AW: And then I asked you anyway.
SR: And I turned to Bruce, who was watching a ball game, and asked him to turn it down and said: “Hey Bruce, what’s Modernism?” And he said, “You know, I really don’t know what Modernism consists of. What periods and . . . ” And I said “I know. It’s everything that isn’t Pre-Modernism, or Post-Modernism.”
AW: Let’s go on to the next image. Could you go back to the last one? I actually . . .
SR: Anybody in the Q&A who’d like to tell me, with dates, I’d be grateful.
AW: Needless to say, I rewrote all my questions after I asked her a few of these.
SR: Well I wasn’t going to answer them.
AW: You answered it very well.
SR: Pre and Post. Yeah, okay.
AW: I love these new works, and I believe you’ve referred to them as puppet pieces…
SR: They should be marionettes. Yeah. I started taking the body apart, and I think that I was very influenced by the stories about prosthetics from the wars.
AW: I love the way this is just against gravity. It’s fantastic.
SR: This one happened in an hour. Most of my paintings are two weeks to five or ten months.
AW: This one was hours.
SR: It was a fast one. The first one of these paintings where I wanted to keep reinventing the human figure, using the human figure to represent a mental state and idea, and I want the viewer to feel the anti- gravity, lost, 9/11, so many things where people are dislocated.
AW: Can you talk a little bit about drawing? Maybe if you go back an image there. You were saying you do little drawings to kind of orient yourself before work, but do you also do more finished drawings after? Do you do more detailed studies?
SR: Yes, if I feel I didn’t get some information for the painting I needed. Sometimes it’s before the painting, but it encouraged me to make the painting, and sometimes it’s to put more stuff that didn’t make it into the painting because I edit a lot out. In some of the paintings it’s obvious that I paint stuff out; I want the least there available.
AW: Do some of the drawings just exist as drawings because you want to make a drawing, and it has nothing to do with the painting?
SR: Yes, it’s a thought.
AW: It’s its own thing.
SR: It’s its own thing, yes.
AW: Not on its way to something else.
SR: Not usually. If a drawing kind of turns me on, even if it’s on a yellow page or envelope, then I think size, and it goes right to the wall to be a painting.
AW: Could you say just a brief word about prints? Because I think you’ve made some extraordinary prints, but you’re not making them so much now I don’t think.
SR: I think I’m a terrible print maker, and we talked a little bit about this, I’m sorry if there are some people who don’t agree with me. What happens is you go into the studio . . .
AW: Quick, let’s sell our prints. No, just kidding, but go ahead.
SR: You go into a studio and you’re given mylar, or a plate, or a stone, and you make your image, and it’s kind of fat with the inks they give you, and then they take it away and give it back half an hour or an hour later and all your material, your fat paint, your fat ink is squished to a roller, and then it doesn’t look anything like your hand made it. And then you’re asked either to go back to the plate, or take another plate and make a second layer, and then they go away and they do it, and it’s flattened on, even if you do a different black than the first black. So I feel like printmaking often becomes beyond my control. (45:00) And I want control. And I want texture.
AW: That’s what I was going to say, you really want that feeling of the texture.
SR: That my hands made this, and when it gets squished into the paper . . .
AW: It starts to disappear.
SR: It doesn’t. The only time I ever felt comfortable is mezzotint, where you go from black to white.
AW: Huh, I would’ve thought woodcut because of the kind of rawness of that.
SR: I can get that in painting, but when you have a plate that, a rolled, roughened copper plate, then you go in with a burnisher and take the black down, and then you can get into some very beautiful grays and whites. That’s a very pleasant process for me, and it goes stage by stage where you don’t add other plates to it. You work that plate until that plate works.
AW: See what else we have here.
SR: That’s a print where I was first experimenting with—it’s just an experiment. It’s a human being.
AW: Go ahead; no I was just going to say that this goes back to the horse . . .
SR: Well I have this thing—the four colored horse was an important painting for me to make, and it also had to do with Indian sand paintings: yellow was south, red is east, black is west, white is north and, yeah, thank you. No, I’m talking about the slide. I wanted that format again, and, you know I live in Indian country; we have a pueblo on our ranch.
AW: See, that mask is very kind of Picasso-like to me.
SR: But it also relates to the area where the sand paintings remain, which I was semi aware of when I made the four-colored horse, but more aware of when I was living in New Mexico.
AW: Can you go up to the next one with the horse again?
SR: We have twenty years in between, I think.
AW: Yeah, and also this feels so much crisper too.
SR: Well, it was formulaic.
AW: And that was part of the spirit at the time.
SR: Yeah, I was still trying to keep it flat and never be accused of illusionism.
AW: Mhmm. Next?
SR: More recent, more observed, and more psychological. I did a series of paintings about horses being behind fences, me looking through the fence, chicken wire, bars, so on. Maybe feeling a little trapped.
AW: Is that also a fair amount of open canvas there or not? I can’t tell.
SR: It’s quite a small painting. This painting? Small, it’s small.
AW: And there’s not raw, I mean, it’s been gessoed, or is it raw canvas around the edge?
SR: No, no it’s different whites. But looking through a fence, it’s about a mental state. They’re all about mental states.
AW: And it’s interesting because when you describe the works, it’s always the elements, but I always think of them much more about mental states as equivalents for things, as opposed to the details of them. You said that you’ve never felt comfortable painting a complete figure, and you actually said that fairly recently, so maybe you still don’t?
SR: I’ve tried. I did some paintings that were in Venice that were really trying to pull horses, people, dogs, fences, all that stuff together, and I had to get out of there. It was all too claustrophobic to me to try to render that much thought. I’m much more comfortable here; this is called Flesh, a medium sized painting, and again, it’s that marionette thing. I mean, I’m sorry to say it, and it’s very nuts, but it’s war. This has got a pair of arms up top, which is like the puppet master and then a bunch of spare parts of legs.
AW: And are you working from actual marionettes at all? Or all from your imagination here?
SR: Yeah, imagination.
AW: All from imagination.
SR: Nothing like that.
AW: So now images that you’re referring to whatsoever. (50:00)
SR: Again, the puppet master.
AW: Fantastic, yeah.
SR: And after I again, I reached the limit of what I thought I would do with puppets, this guy appeared. It’s called The Corridor. And this is a painting; this is the last painting in the lecture—whatever this is.
AW: A chat and lecture.
SR: This is in my studio and hasn’t been shown, but it’s a nine foot raven. And it’s gone, as you can imagine, way back to the horses.
AW: Do you think this is a one off, or is it a part of a series of some sort?
SR: Well, I wish it was because I’m very happy with this painting, even though I ordered a stretcher that was too big. And I wanted it just the size it was, so there’s a sewing seam at the very bottom of the painting where I sewed a whole bunch of five inch canvases to go around the bottom of the stretcher. And I thought I might bring the tail down so it’s sitting on its tail, but right that’s how it is, and it will be in my Sperone Westwater show maybe. It’s been a very slow year and a half for me, so I think I’ll only have four to six paintings in that show, but I just wanted you to see something that’s brand new from 2010. Thank you!
AW: So I think we have time for a few questions if anyone would like to ask Susan anything. Oh, there’s a hand behind the wall—looks like part of your painting. It’s a puppet arm. You’ll have to speak loudly.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Um, [inaudible] I found it very exciting. And then awhile after that I saw a large number of Native American ledger drawings.
SR: Native American what?
AW: Ledger drawings? Native American ledger drawings.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Native Americans on ledgers that were given I guess by [inaudible]. Have you ever seen those [inaudible] because they also [inaudible].
SR: No, but I’m very curious about what you’re telling me about.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Arms come out and there’s arrows [inaudible], also full figures on horses [inaudible] and arms . . .
SR: When you say ledger, do you mean in a book—like ledger?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: They were done—I think the Metropolitan has one or two open right now back behind the [inaudible].
SR: No, not familiar. I’m fascinated.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: [inaudible].
SR: If I can get to it, this trip is a busy one, but I thank you for mentioning that.
AW: Do we have other questions from anybody. Can’t see, the lights are a little bright, can’t see anybody. Great! It was the perfect—oh one last one. Ok.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: [inaudible]
AW: The question was: When you were thinking about movement, did you look back at the Futurists’ work at all?
SR: No, it’s always left me cold. I wanted to find it in my own way, and it became as I said very Impressionist. It didn’t feel right to me to be making short brush strokes. In fact, I’m working on getting bigger brushes and making wider marks with less issues between the strokes.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: [inaudible].
SR: No I get my paint from Vasari; they make it in New York—well now they make it in New Jersey—and it’s titanium paint but now they’re sending me powder and oil mixing medium so that I can make it more transparent/ So it’s not unbleached titanium.
AW: Well thank you all for being here with us tonight, and thank you so much, Susan.
SR: My pleasure.
Over the course of her thirty-five-year career, Susan Rothenberg has pushed the vocabulary of painting and created canvases of poetic beauty that celebrate the artistic process. Her work emerged at a time when minimal art prevailed, and her paintings, with subject matter ranging from horses to fractured figures and spinning bodies, reinstated the power of figurative imagery. As a pioneer, she was featured in the Whitney’s landmark exhibition New Image Painting in 1978. Since that time she has produced extraordinary work that remains dedicated to exploring the nature of the medium. In this sixth Annenberg Lecture, Rothenberg speaks about her work in conversation with Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney’s Alice Pratt Brown Director.
In honor of the late Walter H. Annenberg, philanthropist, patron of the arts, and former ambassador, the Whitney Museum of American Art established the Walter Annenberg Annual Lecture to advance this country’s understanding of its art and culture. Support for this lecture and for public programs at the Whitney Museum is provided, in part, by Jack and Susan Rudin in honor of Beth Rudin DeWoody, public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and by the Museum’s Education Committee.