On ViewSperone Westwater
September 8 – October 29, 2011
New Image Painting is something I’ve never been able to let go of. Most of the artists featured in the 1978 Whitney exhibition that gave the movement its name took their work in other directions, disavowed the label, or both. It never possessed the earth-moving critical heft of Minimal or Conceptual Art which preceded it, and within a few years it was overrun by the globetrotting buzz of its successor, Neo-Expressionism.
Still, its legacy improbably endures, perhaps chiefly among an emergent coalition of painters for whom abstraction and figuration constitute an empty antithesis (a conviction corroborated at the source by the astounding de Kooning retrospective now at the Museum of Modern Art). The value of New Image Painting, in its emblematic adulteration of Minimalism’s monochromatic fields with representational forms, is that it yoked the rigor of endgame abstraction to the vagaries of the pictorial impulse, reasserting in the simplest of terms that an image’s material is not the carrier, but the disease. Paint is not there to communicate the idea; it is the idea.
After her 1970s canvases of silhouetted horses, which for many seemed to capture the New Image essence, Susan Rothenberg went on to explore more ambiguous formulations of figure and ground. Rather than smacking the two up against the picture plane, as with the horses, she would anxiously hover one over the other, injecting atmosphere into quavering Cubist space. In a reassessment of New Image Painting published in the New York Times nine years after the Whitney exhibition, Roberta Smith states that “Rothenberg was absorbed into neo-expressionism, a fact that on its own has made her the most prominent of her New Image colleagues, and her work has become increasingly complex in its use of narrative and space.”
It might have been fair, in the heat of the Neo-Expressionist moment, to link Rothenberg to that virtually all-male painterly cabal, especially given the correspondences between her work and that of a transavantguardian like Enzo Cucchi. And yet where the narrative thrust of Neo-Expressionism veered between the literariness of Anselm Kiefer and the hermeticism of Cucchi, Rothenberg pursued a personal obscurantism through a roughly wrought set of motifs drawn from the body, both human and animal, that overtly disclosed nothing but refrained from presuming a gnostic aura. Her best work presents, to this day, a poetics of difficulty charted out in pigment and brushwork.
It also continues to embody New Image Painting’s platform, which details the slippery dance between content and form: too much of the former diminishes the work’s potential for a multiplicity of meanings, while a strict regimen of the latter can render its real-world connotations inert. Her vocabulary of shimmering, overlapping strokes remains constant from canvas to canvas, but the tension between paint and image varies with the subtlety and mystery embedded in each picture.
A work like “White Pillow Dog” (all works cited, 2009-10), which reads as a domestic scene, offers little in terms of visual engagement, while another canine image, “Gert,” exerts more of a pull. In this painting, the dog—with its staring, too-human eye and yellow, truncated body—floats, or sinks, in a muddy umber field, perhaps deliberately recalling Francisco Goya’s “Dog Half-Submerged” (1821-23) with a troubling mixture of pathos, caricature, eroticism, and haute disregard.
But neither is as striking as the inexplicable “The Height The Width The Weight,” in which five yellowish hands encircle a pinkish aureole surrounded by a flurry of darting blue brushstrokes. Or the shapeless body fragments of “Blue Flash,” sprawled like a burnt offering on a white expanse of snow or sea foam, topped with an undersized head and oversized nose, and menaced by a flame-like blue brushstroke. The same head reappears, disembodied and in two incarnations—one blue and red, the other whitish green—lolling in a field similar to Gert’s under the discomfiting title, “Strangers in the Night.”
These figures, unlike the easier-to-take paintings of dogs or birds that are elsewhere in the show, leave the viewer empty-handed but not abandoned. They are hardly images that we particularly wish to see, but they nevertheless lodge in the memory. They seem dredged up, naked, ungainly, fetid. Our vexation, even abhorrence, is a reminder that an artist, digging deep, is not in control of the game. Rothenberg may not want to pick our scabs, but she does, and we flinch.