The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum once again honors a renowned painter in the third installation of its “Living Artists of Distinction” series with a large show of works by Susan Rothenberg. This continuing artistic exploration has as its goal the exposition of artists whose work shows an extension of modernist principles as exemplified by Georgia O’Keeffe and the members of her circle in the first decades of the 20th century. Although Rothenberg has been a New Mexico resident since 1990, this is the first full-scale exhibition of her work that has been mounted here in the City Different.
The choice of Ms. Rothenberg as a model of the artistic voyager is an apt one since she had to contend with the same glass ceiling that certainly existed for O’Keeffe. While that ceiling may have more cracks today, it is still intact in many ways, so a retrospective such as this one is a welcome demonstration of the Museum’s commitment to women artists. Although the careers of these two artists are separated by many decades, the work of each was a uniquely personal response to her era. And in addition, both of these artists reached a point relatively early in their careers when they abandoned the artworld magnet of New York for the pull of New Mexico.
Born in 1945 in Buffalo, NY, Susan Rothenberg is a Cornell graduate who began her rise to artistic prominence in 1975 in the SoHo galleries of New York. Known for large-scale paintings that primarily featured horse images, over the course of her career, her subject matter has expanded to include a variety of other animal forms, as well as figurative paintings, landscape works and a variety of more abstracted forms.
Rothenberg’s first solo exhibition in New York was heralded for introducing imagery into minimalist abstraction, while bringing new sensitivity to figurative works. When she embarked on her artistic career, awareness of O’Keeffe and her work had undergone a resurgence as a result of a 1970 exhibition organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, this at a time when O’Keeffe had already reached the age of 83; and in fact, the Whitney Museum’s interest in O’Keeffe has continued, as their recently closed show of her abstract works demonstrated (you can still see it at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC). In addition, the feminist movement of the 1970’s adopted O’Keeffe as an avatar at a time when the artistic community was beginning to develop an awareness of the reasons for and the depth of exclusion that women were experiencing in the art world. A new clarity proved that whether O’Keeffe’s work was to one’s taste or not, she had earned a real and significant presence in an establishment that was traditionally a bastion of male hegemony. In view of these developments, one can view Rothenberg as a natural heiress to O’Keeffe’s legacy, although their work truly differs, something Ms. Rothenberg certainly believes.
Seeing the work of these two artists highlights the different artistic paths created by their individual inspiration. O’Keeffe’s work is generally more representational and eschews the broad gestural qualities of Rothenberg’s. Much of O’Keeffe’s work is small, intimate and highly focused, where Rothenberg’s is large, abstracted and active, if not downright agitating. The qualities of both artists’ output seem to be an accurate reflection of the times in which their work was created, O’Keeffe’s in a world that moved more slowly, Rothenberg’s in a time when pressures and stress make it hard to relax. O’Keeffe had no trouble taking everyday objects and examining them in minute detail, where Rothenberg has said “sometimes it seems like there’s nothing to paint, so you make up a game.” O’Keeffe painted at a time when the medium of painting was still king, and Rothenberg began working at a time when painting was declared to be moribund.
Overall, I found Rothenberg’s work rather disturbing and challenging, although occasionally work that describes ” quiet unproductive days” or “the slowness of yellow” offers a place for one’s eyes to rest. Her painting Ghost Rug (1994), referring to the last days of her mother’s life, was particularly moving. A large white space described the place to which her mother was going, and the red spaces referred to the space where her mother actually was at the time. She speaks in her artist’s notes of her mother’s eyes roving everywhere, a melancholy description of someone perhaps taking a last look at all the things surrounding her. This work resonated, and generated feelings that lingered even after leaving the museum.
Based on my own experience of this exhibit, I would suggest that one head directly into the Rothenberg show, by breezing past the O’Keeffes in the first part of the museum and saving them for viewing on the way out. The strength and power of Rothenberg’s work cannot be denied, but since that power cannot be described as comfortable by this viewer, one can relax on the way out with the more peaceful images that O’Keeffe presents. No matter how you view this show, however, do take time to see it, particularly since Rothenberg, like O’Keeffe, is a bona fide New Mexicana now. The O’Keeffe Museum continues to provide us with food for artistic thought while promoting the careers of women artists at a time when women throughout the working world are finally achieving the workplace respect and financial parity with men.
Photo of Georgia O’Keeffe Museum courtesy of Eric Swanson Photography