“At the time I was interested in the cave paintings of Altamira. I looked at photographs of them. I think I was fascinated by the spirit they projected, even in photographs—these horses and bulls, I guess, charging across the cave wall. Those photographs had something to do with why I painted the horses.”
Susan Rothenberg’s Neopha is a quintessential example of the artist’s arresting, iconic and primitivistic galloping horse motif. Neopha encapsulates the artist's signature wedding of elements of minimalism and abstraction coupled with evocative and gestural brushwork through which she manifests striking and redolent representation in her compositions. Typifying her distinctive artistic project, Neopha is a powerful testament to the vision, talent and vanguardism of Rothenberg’s work.
In 1974, Rothenberg began sketching on unstretched canvas the first of her horse paintings. Like many of her peers, Rothenberg sought a way to break into figuration that did not betray the principals of Minimalism. Of her influences Rothenberg said: “At the time I was interested in the cave paintings of Altamira. I looked at photographs of them. I think I was fascinated by the spirit they projected, even in photographs—these horses and bulls, I guess, charging across the cave wall. Those photographs had something to do with why I painted the horses." In Neopha, a horse in a moment of suspended animation appears set against a black background differentiated only by its white silhouette, mid-gallop. The sense of movement is derived from the doubling of the horse’s outline, the front legs lifted off the ground and the back haunches poised to propel the animal forward. Further enhancing the dynamism of the present work's central subject are the subtle gestural brushstrokes that create a rich, supple surface, showcasing Rothenberg’s signature touch, which Joan Simon describes as both “forceful and free.” (Joan Simon, Susan Rothenberg, New York 1991, p.36)
Susan Rothenberg Horses in Museum Collections
The strong white line running vertically through the picture plane and bisecting both canvas and horse underscores the geometric element of Rothenberg’s work, and powerfully highlights her active investigation of abstract painting. “I had been doing abstract paintings, using a central dividing line so as to keep the painting on the surface and call attention to the canvas…the image held the space and the line kept the picture flat." (Susan Rothenberg, quoted in: Exh. Cat., University Art Museum, University of California Berkeley, Susan Rothenberg, Matrix/Berkeley 3, 1978, n.p.) The abstract rendering of the horse in this painting, evident in the lack of explicit details, eludes naturalistic associations, instead manifesting a spiritual life force of its own.
Rothenberg’s glyph-like paintings are imbued with a mythic significance, exuding a visual poetry of both image and form, and the present work exhibits a heartwarming quietude. As Joan Simon remarks: “The overall impression of the horse paintings made at the time was one of familiarity – of a recognizable, emotional, warm presence, an expression that was as subtle as it was direct.” (Op. cit., p.36) Both recognizable and otherworldly, childlike and profound, Neopha showcases the alchemical and painterly magic of Rothenberg’s most celebrated series.