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. The mixtures of pink and white acrylic paint, which dominate the color composition of the canvas, dissolve the figure-ground distinction and initiate a dialogue regarding relationship between subjects and their surroundings. Rothenberg’s formal decision to paint the horse and the background the same color came about through her conceptions of how subjects and objects are located in space. Recounting her drive to Jones Beach to participate in a Joan Jonas performance, the artist stated: “Everything seemed to have the same color as the rest of the scenery. How can you tell one thing from another? Where does one thing stop and the other begin if they’re the same color? You would obviously have to have a line, or a bare white space. And I related that directly to the horse paintings I had begun to paint.” (Susan Rothenberg quoted in Joan Simon, Susan Rothenberg, New York, 1991, p. 36). Moreover, Rothenberg’s rare use of the diagonal bisecting the canvas, as opposed to her common employment of verticals, creates a visually compelling effect, providing structure to the canvas and gifting it with a refined geometric sensibility. 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 was both “forceful and free.” (Joan Simon, Susan Rothenberg, New York, 1991, p.36)
Exuding a visual poetry of both image and form, the present work exhibits a heartwarming quietude. Distinct in its geometric compositional simplicity and affecting color palette, its mystic subject delivers a primal quality that is at once immediate and understated. 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.” (Ibid., p.36) Akin to a mesmerizing photograph, Diagonal captures an instance in time, albeit a subjective, expressive one. Regarding her paintings, the artist once she wants to “catch a moment, the moment to exemplify an emotion.” (Susan Rothenberg quoted in an interview with Grace Glueck, New York Times, July 22 1984) Furthermore, given its resemblance to pre-historic cave paintings and its evocation of fundamental tenets of the human experience such as nature, memory and emotion, Diagonal underscores the universality of human experience, across time periods and geographies.
More importantly, Diagonal is representative of the artist’s resounding art historical contribution, one that set the precedent for figural interrogations in postwar American painting. The painting, however, questions the institutionalized dichotomy of abstraction and figuration, seeking a sincere synthesis of these two visual approaches. Rothenberg’s horse paintings, of which Diagonal is an integral example, encapsulate the artist’s never-ending exploration of the world and our place within it. One is left to speculate whether the moving horse in this striking painting is Rothenberg herself, a metaphoric expression of her inner being, moving through space infinitely and graciously, deeply connected to the natural landscape.
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