Straddling the boundaries between abstraction and figuration, the flattened picture plane combined with the elegant, yet powerful, silhouetted horse first became synonymous with Susan Rothenberg's name in 1973. Executed the year after she became devoted to the exploration of this singular form, Mukahara is an iconic early example of Rothenberg's signature style, as well as her investigation of the medium. Painted in warm pinkish earth-tones, a faint white silhouetted line becomes the only differentiation between the figure and ground. Reintroducing the form back into Minimal, Conceptual, and Abstract art, Rothenberg implements the figure of the horse in the same way Robert Ryman employed white in his painterly explorations, at the same time the shape's simple glyph-like outline is derived from Barnett Newman's famous zip. Though in her earliest paintings the horse is depicted in a relatively static position, the horse in Mukahara is taken to the next level. The animal, painted in mid-gallop, is pinned into the painting and caught by the confines of the canvas itself. The powerful vertical line that runs down the middle of the canvas bisects the animal and keeps the picture flat, which further complicates the understanding of Rothenberg's image.
Using the horse as a tool for investigating abstract painting, Rothenberg developed her stable motif almost by accident. "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," she says. "But I wasn't satisfied with what I was doing. So one dull afternoon two and a half years ago, I doodled the image of a horse. It divided perfectly. Maybe there was some unconscious reason, but horses don't mean anything special to me. I rode them at camp, but that's about it. The horse was just something that happened to both sides of my line. The image held the space and the line kept the picture flat" (S. Rothenberg, quoted in New York, 3 May 1976, reprinted in Susan Rothenberg: MATRIX/BERKELEY 3, exh. cat., University Art Museum, University of California Berkeley, 1978, n.p.).
Similar to Piet Mondrian's grids, Rothko's fields of color, or the upside-down motifs of George Baselitz, Rothenberg's repetitions transformed into her own spiritual mantra. The expressiveness of this single composition became so immense that as the image became endlessly repeated, the inherent, profound meaning was amplified, elaborated, and characterized anew with each variation.
Immediately recognized as bold signals of change, Rothenberg's horse paintings represent the moment in the 1970s when figuration was being reinvented after decades of abstraction holding center stage. Announcing that figurative painting still had a capacity to surprise us and hold our attention, Rothenberg became the de facto leader of what would be christened, New Image Painting, the movement which would explore ways of re-engaging figuration. Although occupying an arena for women in American art that was first carved out by Georgia O'Keefe, Rothenberg has both expanded and redefined that field by demonstrating that women have the power to chart new directions in art. Among other things, she is the first woman to be credited with having played an influential role in the development of an important artistic movement.
After decades of fascination with this singular image, which reshaped artistic output in America, Rothenberg has come to accept that the horse has grown into much more than just an instrument for her abstraction. So imbued with her own self-image, Rothenberg's horses operate as the artist's own self-portrait, chronicling her career in New York during the 1970s and 80s. Now working out of New Mexico and experimenting with a wide range of Southwestern imagery, the horse, as well as her modeling of the rusty pink pigment, serve as an important catalyst into the artist's contemporary explorations.