By the end of the 1970s, Susan Rothenberg was established as one of the New Image painters who had successfully reintroduced figurative imagery into avant-garde painting in New York with her well-known series of horse paintings.
In 1984, during a drawing session, an image of the great abstract painter Piet Mondrian emerged from a random drawing of an unidentified figure, and the image was so provocative that an entire series of paintings of Mondrian ensued.
"The Mondrian image...turned out to be as psychologically charged and autobiographically compelling as the abstracted horses of the 1970s and the Heads of Hands of 1980-81, and it soon became apparent that the Mondrian drawing introduced another iconic figure into her work...The drawing also represents two firsts for Rothenberg. It was the first time she used a specific art-historical figure in her work...More important is that it marked a completely new relationship of drawing to painting for Rothenberg. It was the first time a work on paper had specifically generated a painting. As she recently explained for the first time, 'I used to do drawings after painting, when there was not energy to paint. I used drawing in a lighter way--when I didn't feel like painting. The Mondrian drawing changed that. The drawing had magic, generative power, and the process reversed. It was the first time that I felt, This drawing needs to be a painting. It wasn't a diagram but actually generated an image. And I've continued to use drawing that way. It's still true." (Simon, op. cit., pp. 123-124).
In the first paintings from 1984, such as Untitled and Mondrian, the artist is magestically and heriocally portrayed. But in subsequent paintings he is treated more playfully:
"In ING-Spray, Mondrian, bathed in rays of yellow light, head tilted back, glasses pushed back on his forehead, sniffs the spring air in a peaceful ecstasy,...[a] Mondrian that defies all existing accounts. For Mondrian reputedly disliked the natural landscape and totally rejected the color green. Here Rothenberg liberally adds pale springtime green to her masterfully rendered landscape, which in its looseness and variety of brushstroke brings the work of the German artist Anselm Kiefer to mind...Because Mondrian is not totally situated in the pictorial field but cropped by the lower edge of the painting, he is projected into the viewer's space, and by reverse implication, directly involves the viewer in the space of the painting. By such means the artist achieves the sense of confrontational intimacy that characterizes much of her recent work. It seems entirely characteristic of Rothenberg, in making art about art, not to do so by quoting the work of another artist (as Picasso or Lichtenstein would do) but by inviting an imagined, personal exchange with the artist himself." (L. Rathbone, Susan Rothenberg, from the Phillips Collection exhibition catalog, Washington, D.C. 1985, op. cit., p. 24)