Susan Rothenberg's iconic horse paintings of the early 1970's declared that painting had returned to a central and important position in art after a decade when art had often dematerialized into idea alone. The present work is the first horse painting generated after First Horse, a small rendering on unstretched canvas that constituted the artist's first use of horse imagery.
In Untitled 1/4, the first of four untitled horse paintings executed by the artist in 1974, the figure, bisected down the middle of the canvas, shares equal weight with its ground. The fully-realized horse paintings that followed grew out of this figure, as Rothenberg increased the size and scale of the figure to her own size, making the horses formally equivalent with the self they were referencing.
Description of First Horse: In her 1991 monograph of the artist, Joan Simon writes: "In 1974, while doodling on a small piece of canvas, Rothenberg intuitively began to draw a horse...The horse itself is a very pale, washed-out pinkish earth color, a figure barely divided in half by a vertical line running down the center of a dirty scrap of canvas. There is minimal differentiation between figure and ground; both are painted with scumbly white patches and earth tones, their edges barely separating yet joining the two into a unified, flat territory...According to Rothenberg, the format of the horse doodle evolved from her process pieces. In ripping her canvases, she had found the central line and subsequently decided to draw where she formerly ripped...in the doodle Rothenberg experimented with a number of other ideas, which she abandoned as she allowed the horse to grow bigger and the overall conception to become simpler. One of the notions was that the image 'related to a kind of cave painting idea' which was made explicit by adding some grayish arrows, 'smudged around' on the rump of the horse and within other muscular contours, almost serving as vectors of mass and energy (and predictive in a sense of the geometrics that Rothenberg would later use to emphasize the structural forces of the horses). 'I was also getting a lot of talk about inside/outside from Duff,' Rothenberg remembers'and it was about Nauman's sculptures where he focused on inside, negative spaces for his casts. So I think my arrows were trying to see how I would do that-point out this is the inside; this is the outside.' She also painted a white border around the whole field and 'notched it a la Frank Stella' As she says, 'I was trying to figure out exactly what a piece of canvas is and how to put an image on it and how to deal with edges and figure/ground and keep it flat--all the rules'
'The horse was a vehicle for me, I think in the same way Jasper Johns had to use his imagery,' Rothenberg recalls. 'I think it was a surrogate for dealing with a human being, but at the same time it was neutral enough and I had no emotional relationship to horses, so it really was a powerful object that divided asymmetrically but seemed to present a solid symmetrical presence. I needed something alive, I guess. I couldn't use an object. I'm not a still life painter. The horse was just a quiet image. I was able to stick to the philosophy of the day--keeping the painting flat and anti-illusionist--but I also got to use this big, soft, heavy, strong, powerful form.
In part, it is this human scale that made the horses read less as animal than as anima--a vital spirit captured within the horse's silhouetted contours and evoked through Rothenberg's brushwork. But there are other aspects to their making that give them a human presence. The horses lack detail--or even abstracted renderings--of such horse parts as manes and tails. Bu using only the overall configuration of heads, necks, torsos and legs, Rothenberg reduced the overall shape to notations of a generalized figure.
The fact that Rothenberg's paintings were equivalently abstract and representational, geometric and organic, formal propositions and emotional evocations, expressionistically inflected while maintaining the flatness of field painting, organic, actually invited a range of interpretations, whether one focused on one or a combination of these properties. There being no immediate precedent in painting for her approach, Rothenberg's work could conveniently be seen as the link between Minimalist reductions and systematic permutations and figurative, Expressionist painting: she took the next logical step of barely adding abstracted imagery to overall reductive fields. Furthermore, her palette was not so far from the tonality of Post-Minimal installations or earth-art projects as to signal traditional, full-color painting."
(Joan Simon in Susan Rothenberg, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1991, pp 27-33, 36, 47)