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Susan Rothenberg wasn’t just ‘the horse lady’

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Susan Rothenberg (Koos Breukel)

Galisteo artist Susan Rothenberg became famous for her paintings of horses, but she never wanted to be pigeon-holed.

“She didn’t want to be known as the horse lady,” said arts writer and author Lucy Lippard, who knew Rothenberg both in New York and New Mexico.

Rothenberg’s iconic horses were displayed in museums around the world and attracted the attention of President Barack Obama, who borrowed one called “Butterfly” from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., for a room he used to lounge in at the White House.

Rothenberg, who was born in Buffalo, New York, on Jan. 20, 1945, died in Galisteo on May 18. She was the daughter of Adele (Cohen) Rothenberg, president of the Buffalo Red Cross, and Leonard Rothenberg, who owned a chain of grocery stores.

Susan Rothenberg earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and later studied at George Washington U

“Black in Place,” 1976

niversity and the Corcoran Museum School in Washington, D.C.

Rothenberg was part of the arts scene in the mid-1970s in New York’s SoHo. Her first solo exhibition was at 112 Green Street Gallery in 1975. The three large-scale paintings of horses was heralded by art critic Peter Schjedahl as a “eureka.”

It might seem like success came easily to Rothenberg, but that wasn’t the case, said Cathleen Chaffee, chief curator of the Albright-Knox Museum in the artist’s hometown.

“Originally, Susan wanted to be a sculptor, but her talents weren’t encouraged,” said Chaffee.

“The Caribbean,” 2015

Chaffee called Rothenberg’s 1975 exhibition a “breakout moment.”

“It was a small cataclysm. The horse is so American,” she said.

A group exhibition of paintings called “New Image Painting” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1978 solidified Rothenberg’s reputation as part of a “movement that introduced symbolic imagery into Minimalist abstraction,” wrote Schjeldahl.

President Barack Obama meets with national security aides John Brennan and Denis McDonough in front of Susan Rothenberg’s “Butterfly,” which he borrowed from the National Gallery of Art. (Photo by Pete Souza for the White House)

One of the most important exhibitions of Rothenberg’s work was in 1992; it was organized by the Albright-Knox Museum and traveled to Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Chicago and Seattle, to name a few cities.

After moving to New Mexico in the the 1990s, Rothenberg started facing comparisons between herself and legendary painter Georgia O’Keeffe, a Wisconsin native who was born in 1887 and who lived in Abiquiú until her death in March 1986.

O’Keeffe’s paintings of cattle skulls, flowers and other elements of nature have become iconic to the point of being cliche. In 2010, New York Times art critic David Belcher wrote that comparisons between Rothenberg and O’Keeffe had “become hard to avoid.”

“Pink Raven,” 2012.

However, Rothenberg came back with the statement that she and O’Keeffe were “completely different” people, although they were both inspired by the New Mexico landscape.

Rothenberg was married to sculptor George Trakas from 1971 to 1979 and had a daughter, Maggie. In 1989, she married the artist Bruce Nauman, with whom she acquired the former Galisteo Pueblo.

That acquisition started to change the direction of Rothenberg’s work, as she and her husband set about restoring the pueblo. Lippard said Native relics started showing up in the artist’s paintings.

Chaffee said that she admired the fact that Rothenberg advanced the role of women in painting by declining to be part of any group show that didn’t include another woman.

“She wasn’t willing to be the token woman,” Chaffee said.