History And Context
Born in Buffalo, New York in 1945, Susan Rothenberg received a BFA from Cornell University in 1967. Rothenberg's early work—large acrylic, figurative paintings-came to prominence in 1970s New York at a time and place dominated by the Minimalist aesthetic. Rothenberg was celebrated as one of the lone painters to emerge from that era. Her paintings featured life-sized images of horses drawn in profile on a neutral ground. By the late 1970s and 1980s her repertoire expanded to include images ofhuman heads, limbs, and other parts of the body pared down to their most essential elements. She positioned these forms in a vigorously painted field. For Rothenberg, painting has always been about process, a physical act through which ideas develop and are modified on the canvas.
Rothenberg's paintings since the 1990s have reflected her move from New York to New Mexico, her adoption of oil painting, and her new-found interest in using observed and experienced events as a context for painting, from walking the dog, to playing a game of dominoes. Along with thickly layered paint surfaces and nervous brushwork, an eerie, tilted perspective and high vantage point also characterizes theses works. In Three Masks Rothenberg incorporates, through color and symbol, the drama and tension of memories from her past as well as her present life in New Mexico. Rothenberg includes a geometric mask that relates to a self-portrait of the same year, an enigmatic white mask, and a third mask seemingly supported by floating arms, a gesture found in several paintings. Rothenberg activates the spaces between the masks with vigorous brushwork, mixing different shades of reds and white, directly on the canvas.
The Phillips Collection held its first exhibition of Rothenberg's work in 1985. Rothenberg has cited Elizabeth Murray, Alberto Giacometti, Claude Monet, and Piet Mondrian, all artists represented in The Phillips Collection, as sources of inspiration in her work. The color, texture, and brushwork found in Three Masks evokes these modernists and firmly roots the artist's work in the museum's tradition of painting.