Advanced Search

Black Head

Not on view

Black Head

Artist: Susan Rothenberg (American, 1945 - 2020)

Date: 1980-1981
Medium: Acrylic and flash on canvas
Overall: 104 x 114in. (264.2 x 289.6cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 82.22
Text Entries

Since the early 1970s, Susan Rothenberg has been engaged in a set of problems related to the representation of figures. Like a number of her contemporaries, Rothenberg based her art upon the rich legacy of Minimalism and Conceptualism, as well as on Abstract Expressionism, rather than upon the resources of traditional realist art. In her first paintings of horses she used this animal as a surrogate; it enabled her to create figurative images without conjuring up the burdensome associations inherent in the human figure. Placed in flat profile and divided by abstract lines, the horses were used to extend the possibilities of Minimalist painting by establishing a dialog between its shape and the monochromatic field of background color, the edges of the canvas, and its parts to the whole. In these paintings her use of the horse enabled her to emphasize the nebulous boundary that can exist between figurative and abstract meaning.

By 1979 Rothenberg began to reinforce the earlier residual associations stimulated by her use of this animal. She fragmented the horse and selected certain parts—head, leg, bone—to stand for its whole image. In her use of these primal shapes she suggested the analogy between animal and human beings. Moreover, through the manipulation of scale, and the isolation and/or disjunctive placement of these body shapes, she also referred to physical and psychological states. As Rothenberg began to become aware of her subject matter, she also began to realize the potency of color. For example, she found that “red and black are hellish, devil colors, about wanting the painting to have a lot of heat.” In her urgent search for new directions, she began to make “a lot of little crayon drawings of heads and hands. I was thinking that all I have is a head and a hand to paint with, and eyes in my head. (You don’t need a nose and mouth for painting and you really only need one eye.) That’s the justification I gave myself for those images, which carried over into big paintings.”(1) In contrast to the four other predominantly blue, black, and white paintings in this series, the Utica work of 1980—81 has more spectral colors—orange-red, green, and white set against a black field. Rothenberg has called it her “night painting.”(2)

Not only the colors but also the primal imagery of the Utica painting suggest the childhood game of shadows played in the dark. The outline of a five-pronged shape intersects three irregular circles. With this drastic reduction of forms, the artist forces the viewer to rely more upon his memory than upon any learned associations for the content of the painting. The painting’s schematic structure is equally important. Simple, yet strange, the centralized imagery seems to represent a white head and hand emerging from a dark background, hovering in space, and circled by a green and orange-red light. Also lurking in the fissures of the paint and in the imprint of the large hand is the profile of an animal. In the interlocking shapes fused with the dark painterly field, the viewer might perceive the dominance of one shape, the human or animal, over the other, both physically and metaphorically. Or, he might acknowledge the union between the human hand and head, which reflects the relationship between the sense of touch and the sense of sight, feeling and intuition with perspective and knowledge. The artist and the viewer engage in games of tracing the hand or shadow plays, as well as discovering themselves in the multilayered imagery.

While this focus on mind and body states is similar to aspects of Conceptual art (where the artist uses the raw material of his body as his subject), Rothenberg also focused on the Abstract Expressionists’ involvement with the materiality of the paint itself and with its metaphorical possibilities. She opted for their variegated surfaces and overall field rich with content, rather than the formalists’ homogenized surface seeking identity with its support. With her centralized illusion of heads, Rothenberg transformed the emphatic frontality and physicality so important to abstract painting since the 1950s. She merged highly charged subject matter with an investigation of different formal structures, thus reinvigorating the expressionist aesthetic.



1. Peter Schjeldahl, “Putting Painting Back on Its Feet,” Vanity Fair, vol. 46, no. 6 (August 1983), p. 85.

2. Marge Goldwater, “Susan Rothenberg," Images and Impressions: Painters Who Print, exhibition catalog (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1984), p. 46.


Presumed copyright: the artist or the artist's representative/heir(s).