‘I Try to Recover Her for a Moment in the Painting’: Watch the Late Artist Susan Rothenberg Memorialize Her Beloved Dog on Canvas

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Susan Rothenberg. ©Patrick McMullan/Joe Schildhorn/PMc.

“I think I care about beauty, but I don’t go for it,” the artist Susan Rothenberg says wryly in an episode of Art21’s “Extended Play” series filmed back in 2010. “I hope it sometimes might be in there.”

The artist, who died this week at the age of 75, may not have consciously injected beauty in the most traditional sense, but perhaps that’s what made her sketchy figuration so expressive and appealing.

The New York-born artist charmed the art world with her paintings of horses, an unusual subject at a moment when minimalism and abstraction reigned supreme. Later in her career she moved away from the horse image, but animals still remained a central part of her everyday life. Rothenberg moved to New Mexico in 1990 to live with her new husband, the artist Bruce Nauman. There, the desert with its plants and animals continued to inspire her work.

In the video, Rothenberg describes the emotional experience of painting a kind of self portrait soon after losing her beloved dog. In the work, Rothenberg’s arms are wrapped around the pet, who is at the center of the work; it depicts the last time she held her dog before the vet put him down.

“In the paintings where it’s there—the tenderness—I work for it,” Rothenberg recalls, remembering the pain of that loss. “I’m not afraid of it. If I could put my bleeding fucking heart in there, I would.” In the painting, the dog is rendered small and childlike, while the artist’s arms are long and gangly, as if trying to envelop the animal and keep it safe. 

“I just know that it takes a certain emotional lock-in for me to commit to a painting,” she said in the video. “I hope my paintings can be emotional moments for people.”


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s PBS series Art in the Twenty-First Century, below. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch episodes of other series like “New York Close Up” and “Extended Play” and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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