Sunday, October 19, 2014

About Susan Roth And Her Art

by Carl Belz

Authors note: Artist friend Susan Roth invited me to contribute the following essay to the catalog of the comprehensive survey of her work at the Luther Brady Art Gallery, George Washington University, Washington DC, which will open on Wednesday October 22, 2014 and extend to January 30, 2015.
Age of Bronze, 1987, acrylic and canvas on canvas, 88 x 96 inches

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

W. B. Yeats, Among School Children
Susan Roth would fully appreciate the question Yeats poses to the great-rooted chestnut tree, the question of identity that’s central to her own art and thought--and the question that likewise motivates and defines modern art and thought generally through their entwined history--so she’d likely not hesitate in responding that leaf and blossom and bole are each integral to the tree’s identity, to its existential being that would be radically altered, even diminished, in the absence of any one of them. The image of the artistic self presented in the tree metaphor is in itself many sided and ample and open, while the quintessential expression it seeks, which is also the inspirational urge that drives Susan Roth’s artistic enterprise--and continues to drive much of the art of our time--is deftly limned in the summons to oneness embedded in the poem’s memorable concluding line, the oneness of part and whole, of form and content, of the dancer and the dance.
Texcatapoca, 2012.
Which is not to say the identity of the artistic self is in any way routinely known or secured. On the contrary, in the modern world we inhabit our artists are required to find and nurture and express themselves on their own without institutional guides or sanction, and in response and of necessity – their freedom can be both a curse and a blessing--they’re regularly inspired to discover and invent multiple routes to that end. These may enable the clarification, even the resolution, of already nascent concerns and in some cases can take the form of a breakthrough revealing aspects of the creative self that had been inaccessible to the artist’s preceding work.

A handful of notable examples come to mind:

  • Following a visit to Helen Frankenthaler’s studio, Morris Louis began pouring and staining liquid pigment into raw canvas and seemingly out of nowhere emerged as a colorist without parallel among the first generation of the New York School.
  • After habitually relying on black to remedy problematic areas in his abstract pictures--because it was his least referential option--Frank Stella decided to run with it and so produced an entire series of all-black paintings now regarded as launching Minimalism in the 1960s.
  • Joan Snyder collaged onto her paintings the children’s drawings she saved from classes she taught in order to express more convincingly the vision of innocence she sought to picture.
  • Jules Olitski sprayed clouds of color onto expanses of raw canvas and in a complete reversal of conventional procedure then proceeded to crop and stretch and thereby determine the compositions that would be his newest paintings.
  • Gripped by pique and frustration, Susan Roth impulsively trashed the canvas on the floor of her studio with gobs of paint and sundry detritus she had at hand and returned the next day to find herself face to face with a facet of her artistic self she hadn’t known before.
Coney Island, 2010, acrylic, box top and canvas on canvas, 60 x 26 inches. 
That incident took place in 1980 and within a year led to the gesturally brushed and stained and occasionally collaged raw and unstretched canvases that in the creative process were forcefully pushed about and folded and radically shaped into bas-relief paintings boldly declaring Susan Roth’s first full and fully personal maturity. Fully mature in the scope and sureness of their ambition, and fully personal in the freshness of vision through which they expand and deepen our understanding of painting’s arsenal of resources, above all in what they have to say about the drawing/painting connection.
Heart Murmurings, 1984, acrylic and canvas on canvas, 67 x 107 inches.
While painterly, color-oriented drawing is varied and plentiful throughout the pictures, drawing wrought by arm and hand with brushes or rags or sponges and occasionally even flung in skeins and streams, linear drawing is no less essential to their character. It first and last defines graphically the pictures’ framing edges, which in each case assume a unique configuration in response to the pictorial field they enclose--to what the artist calls their geography--and thus do they assert themselves as integral to each picture’s content. But equally significant is the drawing that accrues to the paintings’ internal fields, to the ridges and grooves and folds and furrows of the wrinkled and crumpled canvases, all of them insistently physical pictorial vectors, all of them humming with movement, yet none of them feeling willed by human agency, none feeling actually drawn with the urge to delight or describe--drawings’ usual jobs--but drawing instead that feels like a force of nature. Sensing its authority and presence, we begin to see for ourselves the artistic identity that drawing is made to reveal in these pictures--specifically, the expressionistic potential the artist recognized and seized upon in her morning epiphany that had been unimaginable the night before.
Yoga Sutra, 2002, acrylic and acrylic skin on canvas, 71 x 55 inches.
Countess of Alba, 2012, 65 x 30 x 5 inches. 
Susan Roth submitted her art to a second radical transformation when she began making painted steel sculptures in 2008, nearly all of them frontal in their address and wall-mounted and as such, like the series as a whole, openly acknowledging their identity as the progeny of the artist’s shaped bas-relief paintings. Alike as the two series presumably might be in issuing from the same artistic self, their visual effect and emotional register are nonetheless significantly--and surprisingly--different. As immediately and insistently physical as the bas-relief canvases are, so are the painted steel sculptures as immediately and insistently pictorial. Everywhere clean and sharp and without incident, as if unblemished by human touch or handling, their powder coated surfaces appear disembodied and weightless, as if purely visual, as if being foremost meant to be seen. Against the bas-reliefs’ expressionist passion and urgency they feel coolly detached and idealized and otherworldly, more classical than romantic, Apollonian rather than Dionysian. Where the bas-reliefs everywhere reveal evidence of the process that brought them into being, the steel paintings appear to have taken shape effortlessly, like the one-shot paintings that painters’ painters--Susan Roth among them--forever dream about.
View of Fuji, 2013, 46 x 57 x 10 inches.
Yet, drawing remains central to their achievement, drawing that’s everywhere crisp and clear in decisively marking edges, describing planes and screens, and generating elegantly curving and sweeping spatial trajectories. In concert with the works’ uninflected color it is likewise instrumental in accounting for our impression of their overall lightness of being and their openness to the spaces within and around them, which they seem not merely to occupy but actively to embrace. If drawing in the shaped bas-reliefs is modern in being meant first of all to articulate the impulse to self-expression, it is here modern in being meant first of all to articulate the realization of autonomy.
Sweet Jane, 2011, powder coated steel, 86 x 56 x 13 inches.
I see the two series comprising Susan Roth’s enterprise as reciprocal, as mirror-like reflections of two aspects of a multifaceted creative identity that may be reversed in orientation but nonetheless remain firmly bound to one another, as if twinned. Like partners in a long term relationship they vitally sustain and complement and enrich one another, share common artistic ground, and sometimes seem even to complete one another’s pictorial sentences. Yet each in the process remains itself and retains its individuality, while the two series in turn become one and render her art whole. But how in that case do we--and they--answer Yeats’s question, how do we know the artist from her art? Based upon my encounter with its bountiful oneness, I want to say that Susan Roth’s art, like the dancer’s dance, tells me all there is to know about her--and all I need to know.

Here are links to Roth's paintings and sculptures.

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.


Martin Mugar said...

NIce review Carl: Glad to see these works.These are hard and gnarly works.In a recent review of John Walker the critic entilted his piece :"like sand in your teeth."Applies here as well.

Maybe another Yeats quote is apropos:

"Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."

Carl Belz said...

Thanks, Martin. And a special thanks for that Yeats quote, so inspired, so true.

patrick jones said...

Well Done Carl,Thats a really insightfull and informed review.Oh that we painters had such allies on this side of the pond.Makes me want to jump on the first plane to get across and see this for myself.Susan Roth is a class act.1068

Anonymous said...

RIP Jake,
Your beautiful Art will live on and on, and be loved forever, that part of you will always remain close with us art gypsies.

Wonderful writing Carl
M. Lewis