Susan Rothenberg

Strangers in the Night


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Not on display

Susan Rothenberg 1945 – 2020
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2057 × 2927 mm
Presented by the Tate Americas Foundation with assistance from Agnes Gund 2019


Strangers in the Night is an oil painting on canvas produced in the artist’s studio in Galisteo, New Mexico in 2009−10. Large-scale and of landscape format, it depicts two dismembered heads that float off-centre against a deliberately flattened pictorial space. Painted with expressive brushstrokes and a restricted palette, these heads are laid against a black background: one blue, with recognisable human features, piercing white eyes and a red stump for a neck; the other, greenish-white, an upturned abstract object that seems to melt into the ground beneath. A seemingly mysterious representation of a strange and unknown event, Strangers in the Night is one of a group of thirteen paintings created between 2009 and 2010 that were exhibited as part of Rothenberg’s solo exhibition at Sperone Westwater in New York in 2011.

Whilst Rothenberg is best known for the paintings of horses that she produced in the mid-1970s (such as United States 1975 [Tate T14876]), she has continued to challenge and extend her painterly remit since that time, producing a range of distorted spatial compositions that explore form, movement and colour through a number of different subjects. Equestrian studies paved the way for explorations into different animal bodies, before the artist began painting images of humans and marionette-like figures, both in whole and fragmented form. In 2008 Rothenberg produced her first images of dismembered body parts, beginning a series of works she terms the ‘puppet paintings’. She has said: ‘I first thought of these as puppets, but then I got a little darker and thought about prosthetics. I’m not sure what to make of them. I’ve never felt comfortable painting a complete figure. I guess I still don’t.’ (Quoted in Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth 2009, p.89.)

A progression from these paintings of severed limbs, Strangers in the Night conveys a different type of dismemberment. The two detached heads seem to hover against the black background – the night sky of the title – merging figuration and abstraction in a way that confuses any logical meaning. Having attributed the conception of the title of the work to her husband, the artist Bruce Nauman (born 1941), Rothenberg has spoken about the way in which the work was developed and the appeal that it still holds:

I don’t know where in the hell Strangers in the Night came from. The green head kept growing and growing until it became like a beach ball. I felt like the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where Richard Dreyfuss and the other people keep building that pyramid thing. It gets bigger and bigger and bigger. I’m sure you’ll see [the head] again in future paintings because it still fascinates me.
(Quoted in Belcove 2011, accessed August 2013.)

Despite the undeniable presence of this playful humour, Strangers in the Night also harbours an underlying violence that is characteristic of much of Rothenberg’s later work. The greenish-white head on the right seems physically to disintegrate as it melts and drips into the black night sky, whilst the red stump that depicts the neck of the head on the left – as well as the small pool of red that lies beneath it – suggests a violent severance or decapitation. Speaking of the emotional complexity of Rothenberg’s paintings, critic Faye Hirsch has said: ‘By turns mysterious, whimsical, violent, Rothenberg’s subjects have always toed a delicate emotional line. Her paintings are gestural though not expressionistic, agitated but never unhinged.’ (Hirsch 2011, p.164.) Refusing to offer up any logical explanation to the scenario that it depicts, the painting forces the viewer to question its contents in an ongoing, humorous and seemingly futile attempt to determine the context and purpose of the odd existence of these ‘strangers’.

Further reading
Susan Rothenberg: Moving in Place, exhibition catalogue, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, October 2009–January 2010.
Faye Hirsch, ‘Susan Rothenberg, Sperone Westwater’, Art in America, vol.99, no.9, November 2011, pp.164–5.
Julie L. Belcove, ‘Working Practice: Susan Rothenberg’, Introspective Magazine, September 2011,, accessed 20 August 2013.

Hannah Dewar
August 2013

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