Susan Rothenberg

Vertical Spin


Not on display

Susan Rothenberg 1945 – 2020
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 3308 × 2860 mm
Presented by the Patrons of New Art through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1987

Display caption

'Vertical Spin' is from a series of twelve paintings on the theme of spinning figures made by the artist over a period of two and a half years. The painting depicts a dancer leaping into the air with the figure visible at various stages of the leap. The artist has said that she tries 'to break down and record the conceivable placements and changes of the body on its way up, and into an airborne spin. This imagined projection of movement in time and space met the same obstacles a dancer would know in trying to defy gravity. A dancer cannot spin in the air forever, and a painter can't make literal movement or actual space.'

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

T04913 Vertical Spin 1986–7

Oil on canvas 3308 × 2860 (130 1/4 × 112 5/8)

Inscribed ‘Vertical Spin | S Rothenberg | 1986–1987’ on back of canvas b.l.
Presented by the Patrons of New Art through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1987

Prov: Purchased from the artist by Irena Hochman Fine Art Ltd, New York 1987
Lit: Neville Schulman, ‘There is Nothing Like a Dame’, Patrons of New Art Newsletter, no.9, Spring 1987, [pp.4–5], repr. [p.4]; Friends of the Tate Gallery Report 1986–7, 1987, p.17, repr.; Tate Gallery Report 1986–8, 1988, p.88, repr. (col.); Robert Storr, ‘All in a Day's Work’ in Susan Rothenberg: 15 Years - A Survey, exh. cat., Centre for Contemporary Art, Malmö 1990, p.19, repr.p.20 (col., back to front). Also repr: Apollo, vol.128, Sept. 1988, p.164

‘Vertical Spin’ is one of a series of paintings executed between 1985 and 1987 which focus on the different kinds of physical movements made by spinning figures and gymnasts. T04913 represents a dancer leaping into the air. The dancer's movement is depicted by eight overlapping figures - five on the horizontal plane at the bottom of the canvas and three in the centre on the vertical axis. Each figure wears a black body stocking and has flesh-coloured head, arms, and feet. Near vertical shafts of light radiate down from the top of the image like spotlights falling onto a stage. To the left of the spinning figures is a purple, vertical stripe. Rothenberg often uses stripes or bands to emphasis particular features of a composition, such as here the vertical form of the dancer. The canvas is painted in thick impasto with small, feathery brush strokes of black, grey, white, acid green, yellow, blue, purple, ochre and red.

‘Vertical Spin’ was begun in Sag Harbour, Long Island in the summer of 1986 and was finished in the spring of 1987. Rothenberg worked on the painting for approximately four to five months. At one point she took the work to her studio in New York but, finding that the walls there were not high enough to accommodate the canvas, she returned to Sag Harbour where ‘Vertical Spin’ was completed. In a letter to the Tate Gallery of 22 February 1987 Rothenberg wrote that ‘Vertical Spin’ was a ‘logical offshoot’ of the works in progress at Sag Harbour. These were ‘Vaulting’ (Cleveland Museum of Art, repr. Susan Rothenberg: Paintings, exh. cat., Sperone Westwater, New York 1987, [p.13] in col.), repr. ibid., [p.23] ‘Up, Down, Around’ (private collection, repr. ibid., [p.5]) and ‘Gyro’ (private collection, repr. ibid., [p.23]). The artist added:

I try to break down and record the conceivable placements and changes of one body on its way up, and into an airborn spin. This imagined projection of movement in time and space met the same obstacles a dancer would know in trying to defy gravity. A dancer cannot spin in the air forever, and a painter can't make literal movement, or actual space.

Rothenberg's interest in dance can be traced to her childhood when she had studied modern dance and ballet. At Fine Arts School at Cornell University (1962–7), Rothenberg took modern dance classes as a course requirement and, with a friend, was a dancer at a local bar. In the late 1960s she was an assistant to Joan Jonas, a performance artist, and appeared in several of Jonas's performances. Rothenberg stated in 1982, ‘I'm very aware of my body in space, shoulders, frontal positions. I have a body language that is difficult to explain. A lot of my work is about body orientation, both in the making of the work and in the sensing of the space, comparing it to my own physical orientation’ (Buffalo, 1992, p.28).

Rothenberg focused on movement and the human figure in the early series of three paintings entitled, ‘Mary I’, 1974, ‘Mary II’, 1974 and ‘Mary III’, 1974 (repr. Joan Simon, Susan Rothenberg, New York 1991, p.34). These were based on polaroid photographs of a nude model and explored the possibility of depicting the human figure in positions similiar to those Rothenberg had used in her paintings of horses. The artist has identified a series of drawings from 1980 as the source for the later spinning figure paintings. In a taped interview on 8 October 1987 (TAV 489A) the artist explained that the illustrations she made for Peter Schjeldahl's book of poems The Brute, published in Los Angeles in 1981, were the beginnings of the spinning figure theme: ‘I was trying to figure out how I would address the human figure and some of it happened in these drawings.’

Rothenberg further represented motion in a painting titled ‘Maggie's Cartwheel’, 1981–2 (repr. Simon 1991, p.99 in col.), which anticipates the later paintings of spinning figures. This image depicts Rothenberg's daughter doing a cartwheel together with a shadow of the cartwheel. As she explained in conversation on 5 October 1987 (TAV 488A), ‘The shadow of the cartwheel was happening in future time from the cartwheel. In other words, the original figure was up and about to go over and the shadow was upside-down and had already gone over, and then I suddenly realised these shadow ideas tend to be about time’.

Rothenberg subsequently executed a number of works which featured the movement of a single part of the body shown as a multiple representation, for example, ‘Bucket of Water’, 1983–4 (repr. Simon 1991, p.21 in col.), which represents a figure throwing a bucket of water over itself, the multiple element being the arm and the cascading water. In 1985 Rothenberg began work on ‘Half and Half’, 1985–7 (repr. Simon 1991, p.148 in col.), a painting of a figure cut in half with the torso and the pair of legs placed side by side. Rothenberg has said, ‘the black legs of that painting kicked off the whole dancer series’ (Buffalo exh. cat., 1992, p.38). Rothenberg sees such dismemberment as ‘part of my insistence that you can reinterpret the human body, and that you can take things apart and put them back together again right’ (conversation on 5 October 1987). Also in 1985 Rothenberg executed ‘Holding the Floor’, 1985 (repr. Simon 1991, p.136 in col.) which depicts a single dancer, balancing on her right leg and simultaneously lifting her right arm and left leg and ‘Mondrian Dancing’, 1984–5 (ibid., p.129 in col.), which represents Piet Mondrian dancing with a female partner.

In 1986 Rothenberg moved from the Willard Gallery in New York, where she had exhibited for ten years to Sperone Westwater. Rothenberg later explained the effect this had on her work: ‘Leaving my old gallery and moving to Sperone Westwater has made this a turbulent year. I don't think it was a time for contemplative images’ (quoted in Carter Ratcliff, ‘Artist's Dialogue: Susan Rothenberg: Images on the Edge of Abstraction’, Architectural Digest, vol.44, Dec. 1987, p.58). The series of paintings of spinners, dancers and vaulters executed at this time was concerned with motion, speed and time. Rothenberg became interested in a continuous movement of the whole body: ‘the exercise was to show one figure spinning into many figures’ (quoted in Ratcliff 1987, p.62). As a result of her use of multiple representation, the number of figures depicted in these paintings is often ambiguous, as Rothenberg has acknowledged: ‘I wanted them to be chaotic’. I wasn't even clear in some of them if I meant it to be one body spinning across a canvas or a multiple repetition of bodies’ (Simon 1991, p.146).

When Rothenberg began this series of paintings she was unsure where to find models for her spinning figures. She told Carter Ratcliff, ‘Observing people didn't help. I just couldn't learn what I needed to know from watching dancers perform’ (Ratcliff 1987, p.60). Instead, while working in her studio, the artist found that she could make a particular pose using her own body, for instance, by extending her leg or arm into the required position. Rothenberg has also likened the spinning figures in her paintings to dervishes and stated, ‘There's a dancer here [in New York] that spins, Laura Dean, whom I actually used to study yoga with’ (conversation on 5 October 1987).

There are similarities between the figures in ‘Vertical Spin’ and the other paintings in the series. The line of dancers at the bottom of ‘Vertical Spin’ has affinities with the group of figures in ‘Vaulting’, 1986–7; the kneeling dancer near the top of ‘Vertical Spin’ is reminiscent of the figure at bottom left in ‘Up, Down, Around’, 1985–7, while ‘Gyro’, 1986–7, shows physical movement, horizontally across the canvas. Rothenberg considers the figure in ‘Vertical Spin’ to be female. However, the artist does not often paint women and has said, ‘It is hard for me to paint the female. I think it's because it's so associated with art history, the female nude. You know your own body so well that the other sex is always kind of fascinating’. Generally, Rothenberg views the figures in this series as ‘androgynous’ but leaning ‘towards the male’ (conversation on 5 October 1987).

Rothenberg worked on ‘Vertical Spin’ with the unstretched canvas attached to her studio wall. Two coats of gesso without whiting were applied to the canvas. The size of the canvas was determined by ‘the ceiling heights and how much energy I have, and realising that if the canvas is a little smaller then I would swell the image up a little larger and it would be monumental enough’ (conversation on 5 October 1987). ‘Vertical Spin’ is a large painting, as are other works in the series. However, it is unusual in that the formats of the other large canvases are horizontal, for instance, ‘Vaulting’, 1986–7 (2285 × 3358, 90 × 132 1/4). In conversation Rothenberg said she made the first marks on the canvas with a dirty brush, working with some idea of what the painting will become, ‘usually based on what's gone before and what was wrong with it’. At this early stage she is ‘just trying to define where things go and the general movement. So it's just a lot of wiry, brushed-in sketches’. She continued: ‘Then very quickly I try to locate the paint that's heavier than the image and then I decide the image is in the wrong place. So the heavy painting moves over to another part and suddenly I realise that everything is empty. So the whole thing starts to get activated by paint and gradually the painting gets resolved’.

Rothenberg first began to use oil paints in 1981. This change from acrylic which she had previously used had a direct effect on her imagery: ‘The things I was noticing were about movement - and my body was very energized by this new material. The image and the oil and my body kind of fed off each other’ (quoted in Susan Rothenberg: Paintings and Drawings, exh. cat., Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo 1992, p.33). The use of oil paint introduced feathery marks into her painting which broke up the relatively flat surface of her earlier work. Rothenberg used these gestural marks in ‘Vertical Spin’ to create an environment for the figures to exist in. She was especially interested in representing a sense of dancers on a stage, rather than in an abstract space or a room. The lithograph ‘Spinning’, 1986 (repr. Rachel Robertson Maxwell, Susan Rothenberg: The Prints, Philadelphia 1987, p.86 in col.), also has a stage-like space.

Rothenberg has said of herself, ‘I'm a very intuitive painter. I take a formal thing and then find out really what to do with it. I never try to stick to my formality. At a certain point the painting starts to tell you what to do and your ideas initiated it, but then it should take [on] a life of its own’ (conversation, 5 October 1987). Rothenberg added:

I'm totally motivated by psychology. The whole act of painting and the whole experience of painting is to solve and channel and tame and define what the experience is. It becomes a very eyeball and hand and brainy experience, with the given that it's already psychologically charged. It has to be dealt with in painterly terms and within the limitations of painting. It's coming from a very obsessive, intense place inside me but that's the first thing. The main thing is to get it out, till it satisfies what made me make it, whatever that may be. I never name it to myself.

(conversation, 8 October 1987)

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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