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 ChildrenSusan 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.
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.|
|Heart Murmurings, 1984, acrylic and canvas on canvas, 67 x 107 inches.|
|Yoga Sutra, 2002, acrylic and acrylic skin on canvas, 71 x 55 inches.|
|Countess of Alba, 2012, 65 x 30 x 5 inches.|
|View of Fuji, 2013, 46 x 57 x 10 inches.|
|Sweet Jane, 2011, powder coated steel, 86 x 56 x 13 inches.|
Here are links to Roth's paintings and sculptures.
Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.