Susan Rothenberg's intuitive approach to painting led her one day in 1973 to spontaneously sketch the image of a horse—a subject that would preoccupy her until 1980. She later recalled, "I had been doing abstract paintings, using a central dividing line so as to keep the painting on the surface and call attention to the canvas. . . . The horse was just something that happened on both sides of my line. The image held the space and the line kept the picture flat." 
Rothenberg's horse imagery signaled a return not only to painting but to painting recognizable forms following the predominantly abstract, object oriented minimalist era of the 1960s and early 1970s. This "New Image Painting," named after a benchmark Whitney museum exhibition in 1978 in which Butterfly was featured, called attention to recognizable imagery while subverting its prominence through painterly application.
In Butterfly, Rothenberg laid the intersecting black diagonals and the silhouetted black horse against a burnt sienna ground. This composition at once blurs the distinction between the form-flattening diagonals and the horse's anatomy while creating tension between the static of the black bars and the implied motion of the horse. "The geometry," Rothenberg explained, "is a heavy black x whose crossing point inside the horse's black body disappears in black paint. The black point that forms the horse's body also forms the geometry, and there is some confusion between the legs and the bars. It is interesting that the black line disappears and then reemerges so that the x and the horse become one and the same.  The title Butterfly alludes to the shape of the x.
Rothenberg's primitive horses recall a friezelike classicism and suggest the chalky cave paintings at Lascaux. Rothenberg, however, added a psychological dimension to her work by endowing each horse with a distinct character. This image, with its lean black silhouette, appears rather formal and stiff, though its almost graphic severity is softened by the brushy flickers of white texturing the canvas and the occasional white outline suggesting a shallow depth. As Rothenberg developed her expressionist brushwork and the illusion of depth in her work, she fragmented the horse imagery and eventually moved away from it entirely. She later remarked, "For years I didn't give much thought to why I was using a horse. I just thought about wholes and parts, figures and space."  Rothenberg has continually—inventively—been able to balance an intuitive approach with formal concerns.
(Text by Molly Donovan, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)
1. Susan Rothenberg in Dorothy Seiberling, "Dutch Treat," New York, 3 May 1976, 73.2. Susan Rothenberg in Richard Marshall, New Image Painting [exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art] (New York, 1978), 56.3. Susan Rothenberg in "Expressionism Today: An Artist's Symposium," Art in America II (December 1982), 139.
The artist; gift to her daughter, Maggie Trakas; purchased 30 January 1995 through (Sperone Westwater, New York) by NGA.
Associated NamesSperone Westwater
- Pinturas de Susan Rothenberg [Paintings by Susan Rothenberg], Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey, Mexico, 1996-1997, no. 4, repro.
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Cole, David. “Obama and Terror: The Hovering Questions.” New York Review of Books 59, no. 12 (July 12, 2012): 33, color repro.