Abstract Critical

Susan Roth: Painting Collage, Collaging Painting

Written by Sam Cornish

Cut Bank 2, 1982, acrylic on canvas, 37 x 27 "

Cut Bank 2, 1982, acrylic and canvas on canvas, 37 x 27 “

A couple of months ago I read a Piri Halasz review of the exhibition Painterly Pasted Pictures at Freedman Art in New York. The review drew my attention to the work of Susan Roth, who I had not heard of before. As I was excited by the work I thought I would draw some attention to it. Though I’ve only seen them as jpegs I like how dramatic the paintings are as images, and how this drama pushes and pulls (surges may be a better word) in two directions: the ruffs and ripples of canvas and colour work upwards towards the containing outline, whilst the outline imposes itself on the action it frames: cutting, nipping, tucking and cropping. To me the paintings emphasize how much the superficially similar works of canvas-creasers Steven Parrino or Angela de la Cruz are academic or literary exercises, three-dimensional art theory rather than actual visual art (can that distinction be sustained absolutely? – probably not, but I think it has some truth to it).

L: Veronica, 1983, acrylic and canvas on canvas, 60 x 58". R: Battle Cat, 1983, acrylic and canvas on canvas, 74 x 58"

L: Veronica, 1983, acrylic and canvas on canvas, 60 x 58″. R: Battle Cat, 1983, acrylic and canvas on canvas, 74 x 58″

As another aside it would be interesting to have the chance to compare Roth’s work (particularly when it tends toward the field) to that of Frank Bowling. Both seem to owe something of their paint application and colour choices to the example of Jules Olitski, and both have used collage to over-come the limitations of colour-field painting. Seen side by side I wonder if Roth’s more extreme use of collage, and the almost aggressive way she shapes her canvases might make Bowling’s paintings (exciting as they can be) look a little constrained, even fussy. But that’s enough musing. Below is an excerpt from a statement by Roth on her process and the evolution of her paintings, followed by a few quotes from critics. I’ve concentrated on the larger shaped, collaged paintings rather than the smaller work (in which actual objects are frequently incorporated) or the recent steel paintings. This partly down to personal preference and partly through lack of space.

Lipstick Traces, 1983, acrylic and canvas on canvas, 79 x 42"

Lipstick Traces, 1983, acrylic and canvas on canvas, 79 x 42″

Susan Roth on the evolution of her pictures

‘One day in the studio feeling very frustrated, I crumpled up the canvas pieces I was working with and threw them in the middle of the canvas.  I abruptly left the studio.  Later my husband came in from the studio and exclaimed how he loved the new picture I had started.  “A breakthrough!” he proclaimed.  I couldn’t believe he wasn’t pulling my leg, but when I looked I immediately grasped the potential and how it had been hiding from me in plain sight. 

That was late fall of 1980, and everything flows from there.  The here-to-fore thought to be sacrosanct picture plane, it turns out, had been overly literalized. It wasn’t the magic tautness of the abstract plane. It was the surface, a plane being only one type of surface.  As the picture roils and crumples, folds and twists back on itself, it redistributes and accumulates volume and mass, consolidating this mass in areas as it thins and stretches in others.  This has impact on the ultimate shape of the painting. It happens differently than architecture as it is a result of the organic processes the method produces.

I found I could create single blankets of canvas undulating the whole field. This form is a much different expression and construction than the discreet LASPAC, large area small piece allover cubism, to use the W.D. Bannard term and acronym, of my previously collaged canvases. Edges bunch and compress and then spring back to the default rectangle of the original canvas. Paintings resemble maps of states and other shapes where geometry is interrupted by geology.  These become opportunities I’ve used to expand my work and a new dynamic for my paintings expressive power.  The shape and masses of the painting engage and weigh upon the viewer. This is not a new aspect of how art communicates, but it certainly emphasizes this property of apprehension.

Since painting is very much about layers and their coincidence and interaction, the exaggerated depth of surface I use provides so many opportunities for variation of application and the piling of layers that unite one  surface.  I can roller and press opaque layers utilizing the depth of surface and relief to keep them from canceling one another. Early on most of the layers were opaque. This led some critics to exaggerate the similarity to sculpture. As Sarah Rich points out in her 2001 catalog essay on Ellsworth Kelly, “Relief Paintings 1954 – 2001, Relief’s “in between” qualities made it an important medium to demonstrate that duality of experience in modernity.” As I evolved to using more transparent materials as layers, I was reminded my work is dependent on the principles of painting.  This would eventually lead to the skins and boxtops where the collaged material is literally paint, painted elsewhere, allowed to dry, pealed as a skin and manipulated and adhered using more paint, to a canvas or other support.  These layers can be almost clear suspending any number of other colors, transparencies, surfaces and viscosities.  There are plenty of ways to “punch up” the expression and make it a mirror to the palpable-ness of the now.’

Susan Roth, May 2013

Mount Vernon, 1986, acrylic and acrylic on canvas,

Mount Vernon, 1986, acrylic and acrylic on canvas, 29 x 72″

‘Because of their fiercely articulated surfaces and their shaping, Roth’s pictures have sometimes been compared to relief sculpture, but the analogy is not very illuminating. If her shaped canvases have any relation to sculpture, it is to traditional illusionistic relief rather than to any modernist abstract wall-mounted sculptures… No matter how salient Roth’s drawing, how complex the shape, her works read as pictures. They are robust, vigorous, substantial objects, but essentially pictorial ones.’ – Karen Wilkin 1984 


Age of Bronze

Age of Bronze, 1987, acrylic and canvas on canvas, 58 x 95″


St Jerome Library

St Jerome’s Library, 1987, acrylic and canvas on canvas, 69 x 93″

‘There is a coarse, very material effect which recalls developments in European abstract right after the war. I am thinking of Dubuffet, Fontana, Burri, Tapies, Millaries and others whose work showed a thick heavy build up of paint, admixtures in the paint, and in general a grossly physical approach to the medium. Lawrence Alloway called this tendency “matter-painting”, Clement Greenberg called it “furtive bas-relief”. It did not result in anything very major in its European incarnations (Tapies and Dubuffet were the best of it) but it did offer a stylistic alternative to the European gesture painting of the time (Mathieu, Hartung, Wols, Hantai, Soulages, Tal Coat, etc.). It was this same “matter painting” that so influenced the early Olitski who then went onto combine it with the scale and colour awareness of North American abstraction.’ – Ken Moffett, 1986

Coloratura, 1992

Coloratura, 1992, acrylic, accretions, glass, pumice gel and canvas on canvas, 50 x 27″


1995 Poseidon

Poseidon, 1995, acrylic, accretions and canvas on canvas, 57 x 40″


Provincetown, 2005, acrylic, acrylic skin and canvas on canvas, 58.5 x 42"

Provincetown, 2005, acrylic, acrylic skin and canvas on canvas, 58.5 x 42″

‘There is no evidence of applied color theory in these pictures, just color itself–naked, yes; raw, perhaps; but her color always defies conventional expectations, whether the expectations are found in the color wheel or the vague gerrymandering that expects color to convey a “message.” I mean, is the rawness of the red in Krishna the red of anger expressed on behalf of this or that mistreated group? Roth ought to be mad that her type of painting has been marginalized by today’s art system. She might be mad about how her being female has worked out in the zone where she lives her life. But how would we ever know? And what would it matter? This red is bound to the experience of this picture. Regardless of whether the interpretations are true, they are beside the point of that experience. To editorialize about the experience is to separate it from its value as art. There are lots of red pictures. Krishna, like Matisse’s Red Room, is a good red picture. Those are as rare as interpretations are common.’ – John Link, 2001. (You can read the whole article here, which includes the images referred to)

Prince of Darkness

Prince of Darkness, 2011, acrylic and canvas on canvas, 81 x 56″


Don Quixote

Don Quixote, acrylic and canvas on canvas, 64 x 58″


Roll Over Beethoven

Roll Over Beethoven, 2012, acrylic and acrylic skin on canvas, 82 x 102″


  1. John Link said…

    If I were to change anything of what I wrote in 2001 I would leave off the words “conventional expectations”. It is a trite phrase and only skirts, while not really addressing, the point. Susan Roth’s color is not subject to interpretation because it leads only to itself, not in a circle, but directly, in substance – great substance in her case. Convention likes to associate great substance with some fancy interpretation, but that is just the folly of convention and interpretation. Substance is where color gets durability and it must be felt, not thought. Interpretation and the thinking that goes with it travels in circles but few seem to mind.

  2. Terry Ryall said…

    This might be perverse coming from a sculptor but I prefer the slightly less physical works of Susan Roth-Prince of Darkness and Don Quixote for example (particularly the latter). They are less dominated by the folded/crumpled canvas element but (at least to my eye) that seems to give the paintings a more balanced look allowing the painted features that Emyr Williams highlights plus the irregular canvas shapes (the ‘framing edge’ that Patrick Jones refers to) to add their weight in a way that results in ambitious unity composed of visual diversity. It would be good to actually see the work.

    • Patrick Jones said…

      Dear Terry,Thanks to responding to very interesting and challenging work.Ive only seen a couple of shows of Susans work in the 80s,but agree that the sparser works were the best,even to the extent of glazes instead of colour.I often wonder whether the allusion in critical discussion to old master art is helpfull,tempting the artist to do a Titian .These are Cubist works to me and like Picasso and Braque were best at there simplest.A response worthy of this website!

  3. Patrick Jones said…

    What I find so exciting about Susans pictures isnt the 3 dimensional collage,Its the shaping of the framing edge,as an expressive element.In this country we assume applying colour to a flat white rectangle is painting ,but the Americans, from Stella onwards, consider everything up for grabs.Poons uses cropping in a radical way,despite the thickness of his paint,which must be a technical nightmare.This makes the picture appear internally generated which is very exciting and subversive.

  4. Peter Stott said…

    @Robin, not against Sue’s work per se, but that Provincetown picture looks bloody awful, I’d describe it as a ‘morning after’ painting, where one wakes up hungover, finds paint on one’s best going out clothes, then the memories of the previous night start to permeate reality, how one came home from a night out, pissed and stoned, went into the studio, suddenly saw the ‘Holy Order’ on the painting one’s been agonizing over for six months and one rushes to fix the vision, once and for all. And then one checks up on it, one goes back into the studio and surveys the irrevocable damage and one knows the only way to re-engage with it, is to get as wrecked as before, hoping beyond hope that it can be saved, when it can’t.

  5. MaryAnn Zeppetello said…

    All I can say is “I like them”. The emotional response is visceral. I have watched her work evolve since the late 70s. Cheers, dear lady!!

  6. Karen Wilkin said…

    While I’m delighted that you share my enthusiasm for Susan Roth’s work and I’m pleased to be quoted, I would have been even more pleased if the author had taken the trouble to spell my name correctly. It’s “Wilkin” — not very hard, but not “Wilken,” as it appears.

  7. Tina Von Schleighauser said…

    In a small gallery in E. Berlin, some years past, I happened upon the work of artist Nikola UKIĆ whose intense use of color and vibrant tints, mixed with texture and and depth, immediately drew my eye. It was both sculptural and possessed of meaning beyond the surface. Though I was not yet graduated from medical school and without substantial income, I invested in his work and it hangs today in my home in Lichterfelde.

    When I see Frau Roth’s work, even in digital form, I am reminded of the startling and explosive presence of Herr Ukic. They both share a dynamism that is rare and mystical.

  8. Scott Bennett said…

    I have been a fan of Susan Roth’s painting for decades now, and continue to be. She is by far, the most under-rated ( by the art “establishment” ) and under- known of our living painters. She’s a great painter, and a very consistently great painter. Either you see it or you don’t. Lots of people can’t see how great Bonnard is either,…or Olitski and more. Congratulations Susan.

  9. Nancy Keefe Rhodes - Syracuse, NY said…

    I’m delighted to see this article! The writer has really paid such close attention to her work; Susan Roth’s Roth own statement has a new clarity and strength; and the photos of the work are quite good. I hope many people will see this.

  10. dori said…

    This woman’s art is magnificent. Make an appointment, find your way to Canestota, NY, and view both her work and that of her husband,Darryl Hughto, who is also a world-class painter and sculptor. They each work – very differently, I might add – with ingenious use of materials, imagination and cutting edge vision. This is their time to come into the limelight, there is no doubt, in my sense of understanding the art era of this century.

  11. Darryl Hughto said…

    @ Peter – the recipe for the drugs is: love, yoga and meditation and great food. Add all the books you can read, (volumes and volumes) and all the art you can see (miles and miles), mix well and simmer for life and you have it! :)
    if that doesn’t work, add mushrooms.

    • Peter Stott said…

      And with all that I’m going to see the greatness in Sue’s work that Robin Greenwood sees? I think I’ll just take the short cut.

      • Darryl Hughto said…

        the easiest way and least dangerous (since the mushrooms risk bad trips)is to place yourself in front of Roth’s artwork. The more the better. cheers

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Peter, I didn’t mention ‘greatness’. Good, I said. Maybe you could say what you think is not good about it (or them).

  12. Patrick Jones said…

    Susan Roth is a terrific painter.I first noticed her work in the early 80s at Salander/Oreilly in New York,along with her husband Darryl Hughto,who was also noteworthy.Her palette was extremely limited,restricted to folded linen and black ,with some transparent gel.They were extremely elegant,with the loose paintwork complimenting a wicked sense of design,using the stretched fabric.There was nothing crafty about them,they were sharp.Congratulations Abstract Critical on discussing current American Abstract painting .How about articles on Larry Poons and John Walker,both of whom have made real contribution to the story of its development.

  13. Peter Stott said…


  14. Robin Greenwood said…

    Like the look of ‘Provincetown’ 2005 a lot. It may come out of Hofmann, but that’s no bad thing, and it’s gone somewhere new with it. Good looking painting.

    • Peter Stott said…

      Can I have some of the drugs you’re on? :-)

    • Emyr Williams said…

      The title does throw up a link with Hofmann who had his studio there. There is a subtle split half configuration in “Provincetown”, the colour has all three complimentary pairs – much in the way that Hoffman often does – but without the “easel” flourishes. A painting like Hofmann’s “Golden Blaze” has a similar symmetry. Hofmann in his painting uses white, slammed in to cool everything down. Whereas Roth has a cooling use of faded red and canvas coming through to give her surfaces a breathing quality which fights against the accretions. I like the sly salmon pink on the left and the switch between (what looks like in repro) cobalt and manganese blues. These kind of decisions do not get made by chance! I first saw her work in Golden Paints at their factory gallery – it was around the late eighties and it was quite startling to see the shaping and folding of canvas, opening up the work in quite surprising ways. The latest ones look interesting with higher keyed colour, sprays, masking and a more deliberate folding. The darks streaking through have a slight Frankenthaler connotation – they are fresh and stimulating to look at.