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SUSAN ROWLAND


For over forty years, visual artist Susan Rowland has pursued a passionate exploration of the forces that move life forward. Created from a formal vocabulary based on the tenets and practices of abstract expressionism, Rowland’s paintings, drawings, prints, and ceramics impart the artist’s commitment to provoking tensions between the visceral and the visionary, the raw and the cooked. This exhibition is dedicated to Rowland’s efforts following her move to Brooklyn in 1986, a period during which the artist substantially shifted and expanded her creative practices. Location has always been a critical source of inspiration for Rowland, who has lived and worked at different stages on Arizona’s Navajo Nation, in a bohemian enclave of Santa Fe, and a few floors above a luncheonette on Manhattan’s pre-gentrified West Side. A voracious traveler, Rowland frequented Paris and London and embarked on longer journeys through Italy, China, and North Africa. Whether a resident or a visitor, Rowland absorbs the area’s cultural resources, landscape, and beliefs and gives them fresh interpretation in both two- and three-dimensional form. Following her migration from Manhattan to Brooklyn, Rowland broadened her creative reach to include ceramics, printmaking, and graphic expression. All three mediums stimulated Rowland’s reengagement with representation. In addition to the handthrown vessel, her beloved Rottweiler dogs, never far from Susan’s side, emerged as subject matter in her art, as did the horses she loved to ride. Occupied by the two ambitious gardens she designed and tended at home and in Sag Harbor, Rowland’s sensitive observations of her environment grew more nuanced and, as a result, her art became more breathtaking. The works chosen for this exhibition speak to both the daring and depth of Rowland’s achievements. Their presence in the Charles P. Sifton Gallery, which was named for Rowland’s late husband, reminds us that their marriage precipitated Rowland’s move to Brooklyn. The happiness they found together undoubtedly nurtured her creative life. This exhibition came to be thanks to the efforts of Rowland’s family, her many close friends, and professional colleagues. The collective thinking was simply that, in art and in life, Susan Rowland is too significant a figure to be ignored. Rowland was born in 1940. In her art studio, there is a faded black and white baby photograph that shows the young Susan inside a playpen. Two powerfully built Great Danes, the family’s household pets, lie unleashed just outside the bars that confine the artist. Dog and baby stare intently into the camera: the smaller aligning herself with stronger. The image suggests that the wellspring of the uncontained forces of Rowland’s art making may be her early relationship with these magnificent creatures. Rowland’s affluent upbringing, in Boston and later in Harrison, New York provided her a life of privilege, but not freedom. At Vassar College, Rowland’s studio classes with Alton Pickens, an American figurative artist best known for his allegorical images of human cruelty, introduced her to art’s power to disrupt and disturb. But social expectations demanded that a husband and family, rather than art school, follow her studies at Vassar. Her marriage to George Briggs Rowland in 1962 was quickly followed by the birth of two children, Christopher and Alix. It wasn’t until after her divorce that Rowland found her way back into the studio art classroom. In 1972, Rowland enrolled at the Arts Students League of New York where she became the student of the League’s influential instructor, Bruce Dorfman. Dorfman’s classes provided rigorous formal training in the uses and relationships of line, color, and form in non-objective painting. The instructor’s own mixed-media practices of layering paint and using nontraditional materials to create complex assemblage paintings informed Rowland’s later efforts to build relief onto the surface of the canvas. After two years of study, Dorfman urged Rowland to strike out on her own. Facing financial constraints, she made the pivotal decision to leave New York and resettle in Santa Fe. In her adobe studio, Rowland built monumental frames well over six feet in length and height. On the stretched canvas, she constructed vast topographies of oil paint and collage. Experimental by nature and open to diverse influences and sources, Rowland freely combined mundane materials such as paper and pencil marks with applications of gold leaf and molten silver. She offset her energetic brush marks, explosive splatters, and muscular impasto of opulent color with deliberate acts of vandalism. Line appeared as crosses, chevrons, triangles, or a forceful diagonal swath of paint. Often, a loosely constructed grid worked to impose tranquilizing harmony on the tempestuous physicality of her vision. The sublime beauty of New Mexico and its blend of Anglo, Spanish, and Native American cultures fueled Rowland’s interest in the inherent mysticism of the creative act while the titles of her works, such as Psychic Fishing and Terra Incognita, suggest the profound connection Rowland felt between surface and the secrets that lay buried underneath. “Here in New Mexico, there is the chaos of nature and man is not beautiful against it,” she observed on a sheet of notes she made following a return visit to New York. Her reflections then turned inward to the charged environment of her studio. She wrote, “Every day in the studio is a struggle between chaos and order. The risk is that darkness, death, and madness will overcome light and reason. Painting every day shows loss is not forever. That horses won’t turn against their riders, that bombers will not darken the sky.” Opposite: Bowl, high fired glazed stoneware 11.5 w x 16.5 d x 15.5 h inches;

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For the next two years, Rowland immersed herself in the curriculum taught by Bob Barry, a student of the American master ceramicist Paul Soldner and a leading faculty member of LIU’s art department. Rowland absorbed the technical knowledge and clay-handling techniques taught in Barry’s classes, and he became her mentor and close friend. In her studio downstairs, Rowland installed a kiln and a wheel, as well as added glaze-making materials to her arsenal of art supplies. Upstairs, she collaborated with her husband to plant a visual feast of grasses, flowers, herbs, fruit trees, and vegetable beds on the large wooden deck outside their living room. Over time, the two realms began to merge in Rowland’s creative practices.

Rowland’s efforts were rewarded with a 1976 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship as well as critical and commercial success, marked by solo exhibitions at Santa Fe’s leading art galleries. But after five years of self-imposed exile from New York’s art scene, Rowland was ready to return home. In 1979, she moved her studio to Manhattan’s West 79th Street, eager to reengage with the city’s contemporary art world. On her canvas, the grid she had engaged with in Santa Fe began to loosen and she began to employ primary colors as her main palette. Rowland embarked on a new course of figure drawing and the circle and the arc moved to the forefront of her abstract paintings. Shortly after her return to New York, Rowland met Tony Sifton at Elaine’s, the legendary Upper East Side hotspot. The two were married shortly thereafter. In 1986, the couple purchased a unit in a Brooklyn downtown warehouse that was in the process of being converted into apartments. The ample raw space allowed Rowland to build a spacious, light-filled studio below the living quarters that was topped with a generously proportioned deck for a raised garden. That same year, Rowland decided to return to Santa Fe to take part in one of the first master classes taught by Richard Diebenkorn at the Santa Fe Institute. On the advice of Diebenkorn, Rowland made a list of the “rules” of abstract expressionism with the intention of helping herself break through an impasse she had reached in painting. But as Rowland later told art writer Dodie Kazanjian, her interest in “big, egotistical abstract painting” was waning. Turning her attention from painting, Rowland followed the suggestion of a neighbor and decided to explore the ceramics classes offered at Long Island University.

In her large-scale paintings, Rowland began to pursue abstracted interpretations of botanical motifs. In the 1999 painting Amaryllis, vibrant red petals float against a charged ground of broad revolving strokes of white and black paint, revealing the artist’ interest in plant morphology and the centrifugal forces of regeneration. Although painting continued to be an important activity for Rowland, she also found a way to dramatically reduce the heroic dimensions of her art without sacrificing its ferocity. Through the intimate mode of drawing, Rowland brought forward works on paper of startling chromatic and graphic intensity that fused the artist’s interest in the forms and colors of nature with her impressions of the landscapes she had encountered in far corners of the world. Seeking ways to make her imagery even more raw and immediate, Rowland brought her experimental mindset to the printmaking studio of Marina Ancona, where together the artists created ephemeral impressions of weeds with the roots and dirt still attached, samples of dog hair, and even dollops of freshly fallen snow. continued on page 15

Opposite: Pitcher, high fired glazed stoneware 14.5 w x 7 d x 21,75 h inches; Above: Amarylis, oil paint on canvas 68 w x 68 h, 1991 3


Top: Vessels, high fired glazed stoneware 18.5 w x 15.5 d x 16 h inches; Bottom: Vessels plus Carla 11.5 w x 11.5 d x 20 h inches

Top: Vessels, high fired glazed stoneware 6.5 w x 6.5 d x 16.25 h inches; Bottom: Critters, high fired glazed stoneware 10 w x 21 d x 13 h inches

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This page: Pitcher, high fired glazed stoneware 19.25 w x 14 d x 20.25 h inches; Opposite: Vessels, high fired glazed stoneware Various sizes - largest 21 w x 17 d x 19.5 h inches

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A woman, after hearing Bertrand Russell describe the structure of the universe said, “Very clever young man, but the world is a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise, and it’s turtles all the way down.” She was wrong. Actually, it’s dogs all the way down. North of Barcelona, in a medieval church I saw two small lions holding up a sarcophagus, but the itinerant sculptors who worked on the churches hadn’t seen any real lions and those lions are dogs with manes. I have seen working dogs everywhere, supporting Chinese temples and French drainpipes, hunting Italian dragons and guarding the dead in Mexican, Etruscan and Egyptian tombs. These clay dogs, the Carlas, are not monumental, but they are from a pack of important little dogs, made to hold up New York. SR

Carlas, 2000 - 2006, high fired glazed stoneware largest - 14 w x 9 d x 14 h inches

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Left: Drawing, oil paint, charcoal, crayon, and graphite on paper 40.75 h x 29.5 w inches; Opposite: Vessels, high fired glazed stoneware Various sizes - largest 9 w x 9 d x 25.5 h inches

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During the winter after the attack on the World Trade Center I obsessively read W.G. Sebald’s novels about destruction, memory and landscape. His stories reminded me that the butterfly bush, Buddleia, is revered by Europeans as the first plant to return after the firebombing of their cities. I wondered what would grow around our ruins in the first spring after 9/11.

9/11 Weed Prints Monoprint, 2002, Various sizes - largest 32 w x 30 h inches

I know the persistence of plants as for several years I have been making monoprints of city weeds from parking lots, cracks in the sidewalk, gutters and demolition sites. When the first spring growth of 2002 appeared on my Brooklyn sidewalk, I went over to the chaotic destruction area to look for green. 13

On that day, March 11, 2002, the only sprouts I found were at the base of the south side of a building on Edgar Street. With Marina Ancona at Ten Grand Press, I printed those tiny green leaves. I was never allowed into the center of the site, hardhat territory, but all summer I walked the circumference and collected 22 annual species growing from seeds that had been buried under rubble and ash. On each print I have written where the plant was growing and have stamped the latitude and longitude of the center of the World Trade site, the target. SR


This page: 9/11/2001, high fired glazed stoneware 17 w x 14 d x 19.5 h inches; Opposite: Amarylis Again, oil paint, c harcoal, crayon, and graphite on paper 54.5 w x 54.5 h inches 1989 - 1999 15


Rowland’s printmaking activities took on new urgency following the events of 9/11. Throughout the spring and summer of 2011, Rowland traveled frequently to Ground Zero searching for signs of green life. She ultimately collected and printed 22 plant samples from the site’s perimeter. On each monoprint, Rowland wrote the location of the species and stamped the latitude and longitude of the doomed towers. Of the project, Rowland wrote, “… after the attack on the World Trade Center, I obsessively read W.G. Sebald’s novels about destruction, memory, and landscape. His stories reminded me that the butterfly bush, Buddleia, is revered by Europeans as the first plant to return after the firebombing of their cities. I wondered what would grow around our ruins in the first spring after 9/11.” Throughout this period, ceramics were not an auxiliary practice for Rowland, but instead provided a repository for the fruits of her creative labors. Focusing her efforts on the timeless form of the vessel, Rowland embraced the functionality of ceramics. As a painter, though, she felt little allegiance to its traditions. She liked that clay was easy to manipulate so that she could improvise the shape of the vessel base and spontaneously add elaborate handle designs or exaggerated spouts. She liked the unpredictable outcomes of her repeated additions of underglazes and glazes as well as the numerous firings that pushed each object to the brink of viability. The meticulous notes Rowland kept of each stage of formation, glazing, and firing show how she built a body of knowledge based on radical experimentation. It was that knowledge that ultimately allowed Rowland to surpass the supposed creative boundaries of the medium. Most significantly, Rowland brought an emotional intensity to the creative process that recalled the philosophy of the Modernist ceramics master Bernard Leach, who viewed throwing a pot on a wheel as both a moment of metamorphosis and an act of recuperation. In the process of becoming, Rowland’s pots assumed many guises and blurred identities as she created nuanced variations of form in her production of bells, bowls, pitchers, and vases. Borrowing many of the techniques of gestural abstract painting, Rowland poured, dipped, and brushed on her glazes with a delirious freedom rarely seen in contemporary ceramics. Matte blacks, white satin, Giotto blues, and rich yellows were enhanced through generous applications of metallic lusters of gold, copper, and bronze. As Rowland explored the inherent relationships between the shape of her vessel and the curvilinear forms of nature, passages of expressive spontaneity within the vessel’s interior were often countered on the exterior by schematic drawings of the seedpod, an unfurling tendril, or a bifurcated root system. Rowland also drew inspiration from her explorations of Shanghai, Tunisia, and other cities with ancient histories of handmade stoneware. In a museum display of Carthaginian artifacts, Rowland encountered the calligraphic beauty of Islamic pottery. Returning home, she enlisted the poet Frederick Seidel to collaborate on a series of vases painted with fragmentary excerpts of his poetry. While in Shanghai, Rowland’s discovery of the many sculptures of dogs that supported Chinese temples became the motivation for clay studies of her own dog, Carla. Rowland’s Carlas and her other small animal figures reflected the spirited, playful side of the artist and also furthered her exploration of the relationship between expressivity and physicality. If the Carlas represented Rowland’s interest in the figural possibilities of expression, the sculptural manipulation of her vessels ultimately abstracted the transfigurative potential of art. The ripe, curling lips, raised appendages, oversized orifices and serpentine curves render continuous movement as an act of continuous renewal: the human spirit endlessly restored through the vital impulses of the creative act. ALI X FINK ELST EIN

Special thanks to the Rowland Family, Karen Malpede, Kim Loewe, Richard Burgess, Marla Dekker, Kevork Babian, Stephanie Dworkin, Peter Riesett Photography, Carey

Top down: Carla, monoprint with crayon 40.75 w x 29.5 h inches; Tony, high fired glazed stoneware 4.5 w x 5.5 d x 8 h inches; Horses, high fired glazed stoneware 6.5 w x 19.5 d x 15 h inches; Tony Sifton and Susan Rowland Brooklyn, NY, 1999

This page and front cover: Vessel, high fired glazed stoneware 17 w x 10 d x 16 h inches Back cover: Vessel, text - Frederick L. Seidel, 1991, high fired glazed stoneware 19.25 w x 14 d x 20.25 h inches


Susan Rowland: Uncontained Forces