Seeing Differently: Susan Rothenberg 

Curatorial Intern Oscar Flores-Montero on Susan Rothenberg’s Three Masks, on view in Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century.

Susan Rothenberg, Three Masks, 2006, Oil on canvas, 59 3/16 x 66 1/8 in., The Phillips Collection, The Dreier Fund for Acquisitions, 2007

The strong contrasting colors is what first drew my attention, the dirty white palette fighting against the harsh red tones, as though the colors were competing for my attention. The canvas is filled by the masks hanging off hooks, each with their own distinct differences. From the bottom of the canvas a pair of disembodied arms reach upward toward one of the masks and out of the murky palette. While direct in its subject, it felt as though the work had given me a lot to digest. Keeping in mind the central theme of identity, I lingered on how the artwork conversed with the works around it.

Susan Rothenberg was born in Buffalo, New York, and is best known for her paintings of figurative scenes as well as her influential Horse series. Three Masks by Rothenberg presented me with a question; who are we? Masks are traditionally objects of transformation that allow us to alter ourselves, taking on separate roles in our lives as needed. While we believe ourselves to have certain defining qualities we periodically mute or exaggerate parts of our demeanor and adopt a more acceptable form of ourselves depending on what is asked of us. Therefore, masking who we truly believe ourselves to be. The need to change who we are depending on the circumstances is something that is present in my life as a person of color. Young people of color in particular feel the need to adapt in order to be accepted, more specifically in professional settings. This phenomenon is known as code-switching. The lack of distinctive qualities such as the disembodied arms, inspired me to consider the struggles of understanding our own identity and who we are in and out of societal expectations. This social contract we have unknowingly accepted further encourages us to take on metaphorical masks of our own. How much am I willing to change myself depending on the circumstances?

Installation view of Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century, featuring left to right: John Edmonds, Untitled (Hood 2), 2016; Susan Rothenberg, Three Masks, 2006; and Rufino Tamayo, Carnival, 1941. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

The historic importance and artistic interpretation of masks has been relevant for thousands of years. Masks continue to hold strong cultural weight and have been more present in our lives than ever due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The masks present in the art piece encourage us to interpret what each mask might represent. To the right we see Rufino Tamayo’s Carnival and to the left is John Edmond’s Untitled (Hood 2). While Carnival focuses on the cultural importance of masks, specifically as it relates to Mexican heritage, Untitled (Hood 2) makes a clear comment on racial profiling and Black identity. All three pieces purposefully withhold from the viewer so that we may identify with the art and help us to step outside of ourselves.

Masks not only conceal our identity but help us transcend who we are. We use masks to veil our individuality, helping us to hide away that which leaves us vulnerable. Throughout art, and history, masks have been used to represent something more than ourselves.

Leave a Reply