Using words, images and diverse media, from painting to drawing to photography to large-scale public artworks, I am passionately interested in exposing American exceptionalism (and its hubris, corruption, privilege, and prejudice) in a non-didactic and humorous way, with an intersectional feminist edge. I am not systematic, but there are recurring themes in my work such as how proud we humans are of what we think up, and how we use those ideas to destroy each other. The most common words in my titles are America, Freedom, Celebrity and Death.
I was raised in lower Manhattan by my mother, and introduced to American suburban life during summers with my father in Tampa, Florida. I took art classes at MoMA as a child, attended the High School of Music & Art, and watched Andy Warhol movies in Greenwich Village basements. I was always drawing and painting. As a student at the University of Chicago, I was part of a protest group that took over the Administration Building. I was suspended, but told I could return if I apologized. Instead, I moved to Berkeley where my activism and art continued. At that time artists felt they needed to be in New York City to succeed, so I returned home to pursue a career.
Back in New York, it was difficult for artists to make a living — and even more difficult for women artists — so I took a clerical job at McCann Erickson, a big advertising agency, which I parlayed into becoming its first ever woman art director, and by far the youngest. I created ads and commercials for Coca-Cola, Lufthansa and the New York Times. I also donated my graphic skills to an art and poetry magazine Unmuzzled Ox that published artists, poets and writers, such as Allen Ginsberg, Sol Lewitt, Lucy Lippard, Eileen Myles, and John Baldessari—many of whom I got to know.
I kept up my art practice as best I could, but my advertising job was so time consuming that I feared I would never become a “real” artist as I had always planned. So I saved money, quit McCann, and started making art full time. I wanted to directly employ what I learned in advertising: how to combine words and images to manipulate meaning, and present issues in a way that hadn’t been seen before. An early work was a small drawing with two buttons, one labeled Launch and the other Lunch. Humor and satire were not considered high art at that time, so at first people didn’t understand my work. But Marcia Tucker, founding director of the New Museum, became a supporter and put me in the exhibition Not Just For Laughs: The Art of Subversion. I also exhibited early on at alternative spaces like Artists Space and White Columns.
Seen through the lens of consumerism and the notion of American exceptionalism, my work developed into a skewed portrait of America. It took the form of storyboard paintings and installations, which as a series I titled, Morally Superior Products: A New Idea for Advertising. The subjects of these works were provocative and controversial — racism, abortion, rape, misogyny, religion, celebrity, etc. They comprised my first one-person gallery show at PPOW gallery in the East Village. It was reviewed in the New York Times by Michael Brenson who wrote that “Rothenberg plunges us into the gap between appearance and reality… there is a bleakness that suggests the view of America in the best works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Joan Didion.”
In 1984, I created Freedom of Expression National Monument, in collaboration with architect Laurie Hawkinson, and performance artist John Malpede, for Creative Time’s Art on the Beach in Lower Manhattan. Consisting of a ramp that led to an oversized red megaphone facing the city, thousands stepped up to speak their minds about all sorts of issues. Creative Time sponsored the work again in 2004, this time facing the courthouses of Foley Square. As Herbert Muschamp wrote in the New York Times, “The need for such a public platform has never been greater than it is now.” Freedom of Expression National Monument will be in an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York in Fall, 2017.
In 1986, I moved to Los Angeles and had my first west coast solo show at the influential Rosamund Felsen Gallery the following year. In 1987, I created a provocative installation at the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) in D.C. titled Secret Penis, introducing a new product for making women in the workplace feel equal to men — special hosiery with a little something “extra,” which I sewed myself. It came out quite well, considering I had never learned to sew! Many other paintings, objects, and installation works continued themes of dissent (Have You Attacked America Today); suicide; racism; celebrity; and the notion of America as the “Best Country on Earth."
Starting in 1987, I also taught, doing Visiting Artist and Professor stints at CalArts (1987, 1989-91,) UCLA (1995, 1997) and Otis (1996-98.) I have continued to give talks about my work at many art schools and universities.
In the 1990s, I began making hand-painted satirical greeting cards for all sorts of political and social occasions, which I have continued up to today. When the Museum of Modern Art in New York commissioned me to do an exhibition in 1992, I created a room installation called House of Cards, containing 90 cards. It references a greeting card store in style, but instead of sections like Birthday, Anniversary, etc. this one has Politics, Abortion, Racism, Religion, etc. The show was very controversial, eliciting complaints from museum board members that it wasn’t art because it looked too much like a store, but I felt their real complaint was with the subject matter. As a whole, the installation is a compendium of every reprehensible thing we do to one another. House of Cards traveled in the US after MoMA from 1993-4, and then again in 2015 and 2016 to Chicago (Zolla Lieberman Gallery) and Los Angeles (Charlie James Gallery.) It is as relevant today as when it was first exhibited at MoMA.From 1991 to today, I have also worked on a series of satirical Church signboards, the first of which, America’s Joyous Future, was in Documenta IX, 1992, along with two large installation pieces. These signboards have been collected by museums including MOCA, Los Angeles, the MCA Chicago and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. They have also been exhibited widely, and have their own internet presence where people discuss whether they are “real.” They have even inspired a TV show, now in development.
My work is well served in a public context. Since Freedom of Expression National Monument, I have continued to do public art projects, including the Wall Of (Un)Fame in Downey, California, 1995, and The Road to Hollywood, 2001, at Hollywood and Highland, Los Angeles. Christopher Knight, the Los Angeles Times art critic, called Road “An exceptional work of public art…it ranks among the best public art projects in L.A.”
I love the fact that public art is just THERE. Passersby can respond to it, hate it, or ignore it. No museum or critic or authority is telling you it is “important art,” or even that it is art at all. It’s great to be in the streets.
As I have become more confident in crafting language, my work has become more narrative, and often takes off from weird or distressing things I read, like an article about officials arguing over whether it is humane to execute a 400 lb. man by hanging (Heavy Hanging), or the story of bear cub burned in a fire, then nursed back to health, released into the wild, and immediately shot by a hunter (Monument to A Bear.) Other series have explored conservative attitudes toward sexuality (Sex Lives of Animals); fame (The Stravinskys); sex trafficking (Me And Two Men From America); and nuclear tourism (Los Alamos). I usually manage to find a unique way into an issue, a twist to make it memorable and even mind-bending. Michelle Grabner wrote this about me and I want to continue to live up it: “...She is a harsh social critic with a facility for image-making, language and design (Artforum, Summer 2015).
In addition to Freedom of Expression National Monument in Art in the Open: 50 years of Public Art in New York at the Museum of the City of NY Nov 10 2017-Sept 28, 2018, Freedom of Expression Drugs, originally part of an installation I created in 1989 for The New Museum of Contemporary Art, was in Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s at the Hirshhorn, DC, February 14- May 13, 2018. In September, 2018 I will have an exhibition at Susan Inglett Gallery, NY.
Lately I’ve been thinking about oppositional values and entrenched opinions in our country and the world, which first manifested itself in a 2015 work with oppositional greeting cards: 2 shelves of several cards each, one marked Misogynist and the other Feminist. I have now begun a new multi-media project exploring whether there is any way to cross this Great Divide.