The more one looks at the deviously serene, austere works of Dorothea Rockburne, the more baroque and optically destabilizing they become. Locus, 1972, features six unframed sheets of white paper, marked by sharp orthogonal creases, which here hang across two of the gallery’s white walls. At various points, their monochromatic yet multiplanar surfaces appear to project into relief and recede into depth, throwing into doubt whether the eye is perceiving actual volumes in space or a restrained trompe l’oeil illusion. Made of folded paper run through a printing press, the Locus suite numbers among just six large-scale works on view in phase one of Dia:Beacon’s ongoing installation devoted to Rockburne. At once hermetic and worldly, ethereal and dense, this tightly focused exhibition reflects in its contradictions the difficulties and pleasures of Rockburne’s early career, which spanned from the late 1960s to the early ’70s.
Dorothea Rockburne, Locus, 1972. © Dorothea Rockburne/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.
Born in Montreal in 1932, Rockburne left Canada in 1950 for North Carolina to attend Black Mountain College, where her classmates included John Chamberlain, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly. She immersed herself in the school’s experimental and interdisciplinary milieu, studying photography with Edward Steichen and dance with Merce Cunningham, and participating in John Cage’s Theatre Piece No. 1, 1952, now remembered as the first Happening. Her most influential teacher, however, was the mathematician Max Dehn, a close friend of Albert Einstein, who encouraged Rockburne to observe the rules of math as they occur in nature. Dehn’s lessons on set theory, the study of units and their relationship to wholes, and topology, the study of continuous forms, provided her with alternatives to the Sturm und Drang of Abstract Expressionism, which, to Rockburne, was already beginning to seem reified and histrionic. “Joan Mitchell had said that she could drink, fuck, and paint as hard as any man,” she remembered of her alienation from that scene, “but that is not who I am. . . . By the time I studied at Black Mountain College, this method of working from the subconscious had become the new academy.”
Dissatisfied with her first show of abstract paintings in 1957, Rockburne—by this time a single mother in New York—took a decade-long hiatus from studio art. She worked various day jobs and became involved with Judson Dance Theater, performing in works by Rauschenberg, Robert Morris, Steve Paxton, and Robert Whitman, and, perhaps most notably, in Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy, 1964. “Dancing,” Rockburne recalled, “taught me the way the body folds . . . and how folding produces emotion.” She would call on those insights when she returned to the studio, in 1966.
Executed soon thereafter, the painting Tropical Tan, 1967–68, leans handsomely against the wall, slouching toward sculpture. Its sultry title comes from the name of a commercial spray paint that Rockburne applied across the four eight-foot-tall pig-iron panels comprising the work, which has the luxurious look of distressed leather. Rockburne scored the metal with repeating X-shaped motifs and left two unpainted bands exposed at the work’s top and bottom, calling attention to the interface of figure and ground, surface and support. She also tested the “tensile strength” of the wet medium against obdurate metal by drying the work under heat lamps, which caused the paint to crease and buckle.
Recalling Frank Stella’s ambition to “keep the paint as good as it was in the can,” Rockburne’s candid use of commercial spray paint aligns with Minimalism’s inclination toward industrial materials; she also seems to perform a similar evacuation of subjective composition. And yet, for her part, Rockburne described the application of paint to metal as “pulling a skin over a skin”: This organic, relational metaphor betrays a different set of investments. Contrary to Stella’s “deductive structures,” for which the dimensions of the canvas determined the form and content of his work, or Judd’s turn to “specific objects” purged of internal formal arrangements, Rockburne’s engagement with set theory led her to prioritize complex interrelationships between her work, its constituent elements, and its architectural surround. Re-created for the first time in almost fifty years, Domain of the Variable, 1972/2018, claims a whole room with an unbroken line incised along the gallery’s four white walls, otherwise bare except for two sections where Rockburne adhered panels of yellowed, eviscerated chipboard and applied smears of sunset-colored grease.
Dorothea Rockburne, installation view, Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York. © Dorothea Rockburne/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.
Inspired by the inky tonalities of photographs of marsh grass Rockburne took during a summer visit to artist Susan Weil’s house on Outer Island, Connecticut, the “Ineinander Series,” 1972, luxuriates in the effects of pollutants such as tar, crude oil, and cup grease on white paper. For Rockburne, these toxic materials emphasized the materiality of color. Her interest, she explained, was “in such a way that what the color does, in terms of identity and what it physically is, are not separate.” Arranged in a two-by-six grid, the twelve unframed works are divided into three groups, each determined by a preposition and a color. Each of the three opaque monochromes in the Over, Black suite is an amalgam of two sheets of creased paper painted with tar. For the three White, Under works, the artist covered sheets of tarred paper with slit white ones, allowing the black goo to burble up and streak the surface. For the six oil-saturated sheets referred to as Brown, Through, Rockburne layered papers on top of each other to make “oil sandwiches” and then “cooked” them in the summer heat of her studio, pulling them apart months later to reveal unctuous gold and brown color fields.
For the “Ineinander Series,” the artist submitted her materials to predetermined operations to lay bare their physical properties, in a move that recalls the antiauthorial and desubjectivizing procedures of Conceptual and process artists, many of them Rockburne’s friends. Unlike the process artists, however, she had little reverence for “materials as such,” and was convinced that the ethic of “truth in materials” was a “trap.” “I am the author of my work,” she told Artforum in 1972. “Sometimes I don’t like what [the material] does, and so censor it.” Rockburne shared Conceptualism’s desire for a rigorous, systematic approach, but not its imperative to divest art of the subjective. Instead, she emphasized the personal correspondences between material forms and the abstractions of thought and feeling. “My work,” she insisted, “is really about making myself.”
Rockburne’s refusal of the dominant critical tropes of “advanced art” in the late ’60s and ’70s compounds the difficulty of her work, the meaning of which seems to be located not purely in the soul of the artist or in the physicality of her materials or even in transcendent mathematical certitudes, but in the continuous relay and flow between all three. Unfurled onto the gallery floor, Intersection, 1971/2018—an installation composed of layered paper and translucent plastic soaked in crude oil—has an unnerving, gothic beauty. “A permeating sheet of its own color” (in Rockburne’s apt phrase), the oil saturates the paper and shrinks the plastic, producing a mosaiclike pattern of hairline fractures across a glossy black surface. As art historian Anna Lovatt notes in an enlightening article in October, the piece is a synthesis of two earlier artworks, its title referring to the “area of commonality between two overlapping sets.” The work is thus conceptual and self-reflexive, but also emotional and referential, embedded with autobiographical and art-historical meaning.
Dorothea Rockburne, Intersection, 1971/2018. © Dorothea Rockburne/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.
Rockburne—whose daughter was ferried home from the hospital wrapped in the patchwork quilt Rauschenberg used in Bed, 1955—grouped Intersection with her friend’s celebrated Combine. “Bob [Rauschenberg],” she said, “began the artist’s modern dialogue with the bed, [Claes] Oldenburg did a bed and I did a bed in 1972 [sic] using Set Theory, that is a bed of oil. It’s called Intersection.” Rockburne’s characterization of this work as a bed is instructive, for—as Lovatt argues—the “physical processes involved in the making of Intersection come closer to ‘making’ a bed than they do to making a sculpture, painting, or drawing, concerned as they are with pulling one sheet over another to produce a layered horizontal field.” A surrogate for her repurposed quilt—taken from Rockburne’s life and claimed by art history—Intersection fully articulates the relation between embodiment and emotion that the artist experienced during her time with Judson Dance Theater.
Rockburne’s long-term installation alongside Dia’s big kahunas is part of director Jessica Morgan’s commendable efforts to redress her institution’s gender imbalance, and would seem to secure Rockburne’s place in the canon of American Minimalism. This canon isn’t resolved or uncontroversial, and neither is Dia’s historical role in shaping art history through its patronage of auratic, spectacularly scaled installations “putatively at odds,” as scholar Anna C. Chave puts it, “with dominant critical accounts [of Minimalism] . . . as an ineluctably secular, materialist undertaking.” In fact, in her 1991 essay “Overcoming the Limits of Matter,” Rosalind E. Krauss split the baby, entrenching a still-operative divide between the concrete rigors of Dan Flavin, Morris, and Stella and the ambient “California sublime” of Robert Irwin, Ad Reinhardt, and James Turrell. Rockburne’s art, with its dense, somewhat undecidable layering of analytic and affective impulses, represents, if not a synthesis of these materialist and idealist tendencies in American Minimalism, then a space of enfolding between the two.
© Artforum, November 2018, “Dorothea Rockburne” by Chloe Wyma.