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DOROTHEA ROCKBURNE

I’ve always had an enormous impulse to draw, to make drawing that described only itself. In this way I investigated the natural geometry intrinsic to every sheet of paper, treating each sheet as a continuous surface with a back, a front, and a depth. Through folding, creasing, and recording the determined information, and by marking a line, the action of the folding was delineated. The line occurs while the paper is folded front to back, back to front. The drawings are two-sided. They are made on a heavy white plain-edged American paper and were exhibited for the first time in my third solo show at Bykert. 

- Dorothea Rockburne

Full artwork image


R.P. No. 6, 1973

Graphite on folded paper mounted on board

30 x 38 3/8 in

76.2 x 97.5 cm 

(DR 1948) 

 

Portrait + Text

Portrait of Dorothea Rockburne in her Manhattan studio, 2017 

Photo: Charles Benson / © 2017 Charles Benton 

During 1950-1954, Rockburne studied at Black Mountain College, which numbered among its faculty such New York School luminaries as Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Aaron Siskind. Even there, though, she instinctively bonded with figures who were at odds with Abstract Expressionism’s subjective bias: Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and John Chamberlain; the composer John Cage, whose “rebellious” temperament helped inspire her contrarian stance toward the older generation; and the eminent mathematician Max Dehn. Rockburne then made her mark on the New York art scene in alignment with Minimalism, so that she was identified – in hindsight, erroneously – with that movement. . . . 

Whether it be Serra’s recourse to lead and steel, Andre’s to a multitude of metals, Dan Flavin’s to fluorescent light tubes, or Donald Judd’s to Plexiglass and plywood, Minimalism upheld the literal facticity of matter, whereas Rockburne has always focused on its transformation.

The Harmony of the World, David Anfam

detail 1

R.P. No. 6 (Detail), 1973 

(DR 1948)

Detail 2

R.P. No. 6 (Detail), 1973

(DR 1948) 

Untitled

Untitled, 1972

Folded paper and pencil 

29 1/2 x 39 1/2 in. 

75.0 x 100.3 cm 

(DR 1951) 

Thumb-Show

Thumb-Show Thumbnails
Untitled detail

Untitled (Detail), 1972 

(DR 1951) 

Untitled detail 2

Untitled (Detail), 1972 

(DR 1951) 

Untitled scale

Untitled (Scale), 1972 

(DR 1951) 

Untitled detail

Untitled (Detail), 1972 

(DR 1951) 

Untitled detail 2

Untitled (Detail), 1972 

(DR 1951) 

Untitled scale

Untitled (Scale), 1972 

(DR 1951) 

By understanding the history of mathematics, I learned of an exquisite emotional beauty of thought. This in turn gave me greater access to an understanding of a more universal creative process.…”

– Dorothea Rockburne

Photo + Text

R.P. No. 6 (Detail), 1973 

(DR 1948)
 

Although my teacher praised my painting, as I stood and looked first at my work and then at the landscape, I observed and questioned, “Nature does it better. How?” More specifically, I asked myself, what are nature’s organizing principles? These questions probably arose because of my father’s Algonquin traditions: “Nature is sacred and should be understood, not violated.” This moment of inquiry would later directly lead to my ongoing passion for mathematics as the basis for the understanding of nature.

– Dorothea Rockburne

 

Inverse #4

Inverse #4, 1974

Pen on folded paper

29 1/8 x 39 3/8 in

74 x 100 cm 

(DR 1949)


 

quote and image 1

Inverse #4 (Detail), 1974 

(DR 1949) 
 

In Dehn Rockburne found a man who, like her father, had a great respect for nature, someone who understood nature and who would show her how mathematics could be used to unlock its guiding principles. She recalls a steep hike, about a mile uphill behind the Dehns' home, where they walked to a small waterfall. Dehn discussed the golden ratio and “showed [her] that every kind of growth has recognizable mathematical properties.”

Dorothea Rockburne and Max Dehn at Black Mountain College, David Peifer

quote and image 2

Inverse #4 (Detail), 1974 

(DR 1949) 
 

Dehn considered my lack of math instruction an advantage. I wasn’t mathphobic, and, as he so happily put it, I hadn’t been poisoned. Dehn had a lively, disciplined, but fearless mind. His enthusiasm for everything was infectious. When I told him I was having some difficulties with assignments, he said, “What you need is to understand the principles of math as they occur in nature. Why don’t you join me every day on my early morning hike, and I will teach you mathematics for artists through nature?”

– Dorothea Rockburne

scale

Inverse #4 (Scale), 1974 

(DR 1949)

Inverse #6

Inverse #6, 1974

Ink on paper

32 x 42 in

81.3 x 106.7 cm 

(DR 1950) 
 

Slide-Show

Slide-Show Thumbnails
Inverse #6

Inverse #6 (Detail), 1974

(DR 1950) 

Inverse #6

Inverse #6 (Detail), 1974 

(DR 1950) 

Inverse #6

Inverse #6 (Detail), 1974 

(DR 1950) 

Inverse #6

Inverse #6 (Detail), 1974

(DR 1950) 

Inverse #6

Inverse #6 (Detail), 1974 

(DR 1950) 

Inverse #6

Inverse #6 (Detail), 1974 

(DR 1950) 

Far from being mechanistic or Stijl-like, their chromatic communion is sensuous and hypnotic: the Byzantine weds geometry.

The Harmony of the World, David Anfam

 

Portrait

Portrait of Dorothea Rockburne in her Manhattan studio, 2017 

Photo: Charles Benson / © 2017 Charles Benton

To what end do all these textures, colors, and vibrations lead? The answer lies in Rockburne’s constant faith in mathematics, which stretches from her first to her most recent works. Enlisting mathematics may sound like a deus ex machina that resolves a many-sided oeuvre still in progress. Yet herein also rests Rockburne’s shrewdness. 

The Harmony of the World, David Anfam