Dorothea Rockburne by Saul Ostrow

“Paintings are like angels,” says painter Dorothea Rockburne, “they go out and plant their messages.”

BOMB 25 Fall 1988
025 Fall 1988
Rockburne 01 Body

Dorothea Rockburne. © 1988 by Gerhard Jurkovic

Dorothea Rockburne’s most recent exhibition captures the atmosphere of cathedrals. Her paintings glow like gilded angels against gallery walls painted purplish blue. Serene and spiritual, these shaped canvases, their surfaces of gold leaf and rich colors, seem quite a distance from Rockburne’s works of the late ’60s and early ’70s in which crude materials like craft paper and cutting oil were given structure by abstract mathematical theorems. Yet even with those works her deepest emotions were present.

Saul Ostrow Artists learn from what they do and make shifts—it’s not a linear development. From your early paper and oil installations to the folded paper works to the new paintings—they are paintings?—questions arise. What concerns have dropped? What concerns stay? And what new concerns have occurred at each step one takes in the making of a project?

Dorothea Rockburne It’s so intuitive…some things happen that I don’t really understand. I don’t want to understand the process, it would kill it.

SO So your early work is not a rejection of painting?

DR I never thought that I was rejecting painting, quite the opposite. I felt that I could kind of foresee the work I’m doing now, and that it was shadowing my vision. But I couldn’t go at it then, it was too complex. I had to take it one step at a time. The Golden Section paintings were a step toward these current paintings. I think I have always envisioned these paintings since I first saw Renaissance painting in the Montreal Museum. I had some idea then that the Renaissance paintings were really shaped canvases. It wasn’t clear to me because there were no shaped canvases that I was aware of in the world at that point; but the work had that quality.

SO When you were making paper pieces, the tendency, the impetus that was taking place in the New York art scene was to re-evaluate painting, to critique everything—from the specifics of showing in galleries to whether it was necessary to make an object. Yet your early works looked very much like painting.

DR Yes, I wanted to try to re-invent painting for myself. When I came here from Canada, the prevalent attitude of artists towards art history was what I called the Mack truck approach. I found it extremely liberating. That kind of exaggeration was good at its moment when everybody still knew what art history was. However, to really abandon the knowledge of the ages would be stupid. Artists at that time were questioning just about every art convention: Smithson was working on The Spiral Jetty. Language was being used as an art material in a totally subversive way. Flavin was using standard store-bought fluorescent fixtures. Part of that moment extended to such extreme practices as not even maintaining a studio. Whole exhibitions existed as statements or documentation of events taking place outside the gallery. At the time painting was being dismissed—Donald Judd had written that painting was dead.

After having used some non-conventional art materials myself, and I think partly because of my early art school training, I felt that the most radical and difficult thing to do was to try to change tradition through tradition. My memory is that there were a lot of argumentative discussions, and I disagreed with just about everybody. I’d make a painting and my friends would say, “Oh, you’re still making paintings?” But I’ve never been interested in other people’s strictures. I’m not interested in “self expression. ” I wasn’t interested in stripping everything bare—I’m not interested in it.

Rockburne 02 Body

Black and White, 1987–88, oil paint on gessoed linen, 3’16¼” x 10”. Photograph by Kevin Ryan courtesy Andre Emmerich Gallary, NY.

SO But what about your shows at the Bykert Gallery?

DR But did you walk in?

SO Yes, yes, I was there.

DR If you walked in then you would have to agree with what I’m saying. Those shows were, in their way, blindingly colorful. Sensuous. Intellectual.

SO Exactly. At a time dominated by colorfield painting, here were your works. Specifically the oil, but also the graphite and paper, took on the appearance of being arguments about colorfield painting. Those paper pieces being to me, at that time, and now even in hindsight, a critique of formalism.

DR Yes, I don’t know if it was as much a critique as it was a cry for freedom. I felt that I was being constrained.

SO From Greenberg’s formalism to Judd’s, it was a time of dogmatism on all sides. Do you see your works as being about freedom?

DR Yes, I felt and do feel that art works within a narrow margin that is emotional. For me, those formalisms did not describe intentionality. They describe physical appearances and that’s not enough. What intrigues me so much about art, is that art doesn’t progress—I mean in the sense that the technology of the scientific world progresses. Aristotelian logic is no longer the only logic. Newtonian physics have changed a great deal. But in art, you’re dealing with a very narrow emotional context and with a more or less prescribed set of materials. And it doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re from the culture in which it’s made. You can still understand its beauty. You can dart back and forth through the centuries and time has complete irrelevance. I found myself talking to some friends about Tintoretto. I said, “Tintoretto is a very radical painter,” and my friend said, “Is?” That’s my point of view.

SO You use the word emotional. I’ve found your earlier work to be sensual and serene but I had never thought of it as emotional. It is only in the most recent work that I’ve read in them, almost in the way one reads Baroque emotion: Ecstacy.

DR If you think back, particularly to works that involved the cup of grease, they’re not so serene. There were pools of black oil. That’s not so serene. It’s not agitated either. I’m talking about the depths of emotion.

SO Was that to render awe—ecstacy and terror—were those the emotional responses that you wanted?

DR No. I don’t put ecstacy in the same category as terror. I find terror, and most emotions that you can name, very surface. What I’m interested in are very deep and basic emotions—levels of existence. I don’t know how to think of the words…I know it takes courage to face that (courage itself is, I guess, an emotion). It’s hard to really peel up all the layers and keep going down—there’s something ecstatic involved in that.

SO I think I understand. It is beyond language, like Pollock’s void and Newman’s sublime. You get a label but no definition and everyone nods and says they understand.

DR Well, if you start to even labor the inner-viewing thing…it’s like the whole issue of mathematics in my early work. It was confusing to me when one specific aspect of my work was separated out almost as if it were content. Content has many facets, this is only one. The closest I ever came to mathematics in my work was set theory. The first time I studied set theory, I found it difficult. That was around 1951. Then, when I began to teach it to my daughter Christine, as I started reading the books, I could just see it. As I read the diagrams, I began to see it in my mind’s eye, seeing it represented by pieces of paper designating the differences by means of ground. Of course, later on, I began working with the geometry of the Golden Section. This geometry is pure magic and light. By its very nature, its structure reveals meaning.

What I find so fascinating about working in the studio is the lasting question; how do we know what we know? When I’m working, I don’t think of things. I like to tap some place that’s not about thinking and be surprised. That’s the kind of amazing process that we all go through. That’s really the nature of creativity.

Rockburne 03 Body

Scalar, 1971, paper, chipboard, oil, approx. 10 × 13’.

SO Your work was not visible to the public for a period of time. Then all of a sudden you were at André Emmerich gallery with work that appeared to be very different. It’s stretched, it’s shaped, it’s painted. The popular image of you is process—folded, pure white, austere—and then all of a sudden to make what appears to be a very abrupt transition to these paintings…. Okay, Twombly is painting the water in the Venice Canals, Marden is doing calligraphy and Guston was painting Klansmen. How can artist’s betray their history, or what appears to be their position?

DR …the question is always phrased exactly the same way, it’s so interesting: “When did you start using color?” And the next question is inevitably (but it’s understandable): “Will your next show be in color too?” Actually, the change wasn’t abrupt. In 1976, the Robe series painting show at John Weber was in color, although the shapes were folded. Then I did several exhibitions with Xavier Fourcade which were stretched canvases and in color. So this work actually, is a continuation of work begun more than twelve years ago.

When I came to New York, what was possibly Jackson Pollock’s last show was opening. It was the show of women—black paint dripping down the canvas…and all his friends felt immensely betrayed by this figurative work because their stance was to be anti-figurative. The general opinion was that the show wasn’t very good. I felt that the show was terrific. It was, in fact, very radical to be doing an exhibition of nudes at that time. You can see what I’m saying—to have somebody take the next step, to go into a classic form using his technique, to make an addition both to abstraction and to figure painting—that seems like taking on a lot to me, whereas his contemporaries felt he’d stepped backward.

SO That becomes a dominant question. Supposedly we are no longer in a period in which we believe in progress, yet artists are still thought of in terms of advancing or retreating. I had long conversations with people about your show, usually with people who were just horrified by it because they did see it as a betrayal. But my reading is that I’ve always seen the works as theatrical…

DR I don’t find them theatrical at all…

SO I’m making a distinction between what’s theater and what’s theatrical. Theater is organized for an audience with a heightened expectation. It may be a question of semantics…

DR I think of theater as being completely illusionistic. No, to me, these paintings are dealing with everything I know and everything I am, and part of what I know is the Scrovengi Chapel. I don’t consider that theatrical. The Scrovengi Chapel probably has its origins of concept in Persia—that same ceiling, the blue with the painted stars is in Egypt as well, probably throughout the East. I think of my paintings in terms of murals which were conceived in relation to architecture—you add another sheet to the wall. For me it was a stretch and seemed quite radical, putting physical paintings on a painted blue wall and making the mural the background. That’s not theater to me, it’s a felt concept, a felt and lived concept.

SO It became like a stage set to me, an artificial set-up. Painting the wall was a reaffirmation almost like the back wall of a stage.

DR I don’t like what you’re saying. Theater, to me, is where you set up an illusion for a moment, an illusion that has to do with theatrical effects. The reason it’s not theatrical is because it stems from a knowledge and a feeling, and that knowledge and especially that feeling are totally overwhelming. What they did is spill out of my brain and my heart. That is not temporary. It’s certainly in the area of a conceptual notion, but it has nothing to do with theater. I’m not making a moral judgement. I’m just trying to speak directly from my heart. I had an incredible need within me to do this work, exactly that way.

After Xavier died, when I was in the process of changing galleries, and I spoke with dealers who came down to see the work, the first thing I said was, “Wherever I show this work, the walls have to be indigo blue.” I wanted the experience that I have had in Catholic Church. The way in which the atmosphere is thick from the stained-glass windows creates a tremendous sense of space. A space you can physically touch. That space is in Notre Dame and Chartres. You feel that when you put your hand and your body through that space. It’s like putting your hand and your body through water; there is a substance to that space. I spend a lot of my time in churches, one way or another.

I felt that that quality was something that Barnett Newman was aiming for in Anna’s Light. His reds set up a static quality, so that when you stand in front of it, the space between you and the painting is cut down; you’re pulled in. There are certain Rothkos that that happens with also, and I find that to be, what is for me, a religious experience. I’m painting for a religious experience—religious in the broadest sense of the term. This is not theatrical. I don’t find churches theatrical either.

SO Okay, the difference of opinion is semantical.

Rockburne 05 Body

Golden Section Painting: Parallelogram with Two Small Squares, 1974, 1976, clear varnish, gesso, chalk line, linen and glue, 104 × 64½”.

DR In the early Gothic churches there’s a balcony around the top of the church. Even today, at Santa Maria del Bella and Assisi—on special occasions monks will go onto that top balcony, and sing a dialogue, back and forth, with the priest at the altar. You can hear this resonate through the stone. It makes air you can cut through. It expands the space and yet it brings you in. It brings me in—I can’t speak for anyone else. I was trying to mine that in myself. I don’t think I clearly understood (actually I think maybe I did), that years ago, with the carbon paper show, Drawing Which Makes Itself at the Bykert Gallery; when I painted the floor and the walls blinding white and then overlit it, I was doing exactly the same thing then as now. I’ll probably do it again and again because I have a need to know about that. And I don’t know where that need comes from.

SO It also forces the viewer to focus.

DR I never meant to force the viewer to do anything.

SO Yes, but it makes cursory viewing much more difficult. You can’t poke your head in, give it ten seconds and think you know it, “Oh, painting.” In the show at Emmerich, there were womb-like dark enclosures…

DR Night. It’s the night.

SO …the spot-lights. Hot, glowing…

DR Stars in the night. That’s how I saw them in my mind’s eye before I did it. That’s why I worked them that way against a lot of criticism. But I’ve been thinking about that work for years and I had had this in my mind’s eye—that way of lighting it.

SO I’ve always known your work to manifest a readable logic, from the ordering of forms that came out of the folded work, to the glazing with oil of sections to reveal the structure underneath. They have some of the logic of your early set theory pieces. And then, for want of a better word, the irrationalness of the color, especially in your new works. There’s no rhyme or reason, it’s just the effect of that color…

DR First of all, I never meant to do set logic in the sense that you’re talking about. As you know, when you’re doing higher algebra, it’s not like relating the work to math anyway. The most elegant answers come from the most radical decision making. It’s the chances that you take, not the programmatic assumptions, but the risks that are fun and lead to new answers. It’s a high risk.

SO In using Mozart and Pascal as titles, you’re actually making reference to the struggle between the body and soul, the mind and passion. Pascal believes that the logic of the mind is mathematical.

DR That’s certainly true on one level, but it goes beyond that. I know Mozart and Pascal very well, ever since I was five years old and my mother gave me the Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. I was reading the letters here and there a long time ago. What was curious was the fact that he would write a phrase and then invert it, repeat it and invert it. But he never did it systematically. He was just fooling around. I got Pascal in the third or fourth grade. So I felt these were people I knew very well. But beyond that, going back to what Pollock was trying to do—a big no-no in art is to take abstract art and call them people—basically you’re not supposed to put anthropomorphic values onto abstract art—I thought I would challenge that rule.

SO That’s what I mean when I talk about configuration of the viewer in Barnett Newman. The void is the place where you stand.

DR And then dealing with qualities and essences—what is it that I assume to be Pascal? How is it that I experience Pascal? Or, more readily available in the sense of Mozart, how do I paint funny without being funny, without parody? How do you make something humorous?

SO I was talking about those logical organized structures, and the sensuousness; the color and the surface. All that can only be experienced kinesthetically through bodily responses. It is not a logical thing amidst these logical structures. It’s experienced separately and simultaneously. I’m wondering if those concerns come into it not consciously, but intuitively.

DR Those are certainly peripheral concerns. They’re not the main concerns. The main concern is religious, in the broadest sense of the work. It’s about living my own experience in the deepest sense. And you know, the work is the residue of my experience. And when I say, “religious,” I don’t mean in terms of organized religion.

SO No, but I’m saying the nature of religious experience, even in organized religion, is a sense of the loss of body. And one has very elaborate structures for that; and they’re very ordered. I found the place of the viewer’s body in the earlier works very important. The work echoed it. One’s experience is one’s own scale.

DR Yes, and to me, this particular painting is as though my body is facing its body. It’s very much a body to me, this painting, Les Pensees de Pascal. But you’re right. I see what you’re trying to say. I couldn’t relate to it at first because it seemed to codify something that I’m not really sure of…but certainly in the exhibition at Bykert, where the entire room was painted white—If you remember, some of those carbon paper drawings were done on the white floor. You could see people’s footprints approaching the drawings on the floor, as if it were a wall. And their footprints became part of the drawing. Then I made an aesthetic judgment. There was a point where there were too many footprints, and I took the work up and reinstalled it. I was dealing with the clean piece of paper so to speak. So, there was a consideration of the body then and there is now.

SO The set pieces were the scale of the body, giving the viewer the ability to almost reproduce the movements you had made in producing them—allowing the viewer a kinesthetic response. The tumbling of these pieces, the undulation of movement from one to the next is recorded on the surface. The diagonal brush stroke bending down, the fact that the central axis is never continuous—it’s all back to the body. It is all very subtle, almost like The Purloined Letter. The best way to hide something in public is in public.

DR Alberti, in On Painting, said that Narcissus must have been the first called Narcissus, which contained within it a smaller version of the painting, Inner Voice. It hangs in my bedroom now. It was a painting looking at its own inner voice, and that’s the kind of generative painting, that body thinking, that you’re speaking of. Then there’s another painting called Balance which is completely out of balance. It’s about different forms all askew, but at the last second, there’s a centrality to it which holds it in a vertical position, and one isn’t sure why. Of course, a friend of mine asked me if it was autobiographical.

SO There’s no way to escape one’s own history. It has to keep coming back. There’s no way of going to the studio and claiming to be somebody else. Except maybe the most formal of the formal painters: Walter Darby Banard could go into the studio and claim to be somebody else. But I think that the minute one sees the work as metaphor—when things become not just about themselves but are about something in the real world—be it spiritual desire, or something political—the only source for these things is either one’s experience or one’s lack of it. What’s become more and more interesting to me is the shifts that take place from, let’s say, the position of youth in which you want to put yourself into history…I mean with the vast majority of the younger artists now…

DR I don’t mean to speak for other people—younger artists—but I suspect that the problems don’t change much. I don’t think putting oneself into history is a real motivation; it’s more like putting oneself into one’s own history. I like to think that there is a kind of unknown object within each of us which has been shaped by experience and which demands to be born.

SO When the Conceptual Art movement began it was not about closure as much as about opening art up to what else it could be and for various reasons, people take different postures.

DR Yes, it’s true that Conceptual Art opened up a lot of avenues that hadn’t been explored. But I like to think with my hands as much as my mind—or in a way, my hands are an extension of my eyes and of my mind. I really, really like to paint and draw, and I didn’t feel I had to abandon those activities in order to make art that opened things up again.

Rockburne 04 Body

Narcissus (Three panals), oil on gessoed linen, 7’8½” × 10’3” × 6⅜”.

SO You must occasionally think about the effect of what you do. Your work isn’t about the privatization of experience in which you want to stand in front of it alone, just to have the experience. You want to share those experiences, and that affects other people’s desires to produce/generate their experience. We all end up thinking about a place in history, our relationship to it—what we could possibly contribute to it. We all have that dialogue with history.

DR I don’t know…

SO What makes you decide to do these or the earlier work rather than, let’s say, traditional figure painting? I assume figure painting didn’t satisfy you.

DR Because it had been done.

SO And that’s what I mean. My point was much more specific. Do you do what you do in terms of the traditions of geometric abstraction—the things that Mondrian and Malevich didn’t give voice to? What do you want out of their considerations? They made certain concerns and certain considerations possible. When you begin to make things, you have a discourse with those who came before, and a discourse with those who are going to come after, hopefully.

DR Yes, in some sense I’m sure you’re right, but I really do paint for myself. Then, after it’s done, I want to share it. But the impulse is to do it because I want to see it and I’ve never seen it before. Once I’ve done it and I’ve seen it, I’m pretty much through with it. In some ways I think that paintings are like angels; they go out and plant their messages.

SO The idea of the paintings being angels is very different than the common attitude that works of art are just commodities.

DR I think that’s a cynical response. I’m not a fallen idealist. I’m not cynical. For example, I didn’t understand the influence that Baudrillard’s writings have at this time. Baudrillard is against art, in the sense that I’m talking about—in the sense of the religious experience—in the sense of immersing yourself in total belief. And I believe in believing. I feel, to use the word “enthusiast” is not accurate because the emotion is much deeper than that, but I think that art is absolutely political in that it’s a force for the right—for happiness, for humanistic values. It’s not a commodity. It can’t possibly be a commodity in the sense that I’m taking about—in the sense of the religious experience, in the sense of immersing oneself in total belief.

SO But when you look at art in terms of commodity, it raises certain issues, not only in art, but in life in general—the crisis of authority and authenticity. Much of the art that’s being done now replicates that crisis rather than addressing it in positive terms.

DR That’s because, in my view, art hasn’t caught up with actual history. Naturally, I don’t hold with what are called machismo values. And it’s not because I’m a woman, or weaker, or any of that. I just don’t hold with that. Not to malign poor Picasso some more, but he pictured himself as the Minotaur. In the age of nuclear physics, to think of your strength as that of a Minotaur’s is kind of like being a puppy dog. It’s a contradiction in terms. One’s day to day experience is not always caught up with what’s going on out there. I’m not talking about blind belief; I’m talking about belief based on a life of experience.

SO It’s almost like going back to Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hesse. Your work articulates some existential dilemma. And it is in the arena of the work that one reaffirms one’s existence.

DR I never felt the need to reaffirm my existence. My existence, until I die, I take as a fact. Work isn’t reaffirming existence, it’s not even an expression of existence. It is my existence, fully.

SO It is a sense of completeness that one strives for.

DR I think it takes a while to get to know work. When I saw Jasper Johns’ Four Seasons they didn’t thrill me. But I had enough experience with Jasper to know that the problem was mine and not the work’s. The problem is lack of familiarity. When I saw Four Seasons in Venice—as I wrote in a note to Jasper, “allegory in the town of allegory”—it was a renewed experience. It was also because I was looking at the work for a second time. Mostly, when people handle the four seasons of their lives, they engage you in a different way. These paintings are not winsome. And while they talk about the four seasons of Jasper’s life, they are very unrevealing even when you know the code. They’re very opaque.

SO It’s like talking about spirituality, or using the word “figurative” in an abstract context like Pollock did. One’s not supposed to talk about life and death.

DR And certainly not opaquely. You’re supposed to make your audience feel your pain.

SO If you’re going to talk about death it has to be melodramatically…

DR That’s what I mean.

SO Which goes back to the other side of the dogma; the measure of quality in a work of art. When you feel the sense of risk taking as opposed to the drive toward novelty.

DR Strange to try to codify risk.

SO But we live in a society that tends to codify everything, from the spiritual—what is the spiritual experience—to what’s quality, what’s value, what’s desire? And which desires are more valuable than others? Especially the idea of your paintings being angels. Much of this last material addressed a whole set of things I hadn’t even considered in relation to your work. It touched on very spontaneously, the whole question of body, phenomenology, desire…what one wants out of what one thinks.

DR Brian O’Doherty did a catalogue essay for me once, a few years ago, and he called it “The Shape of Desire” which I thought was a wonderful phrase.

SO Which is basically one of the best things I’ve talked with you about. I think the conversations we’ve had over the years have always touched much more on the conceptual and political aspect of one’s existence, rather than the interior life.

DR Well, I used to talk about that, the interior life. I’ve always thought that anybody’s work is about thinking. But I’m sure you know that when I was doing the carbon paper work years ago, the motivation for doing it came from another experience I had with my daughter. At that time, I was working all these jobs at once and painting all night. Christine and I made this chocolate cake one day. It was a rectangular cake, and I had bought sugared candy violets and we put them all over it. She was five and wonderful, so every moment I had with her was really precious. Then she cut a pie-shaped piece from the rectangular cake because that was all she’d ever seen. I looked at it and I was astounded. It’s what really started me thinking about topology and one’s concepts about how things work: that paper has two sides, a front and a back, and it has a depth. I know, this didn’t come from a big conceptual background. It’s like reading the theory of nesting numbers and stuff like that—I followed it up to a point. I guess the reason I was able to pick up on it and not just giggle probably was that I’d had some mathematical background. But I’d never applied it to that particular area. I’d certainly already been reading Reimannian geometry. Still, when I went to work I didn’t do non-Euclidian geometry, I did the cake.

SO It’s things like that, those moments of insight…we stand in front of all our history, searching every inch of Giotto or a Tintoretto…and somebody cuts the cake wrong.

DR Have you ever been here before? Let me take you into the studio…

Saul Ostrow is an artist, curator and contractor working and living in New York City.

Sol LeWitt by Saul Ostrow
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This interview between artist Terry Winters and poet Bob Holman begins with a poem by Holman and ends with ruminations on the beauty inherent in words and paintings.

Oral History Project: Stanley Whitney by Alteronce Gumby
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“My work was just like art history; it was all Velázquez, Goya, Cézanne, and Soutine. But when I saw Morris Louis I saw a way into the present.”

Jennifer Bartlett by Elizabeth Murray
Bartlett02 Body

Elizabeth Murray and Jennifer Bartlett, painters and lifelong friends, reminisce about the ambitious New York art world of the 1960s and ‘70s in this Fall/2005 interview.

Originally published in

BOMB 25, Fall 1988

Stockard Channing, Frederic Tuten, Dorothea Rockburne, Shawn Slovo, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe & Stefanie Hermsdorf, Gary Stephan, Chris Menges, and Linda Mvusi.

Read the issue
025 Fall 1988