New York Studio School March 18 – May 1, 2010

For the better part of her life, Dorothea Rockburne has conducted investigations into subjects most often approached through the mathematical sciences and language, yet her avenues of approach have been through fluid gesture, the properties of material and precise forms. Centering around bodies in motion, her complex studies create a world where movement within is bound to movements without, linking the physical and metaphysical realms in a single plane.

Dorothea Rockburne, “Piero’s Sky” (1991-92.) Lascaux Aquacryl and Caran d’Ache on handmade banana paper, mounted on ragboard, 24 3⁄4 × 19 1⁄2 inches

Rockburne’s Astronomy Drawings use the motion of planetary bodies together with particles from quantum physics to examine the relationship of forces operating in our universe. Gravity plays a central role and also indicates as well Rockburne’s intense focus on the unseen.

In “Summer’s Nighttime Sky” (1993), an ellipse in matte yellow seems to be spinning within the latitudes of an amorphous green form. Itself set within a larger field, it stands up tangent to a spiraling band of blue whose own movement determines the relationship between the two. A band of orange scraped across the surface delineates far reaches of the void that holds them. Each form is contingent on another, yet retains its autonomy. Each of Rockburne’s works is precisely calibrated to a single notion, making the compendium essential to gaining insights into her individual pieces.

The conceptual underpinnings of Rockburne’s work draw from the world of thought and investigation, from the vision of artists like Leonardo da Vinci who struggled in their own times to hone the clearest understanding of the forces that determine our universe. At Black Mountain College she was also immersed in the study of mathematics, which has long served as a grounding and subject for her work.

What Yves Bonnefoy writes, in his reflections on Quattrocento painting, could well be considered in light of Rockburne’s works. “It takes a fundamentally metaphysical turn of mind to make number shed its purely external quality, to go beyond appearance, to escape from the mirage of mere aspects. And something else besides: it takes a spiritual resolution to maintain it.” Number was seen as a kind of gnosis in former times, leading to a knowledge that eclipsed reason.

Once we begin to delve into Rockburne’s subject, the forms in her paintings start to open up. In “Universes,” dark matter shows itself as an interference pattern, expansion in the cracking paint.

Close up on Rockburne’s drawings, “Piero’s Sky” and “Particle and Wave,” we can see the rough surface and dense materiality of an image that looks light and airy from a distance. “Piero’s Sky” feels as if a reading were taken from the aura of one of Piero della Francesca’s magnificent and mathematically precise works.

Through an analysis of Rockburne’s forms we can determine that her investigations are oriented to the philosophy of mathematics and phenomena—a notion that once bound matter and soul in a way that appears mostly arcane to us today. In Husserl’s “Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology,” a discussion ensues picking up on questions that were in play with the realization of the quantification of matter in the time of Leibniz. What was that inexplicable part that accounted for life, could it be quantified? Rockburne’s work addresses these questions though a visual language.

“Particle and Wave” has a complex geometry that looks as if Rockburne has dissected an atom and revealed its inner workings. Color and form work together to keep the eye moving and create a sensation of suspension—a visual equivalent of Rockburne’s inquiry into the inexplicable phenomena of light being both a particle and a wave.

White entities, taut yet hovering in relation to one another, are rendered in Aquacryl and Pearlessence on Abaca paper in “Einstein’s Cross.” They show us the force of gravity that is weak in the near vicinity yet plays out as a strong force over greater distances.

Two diamond paintings, “Castor and Pollux,” touch at their apex. The reflective and absorptive aspects of the surfaces serve to demarcate depth within the plane, allowing the void to be felt and the circles to emerge as rotating bodies. The repetition of circular forms both brings us close to Rockburne’s subject and creates a rhythm that cascades the eye from the material to the form. As the unfolding of her geometry plays out through the painterliness of her execution, it becomes evident that she is an artist for whom something is at stake.

In a single work composed of nine sky-blue paintings called “Universes,” the geometry of Rockburne’s compositions has been overridden by the power of her gesture. The eye bounces around, forming a constellation that stretches and pulls at the tension binding it—a formal equivalent to the concept of moving between universes. No less precise for being fluid, these works give a sense of the extent of Rockburne’s sensibilities.

Like many artists, Rockburne’s later work evidences a freedom hard won. The splash of paint and submerged geometry in “Prime Partition 5 (2006) and “Particle Passage Partition 3” (2006) is reminiscent of Hubble photographs of the outer reaches of our universe. There is a conscious geometry of thought at the center of Rockburne’s oeuvre that shows us again and again how her concerns move from the visible to the invisible and render it through her own eyes.

In “Three Point Manifold”(2008), a large red circle nearly in the center of the composition has an intense inner glow; the paint dripping around the floating forms flattens and counteracts the tendency to slowly open up to a deep space. Within this essential tension the movement of the eye glides from form to form as the rhythm of their repetition becomes a catalyst to go even deeper into the red. The colors reach a crystalline pitch indicating the transformation of the material as a window into other dimensions of space.

The span of work in Astronomy Drawings brings together different approaches and materials that give a sense of Rockburne’s range. Together they start to build an understanding of her multifaceted and complex endeavor, something that is not always apparent within a singular or even a small group of works.

These are works that must be met halfway. It takes time before the mind’s eye can comprehend and register the complexities of Rockburne’s form, a form that her lifelong engagement in the studio has brought to her work. Only then can one start to unravel their implications and entertain their subtle innuendos. It’s work to live with—the layers peel back slowly in response to inquiry, revealing a new perception of space. This is also difficult work to see in a time when the viewing of a series of frames in rapid succession has taken precedence over the unfolding of form in a single frame.

In the last few weeks there has been a great, yet subtle, repositioning of critics in numerous discussions and articles, voicing concerns about the direction in which the hedge fund avant-garde has taken us. For those who have gained hope from these rumblings for an art that addresses itself to the continuum of the human spirit, Rockburne’s show is one that is not to be missed.


Joan Waltemath

JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.