Points of Change; A Painter’s Journey

On the first floor of the Metropolitan Museum, a wondrous room from Pompeii had been reconstructed. It was once possible to walk into this room. Then, it was roped off, but it could still clearly be seen. In the late ’50s, when I worked there, I studied this room. It contained for me a personal conundrum because, although there were diagonal lines depicting space, a different kind of perspective system, not Renaissance perspective, was employed using geometric rules unknown to me. Where had they come from? That method of spatial division went into my visual memory file for later consideration. Then in 1972, while in Assisi and viewing the Giotto corridor with its many parallel diagonal lines, it resonated that this was the same Pompeian geometry.

Dorothea Rockburne, “Installation Piece: Arc.” Carbon Paper, Graphite on Wall, 70 × 60” (Dimensions Variable).

Robert Ryman had made a statement declaring that what to paint was never the problem. The problem is always how to paint. With that simple statement he managed to turn the phenomenological subject/object upside-down. Merleau-Ponty, in his “Eye and Mind” essay, had earlier posited that, subjectively, artists bring their bodies into the studio. Were they, in a way, saying the same thing?

During the ’70s, when exhibiting in Italy, I had the opportunity to study early Italian painting. Ryman’s “how” question often came to mind. Exactly how did Piero della Francesca make such beautiful paintings? How had he made paint speak?

Eventually, I went to Pompeii and the Villa of the Mysteries. Although I have books of reproductions, I was not prepared for the depth of sensitivity in these ancient frescos. These splendid figures portray an uncanny understanding of human existence. My inner voice told me this was not simply a matter of subject/object. Behind these layers of beautiful painting lay an intense understanding of sub-structure and the long history of geometry and painting which had preceded Pompeii probably in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, and Greece. Here before me was historicity at work.

A simple explanation of historicity is when subject matter includes all the history which has gone before while indicating a path to the future.

Omitted from Ryman’s statement was the knowledge, hidden structure, and many subterranean emotions which lay behind the frontal image of all great art. This may be subjective, but it also contains a centuries long human pictorial language which continues.

During the ’60s and ’70s I struggled to find a new geometry, something beyond the grid and Euclid. Excited by topology and set theory I began to look at transitive geometry, always envisioning concepts in different, possible materials that could be made into art, but which were outside of art materials. Carbon paper seemed a perfect choice. My intuition demanded that previously unseen, invisible structures and proportions be made visible through a transitive process. In 1972 I began a group of work titled, “Drawing Which Makes Itself.”

Often in art, the past becomes the present. I have begun installing at MoMA some of the carbon-paper wall drawings which were shown at Bykert Gallery from January 27th to February 22nd, 1973. The present exhibition will open September 21. Following are some diary notes just previous to that first installation:

Sunday, jan. 21. 1973.

1st. room. “Drawing which Makes Itself”

functions, operations, transitions.

Carbon paper.

The floor to be painted white and to be used as the wall.

2nd. Room: the way in which a sheet of paper can affect itself. All the information is contained within the paper. Painting the floor of the gallery white will allow that information to assert itself, quietly. Jan. 22. Began installation of the show.

April 17, 1973.


It became necessary to do a work which utilized all the discovered operations from the large carbon-paper series, “Drawing Which Makes Itself.” While maintaining in this work the conditions of transitive properties. I did not want these operations to be necessarily retrievable nor to deal with the innate transitive properties of carbon-paper. White velum paper 42”x48” has been used so that the determining lines of placement appear through the paper. The work is called “Neighbourhoods” which refers to the topological premise of neighborhoods, borders and parameters. The way in which external borders of territories shift by being informed through internalized functions.