The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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NOV 2013 Issue

DOROTHEA ROCKBURNE Drawing Which Makes Itself

On View
Museum of Modern Art
September 21, 2013 – January 20, 2014
New York

Stirring in the currents of the Process Art movement and coming ashore with the tide of Post-Minimalism, Dorothea Rockburne’s austere work from the 1970s possesses enduring value. The artist’s wall and floor drawings in her current exhibition at MoMA reveal the unadorned considerations of a painter who expanded her medium in the years after she studied mathematics at Black Mountain College. Drawing Which Makes Itself, an early series of works on paper that serves as the title of the decade-spanning exhibition, richly displays her adherence to material process while indoctrinating geometry and topology as interdependent propellants. To step into the space inhabited by the series is to experience the shifting temporal boundaries of Rockburne’s early career—it centralizes our points of consciousness within time and space, rather than pushing them outward toward a culminating endpoint.

Dorothea Rockburne, “Conservation Class #9.” 1973. Graphite on paper mounted on gessoed masonite. 34 1/2 × 70 ̋ Collection the artist. © 2013 Dorothea Rockburne / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In a short video interview introducing the exhibition, Rockburne explains, “When one is dealing with art and mathematics, there is always an element of magic. If everything adds up or works out well, you’re on the wrong trail.” These words are best exemplified by the artist’s intimately scaled copal oil drawings, which, comprised of tightly folded sheets of ragboard, evoke the past through earthen coloration. Saturated with brown copal oil, each segment appears hermetically sealed—an envelopment of significant knowledge. Clean lines in blue pencil cross and stack independently of the paper’s folds. Unlike the airy Locus series of embossed etchings displayed across the front expanse of the gallery, the information in the folded copal oil drawings is obscured, as if the implied system of math-driven folds, however universal, gains power through its insularity. The layers increase the density of seemingly faraway information; “Copal #8” (1976), the smallest of the series, is so tightly packaged that it looks like a folded map or letter bundled for a clandestine purpose so far in the past that its preservation will span millennia to come. Through this feeling, historical boundaries shift and gain reflexivity.

Earlier in the ’70s, Rockburne found numerous ways to incorporate mathematics, astronomy, and physics into her work, often accentuating the elasticity of time with simple materials like carbon paper, crude oil, Mylar, or vellum. During this time, a hardware store across the street from the artist’s Chambers Street apartment became her primary source for utilitarian materials. Though celebrated contemporaries like Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin also re-purposed materials while riding the shockwaves of Minimalism, Rockburne’s supplies were chosen based on their affordability, in contradistinction to the pigments and grounds she learned to use during her beaux-arts education. Sourcing materials both casually and pragmatically, Rockburne made “Scalar” (1971), a wall installation of crude oil-soaked chipboard and paper inspired by the artist’s visits to archeological sites in Brazil and Peru. “Scalar” climbs from the floor—its joints and overlaps interlocking with stability—while deep umber and honey-colored splotches illuminate the painter’s chromatic traction. Through these polarizing qualities, Rockburne’s archeological and mathematic inclinations, complicated by the industrial materials most readily available to her, suggest an exponential rather than a reductive formula at work.

In a 1988 interview with Saul Ostrow published in BOMB magazine, Rockburne expounded on the relationship between time and her affinity for the transitory: “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.” While making her ’70s-era works, she revisited the architectonic practices of the ancient Egyptians later adopted by the Greeks. The gestalt of “Nesting” (1972) reflects these studies, bending organically despite the weight of a centrally positioned black diamond shape and the crispness of staccato lines rushing horizontally across the composition. Anywhere one looks, time is pitted against systematized action, while rectilinear forms eschew stasis through implied movement. The ether of ancient mathematics wafts outward, filling the gallery with a metaphysical agent.

Max Dehn, who introduced Rockburne to the Golden Mean at Black Mountain College, believed that nature was written in numbers. Linking her interest in process art and mathematics, Rockburne transformed this theoretical equation into visual terms, culminating in her groundbreaking project, Drawing which Makes Itself, first exhibited at MoMA in 1974. Four pieces from this initial exploration are installed at MoMA for the second time, with help from instructional diagrams that have been reproduced onto hand-held placards for visitors. The diagrams are handwritten by the artist, listing detailed steps for the installation of each piece: how to fold or score the materials, when to use an 8H pencil, how to establish a specific degree of overlap, and so on. With her instructions highlighting the role of process, one can calibrate exactly how the sheets of carbon paper were positioned as they were scored, leaving rich segments of bone black on the walls and floor before being folded again and re-scored.

Initially trained as a dancer, Rockburne has sought to essentialize the corporeal presence and movement of the viewer within her work. Suggested in her exposed process, shifts and repetitions imply an act that is to be sustained. The body is activated through folding and unfolding; one can imagine his or her finger and arms manipulating the peaks and valleys of the surfaces. “Conservation Class #9” (1973), a small cut-paper work, is made of interlocking triangles that vie for dominance as they cascade diagonally across the page. The paper is roughed-up, strong-armed into its eventual kite-like form, without regard for preciousness. Loosely drawn graphite marks, used as guides for the artist at the edges of each triangle, further connect physical effort with completion of the system in question. The specific mathematical equation said to spur the work along is not written out for this or any other piece in the exhibition. Despite this absence, each tactile assemblage possesses balance and an energy that radiates outward, allowing viewers’ minds to reenact the spirit or tendencies, if not the numbers, of each system. Infallibility of mathematic principle imbues the work with a sense of purpose, despite the cultivated roughness and false starts that keep slickness at bay.

Unlike the painterly decades that followed, Rockburne’s use of simple materials during the ’70s allows us to more purely observe the complex impetus and implied action of her process. Though she oversaw the careful installation of the MoMA show, the inclusion of her instructional diagrams and the exhibition’s titular implication of self-generated art pressurize notions of time and material stimuli for a new generation—viewers who must cope with the implications of a paperless world, where information will be preserved and passed down in new ways. Rockburne’s focus remains timely. How this work might read another generation from now will be most telling, placed in the void its transience seeks to permeate.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

All Issues