Dorothea Rockburne


Dorothea Rockburne, installation view, Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York. © Dorothea Rockburne/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.

Spending an afternoon with Dorothea Rockburne’s seminal works from the 1970s, now on long-term view at Dia: Beacon, I found myself thinking about the gap between thoughts and things. We split the world in two: one mental, the other physical. Rockburne’s space, the space her work brings to light, is located between the mental and the physical, in the interstice. Her subject seems to be the fact and the mystery of how our concepts, in all their privacy, enter our shared and sensuous world.

The thought that animates Rockburne’s work is mathematical; it consists of the pure shapes of the mind and their properties. Her materials—both gritty and spare—are, in essence, those of painting: paper and other supports; oil (crude, not linseed); and the ultimate earth pigment, mined from deep inside the earth itself, bearing traces of buried ocean floors. With them, she creates an elemental language of surface, which, for the mathematician, is a two-dimensional entity of infinite extension: ideal, not real. But in lived space, surface is sensuous, mercurial, and full of hidden depths. So habitual is our application of the former to the latter that we rarely note the gap between the two. The scientist and the builder, however, seek to close it through increasing, but never fully achieved, exactitude. Rockburne asks us to pause here and consider the threshold, both mystical and ordinary. It is the threshold that a painter crosses in order to put something on the wall. This gesture is as old as the caves of Lascaux.

That the wall is as much the subject of these works is evident in the first work on view: Intersection (1971/2018). Clear plastic sheeting is hung from a low black datum line on the museum wall, about a foot off the ground. As it engages the floor, a layer of black oil is pressed between two plastic sheets, extending about five feet towards us and then rolled up like a carpet. On top of it, flush with the wall, is a piece of white chipboard. Between it and the wall is a thin roll of paper about the length and diameter of a florescent bulb—perhaps an allusion to Dan Flavin’s work in a nearby gallery. The wall, imposing and austere, towers above the work. The posture it asks of us is deference. One might even say reverence.

Dorothea Rockburne, Ineinander Group, 1971. © Dorothea Rockburne/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.

Intersection takes place between wall and floor, and between the galleries to the left and right that it links. As immaterial as it may seem, an intersection also occurs between daylight from the neighboring skylit galleries and the ambient florescent light that frontally illuminates the work. Looking down, I notice first a network of fine creases in the black surface like cracking paint. As I move along its perimeter, shadows and reflections—strange bright shapes without depth—flash across the surface, like bits of geometry’s depthless plane. Then someone passes in front of the light and her shadow plunges into the deepest black.

In the gallery on the left are two rows of five works of paper hung high on the wall and titled Ineinander (1971), or “in one another.” Those on top incorporate sheets of oil, which passes through the paper, depositing the earth’s residue in irregular patterns of spots and rings. Each has a barely translucent, murky light. Looking up, between the wall and the paper gently curving up and away from it, is a play of colors, soft glances of peach and green and blue. Paper bends natural light, painting the wall with a sliver of that atmospheric iridescence of Vermeer’s walls. Refraction, Hegel said, is the most spiritual of all natural phenomena.

Paper, Rockburne once said, is a metaphysical object. In ancient cultures, metaphysical knowledge was experiential and shared rather than speculative and analytical. It implied an ecstatic union with reality. To fold paper is to bend its surface towards itself, enclosing and then collapsing the in-between space at the moment they touch. The folds and creases that result are the signs of paper’s reflexivity. In this, paper reveals its own subjectivity. 

One of the most beautiful works is Locus (1972). It consists of six sheets of paper mounted high on the wall of the smallest gallery and illuminated by the steeply pitched skylights. Each sheet is inflected by irregular patterns of folds and creases, mostly triangular in shape, which cause the paper to bend and hover away from the wall rather than lay flat. Some of the folds appear to have been run through a press and embossed; some section are painted a delicate, pearlescent white. The center of each sheet is marked with a penciled “X,” which functions as the locus from which the folds and creases of the paper differ, creating a double surface. The folds give the paper a structure, uncover its potential to counter gravity. Between the flatness we expect and the articulated form we see, we find another strategy of refraction. Each facet and locates a precise and singular quantity of light.

Dorothea Rockburne, installation view, Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York. © Dorothea Rockburne/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.

Domain of the Variable (1972/2018) occupies the largest gallery. The title refers to set theory, which examines the properties of collections of objects and which Rockburne studied with the mathematician Max Dehn. At one end of the gallery is a long film soaked in pinkish-red grease, hung about hip-high from the floor and held in place by a piece of chipboard. Moving along it, a play of light on the surface of the film rolls ahead of me like a wave, pulling me into the work, where I too become one its variables. Inside and viewed from a distance, the pinkish-red unit resembles a single large brushstroke parallel to the floor. Its top edge coincides imperfectly with a shallow groove in the wall—a level line or datum—which scores all the available walls asserting the integrity of the domain.

Rockburne’s interventions are at a different scale here. Materials are hung, layered, wrapped, fastened, and glued. One unit is particularly riveting. Two pieces of chipboard have been glued to the wall both above and below the datum and then pulled away and placed on the floor. The surfaces of both the boards and the wall are tattered. Irregular brown patches, where the tear breached the surface of the chipboard, commingle with additive layers of yellowish glue-stained shapes and untroubled patches of white. Surface here is manifold and woundable. Separation creates distances that union effaced.

The gaps we find between thoughts and things are largely an artifact of dualism, a way of looking at the world in which subjects and objects are inaccessible to one another in a space that is home to neither. In The Crisis of the European Sciences, Edmund Husserl traces, with the suspense of a detective novel, the origin of dualism back to Galileo’s mathematization of geometry and quantification of nature. The practical and technological successes that resulted, he argues, blinded us to what was lost—a lived connection to both supra-sensible reality and the plenitude that the earth provides. Our world shrinks and gaps appear. Rockburne works in the gaps. Remarkably, she uses mathematics as a method to unearth what a purely instrumental application of mathematics concealed. In it, she finds not a culprit but a tool that can also be used in ways both harmonic and exact, spiritual and lived. This is the achievement of someone unerringly alive to both the pure terrain of the mind and the inexhaustible sensuousness of the world, uncovering relationships that connect the two rather than separate them.


A.V. Ryan

A.V. Ryan is a sculptor and writer living in Brooklyn.