I entered Dorothea Rockburne’s studio; I am an artist sitting in front of an artist I admire. I had never met her before. Yet, she’s always been a mentor, even as I only knew her through her work.
It isn’t just that she’s an iconic artist, a woman who found her way through Minimalism. It isn’t that she has witnessed some of New York’s brightest moments of art, experimentation, and community. It isn’t even her deep engagement with abstraction, geometry, and paper—all that is central to my practice. Dorothea Rockburne has hands that know the language of math. It’s poetry.
I’m lost for words. It is the maker in me that is in awe.
Weeks away from her 89th birthday, she’s working on a new exhibition: Giotto's Angels and Knots. As if all her work with math, topology, dance, Minimalism, painting, and space was not already beyond what one life can contain, she now flirts with Giotto’s Arena, knot theory, and even sculpture.
The interview began with me thanking her. I have brought her one of my pieces: a black piece of paper folded to become a Möbius strip tearing itself apart, always in half. The conversation that followed and many other parts of this interview remain private. My deep gratitude for Dorothea Rockburne is beyond these lines.
Yasi Alipour [Rail]: To start with the upcoming exhibition, I’m thinking about knot theory… you make it sounds so simple—
Dorothea Rockburne: It is simple! Check it out on YouTube. They have a very uncomplicated talk on knot theory.
Rail: [Laugh] I love how you say that, and then there are theoretical mathematicians struggling with it.
Rockburne: The mathematicians are not struggling with knot theory; they are learning about the universe from it. As David Anfam said in his essay on my upcoming exhibition, we’re all made of knots. It’s only complicated if you get into physics. The universe is made of knots. This is not a small thing.
Rail: One of the things I find so inspiring about your work is how your paintings and drawings become choreographies while being profoundly mathematical. Dance is so integral in your work.
Rockburne: If choreography can be considered as directional movement, then it truly is a choreography. Everything is a choreography. I’ve been thinking of Giotto’s Arena Chapel. It is such a pivotal point in the history of art. He enters into the Byzantine painting and endures emotions into it. I always thought that’s what I wanted to do.
The Minimalists were all reacting against abstract expressionism, which they thought was emotionalism. I never thought that. But the Minimalists had a prejudice against it. They were going to move emotions out of it. And I always thought, no, I want to put emotion in art, as did the artist, Brice Marden.
Rail: To quote you [Laughs], it’s an entirely different sense of how we understand emotions.
Rockburne: To become an emotional person, on a scale of one to ten, that’s the task, many people never get past there.
[We walk into a corner of her studio where she shows me some in-progress paintings and drawings. I am in awe of her paper.]
Rail: I love how the surface of paper gets so close to pure math’s definitions, and yet it’s such a stubborn 3D material.
Rockburne: I don’t think of paper as a 3D material. I think of it as organic, in the sense that bread is.
Rail: Wow! [pause] And with topology or knot theory…
Rockburne: I really understand it to be like a song. It is a symphony. It is just an amazing study of every leaf. When I make my work, I’m not in control; something else is.
Rail: Do you feel like you know the moves, but you don’t know what the end result will be?
Rockburne: I just don’t feel in control. I’ve never understood the process. Never. And you know what, I don’t understand the decisions I make. I don’t understand any of it. I just know what to do. And I do it. If I didn’t do it right, then I know that is the next thing to do.
Rail: I have this image of you in Black Mountain College walking in nature with the incredible mathematician, Max Dehn. You talk about this often and the significance that he had on your work. He seems like an extraordinary person. A lot of academic mathematicians don’t know how to talk to non-professionals.
Rockburne: Black Mountain was never an art school. It was an experiment in education, and that was what was so great about it. And because I didn’t like the art classes, I stumbled into the math class. I’d gone to a school where they really didn’t teach girls mathematics. When Max talked about me taking his class, I said, I don’t have any background for that. He said: “Well, sit in on a class. I think you’re probably a natural fit.” So, I sat in the class and, of course, couldn’t understand a thing. And I said, “I really wish I could understand this, but it’s too sophisticated for me.” And he said, “Well, I’ll show you.” And that’s when these walks began. And he loaned me books. He would invite me over on Sundays, and he gave me tutorials. He was also married to this lovely woman who would feed us.
I was 18 years old, really bright and a dry sponge, but always believing in the magic of life, of nature, and of existence. I also had a fantastic father. Without ever saying anything very much, he really taught us the important value of being happy, that your responsibility to yourself, no matter what was happening, was to be happy.
Rail: I love that. And in your work, there’s no mind/body divide. Math and dance meet; I find it moving. We’re so often schooled to think of math as pure rationality.
Rockburne: I don’t believe in rationality, anywhere, about anything. What is rational as far as I can see everything? I think the challenge is to live in the irrational.
Rail: Wow, yes. The other critical moment I think of in your practice is you during a performance with the Judson Dance Theater and suddenly having an image of what you needed to do in the studio. And that was it; you didn’t perform again.
Rockburne: After Black Mountain, I was in New York taking everything in. I was doing my share of de Koonings—as I should have been doing at that age. But then there was this revelatory moment where I thought, “Well, I’m finished doing all that. I don’t know what I’m going to do now.” [Laughs] Since I’d always had dance training in Montreal and Black Mountain, I thought, “Oh, well, why don’t you go and work with Judson Dance Theater?” Judson was the place. All the artists were there and performing—artists can usually dance. They were busy raking every possible rule, even Martha Graham, even Merce Cunningham. They were throwing the truck over the cliff. They had a great attitude of exhilaration and challenge and all the things I love. I did a lot of things. I didn’t keep a record of it. The thing that I learned most was not about dancing but about thinking.
And then there was this moment. When you’re dancing, you’re working on the grid on the floor. And you’re always losing count and trying to add up where you were. I was on the stage. And suddenly, all the math I’d been studying made sense. I suddenly saw how to do this work.
Rail: I love how you always describe it as seeing. You told a physicist friend once that you think and do the math, not just with your mind, but with your whole body and your hands, right? To me, that’s so important. It’s a very different relationship with language.
Rockburne: I think that we have brains in different parts of our body. We have brains in our heads, in our thighs and hips. It’s also an Eastern idea. I think it’s not just all up here. There are different attenuations of the brain. My hands think.
Rail: And they have a mind of their own.
Rockburne: [Laughs] You’re exactly right. They do!
Rail: I’m in awe of all that you have done, and now your new work on knots. There’s a depth of time in your work. There’s slowness and care in the way you approach these ideas, and then there’s your persistent and resilient way of making. You’ve been working non-stop. It’s not a question. I’m just blown away. You’re a force.
Rockburne: You know, what is also amazing to me is my energy level at my age. The ability to be creative at this age. It’s some sort of a miracle. It’s incredible to be driven at 89! [Laughs]
As I was making Giotto’s angel, every morning I’d get up and I would think: “I am Giotto.” It wasn’t a wish. It was an understanding of what that meant. Giotto said something very meaningful that by doing the Arena chapel, it made him closer to Christ. My religion is my own, but that is a very deep statement to me. And that’s true for everybody who has ever had any cognizant at all as an artist.
Rail: That’s how I feel about Isfahan. I Look at those abstract geometric forms and find myself completely lost in the movements as if reading the makers' hands.
Rockburne: It is also a trance position. To me, it’s the emotion of the artist. It’s hard to find that. People are clever, people are great artists, but that, that’s unique.
[Our conversation ends slowly as we empty our glasses of wine. She tells me about her love for Florence—a city I have never seen—and I for Isfahan—one she never will. Dorothea talks about beautifully crafted Italian gloves. I think of the magic of her hand’s mind. I smile. Someday when I finally get to see Florence, I’ll take this conversation with me: her, her love for Giotto, and her courage to think and make with deep emotionality.]