The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

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DEC 21-JAN 22 Issue

Dorothea Rockburne: Giotto’s Angels & Knots

Dorothea Rockburne, <em>Giotto's Light</em>, 2021. Aquacryl paint and gouache on paper, 30 x 23 in. Courtesy David Nolan Gallery.
Dorothea Rockburne, Giotto's Light, 2021. Aquacryl paint and gouache on paper, 30 x 23 in. Courtesy David Nolan Gallery.
New York City
David Nolan Gallery
October 15, 2021 – January 8, 2022

Dorothea Rockburne was a mainstay of Postminialism, which was fine when people knew what Minimalism meant. The title of her new exhibition, of drawings, relief paintings and sculptures of the past two years, alludes partly to Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes, and partly to the knot as a modern thought motif; the latter interests her mathematically, and me art-theoretically.

Works on paper with acrylic and gouache comprise several series. Angel Tracings, Giotto’s Light, Giotto’s Night, and Giotto’s Kiss—the last affiliating compositionally with Giotto’s Sts. Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate—look like old NASA photographs of heavenly bodies, while “Lamenting Angel” drawings relate to Giotto’s fantastic Lamentation, especially No. 1, where a system of agitated angular arrow forms fills a dark sky. Unrelated but with three white circles floating as a loose triplet, is Ptah.

Thinking of Giotto’s azure along with heavenly orbs must motivate drawings of a “Blue Collage” series. These have discs and fragmented discs evoking the material color of black or blue carbon paper—a color-substance that long ago interested Rockburne.

Dorthea Rockburne, <em>Trefoil 4</em>, 2021. Copper wire and enamel paint on layered chipboards. 30
Dorthea Rockburne, Trefoil 4, 2021. Copper wire and enamel paint on layered chipboards. 30" x 30" x 1.5". Photo: JSP Art Photography

“Trefoils,” enameled reliefs with copper wire, may be symmetrical or not. Their orthogonal or angled, shallow parallel relief rectangles recall constructivism, especially with slack copper wire circles, the curvature of which retains the deformation of having been on a spool. That would be difficult to neutralize, but here it fills the bill. Calling them trefoils raises the question of knots and reminding us of Rockburne’s mathematical topologies.[1]

Given the prominence of rope in the extraordinary new sculptures, the topic of knots puts me, relatedly but differently, in mind of Gottfried Semper’s theory of the knot, rope, and plaiting (braiding) as the origin of architecture. Hefty rope had been used in sculpture by other members of Rockburne’s generation, including Bill Bollinger, not to mention the—like Dorothea—Canadian-born Jackie Winsor, whose massive but elegant Double Circle, 1970-71, was a favorite of mine.[2] But Semper’s Style (1860-62) theorized the notion of twisted cords being “bound into a thicker rope” as making for knots: “perhaps the oldest technical symbol and . . . the expression of the earliest cosmogonic ideas that arose among the nations.”[3] In Rockburne’s Interchange, the two standing elements of the piece are knotted, almost graciously loosely, together.

Dorthea Rockburne, <em>Interchange</em>, 2021. Galvanized steel buckets, tire, rope, mirrors, castors, PVC flexible coupling with stainless steel clamps, and water. 36
Dorthea Rockburne, Interchange, 2021. Galvanized steel buckets, tire, rope, mirrors, castors, PVC flexible coupling with stainless steel clamps, and water. 36" x 70" x 30". PC Jason Manella

The most important rope in art is the frame of Picasso’s Still-Life with Chair Caning, 1912, where the real thing does the metaphorical job of a guilloche pattern. Not dissimilarly, Rockburne’s big ropes introduce big DIY guillochés. Both sculptures use “readymade” rope, same-sized galvanized tubs or buckets, and rubber vehicle tires. Dorothea recalls a Beuys retrospective in Germany in 1967 for such “unconventional materials.” All right; but inspired by another conversation, I can propose another factor. These works are entirely hospitable to the formal properties of their ordinary objects: timeless Thonet chairs—one parked upside-down on the other upon a mirror in Reflectons—and ornamentalisms like the guilloche or circumferential grooves along the tub sides, for rigidity, in analogy with standardized rings around classical columns; even the “engraved” look of a tire and its tread.

Consider, too, the sculptural modernity of stacking up volumetric forms. Semper had a sense of certain primeval “root” actions for architecture, not only “jointing” but heaping; and if the knot is germane to Interchange, Reflections is more of a “heap,” though even that evokes the drums on drums of a column. In 1989 the conceptual sculptor Scott Burton drew attention, in an exhibition at the Modern, to the question of Brancusi’s bases—not the dogma of baselessness, but the sculptor’s tendency to stack them.[4] That is important to both sculptures here, maybe more so with Reflections, where the solo tire tread isn’t so “orchestrally” overcome.

Tires always remind us of Allan Kaprow’s Yard installation, of 1961, and Rauschenberg’s Monogram combine, of 1955-59, “combining” tire and stuffed goat. But by then Rauschenberg had made a subtler piece, close to when Rockburne knew him at Black Mountain College in 1951-52: in 1953 he used a moving car tire as an intaglio stamp for the long monoprint Automobile Tire Print, 1953. If Reflections has a touch of the outlandishness of Monogram, Interchange has the scope of Tire Print.

Capital and entablature, outer gallery, Church of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. From Alo’s Riegl, <em>Stilfragen: Grundlegungen zu einer Geschichte der Ornamentik</em> (Berlin: Siemens, 1893).
Capital and entablature, outer gallery, Church of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. From Alo’s Riegl, Stilfragen: Grundlegungen zu einer Geschichte der Ornamentik (Berlin: Siemens, 1893).

Allow me to end, with little space for justification, by offering Dorothea Rockburne a formal comparison between her smartly Semperian joint in the modern-volumetric tire-on-a-tub of Interchange,” and Aloїs Riegl’s illustration in Problems of Style (1893) of a massive stone entablature, with proto-Islamic arabesque engraving, looking, to me, as regular as a tire-tread, atop a bucket-like capital, in the sixth-century Byzantine Hagia Sophia, designed—Dorothea would emphasize—by two geometers.


  1. Lacanians know Lacan’s intertwined three rings as a “Borromean Knot,” associated with an armorial device of the Borromeo family, whose history, however, began in 1445. The more ubiquitous form of a three-lobed pretzel emblematizing the interdependent Trinity is already illustrated in a German manuscript painting of 1414-18: see my “The Florenskian Icon ‘in’ Lacan,” Word and Image 26 (2010), repr. in his Texts on (Texts on) Art (New York: Rail Editions, 2014), 100-21; here p. 109, with ref. to K. Kup, “Ulrich von Richental’s Chronicle of the Council of Constance,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library 40 (1936), 303-19, with illus.
  2. Which I wrote about in “Sorting Out the Whitney Annual,” Artforum 9 (February 1971), 70-74. I liked seeing it just plunked, for some years, on the lobby floor of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
  3. G. Semper, The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings, trans. H.F. Mallgrave and W. Herrmann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 217.
  4. See S. Burton, “My Brancusi,” in Burton on Brancusi: April 7-June 28, 1989, brochure (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1989); online.


Joseph Masheck

Joseph Masheck is an art historian and critic, has been awarded the 2018 “Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Arts” by the C.A.A.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

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