Dorothea Rockburne, Still Blazing Trails

Posted May 4, 2018 12:08 a.m. EDT

At 85, painter Dorothea Rockburne is still blazing trails, making art in the unorthodox way she has for seven decades. “There’s stuff in my head,” Rockburne, an abstractionist with lively, penetrating eyes and a ready smile, recently explained. “It’s really important for me to get it out of my head and into a viewable situation.”

From experience, she’s learned that it can take a while to figure out how to get concepts onto a wall or canvas. It took about a year, for example, to figure out how to recreate several of her breakthrough works from 1967 through 1972 for a show opening Sunday at Dia Art Foundation in Beacon, New York.

It will be the first time generations of art enthusiasts will see the work of this underappreciated artist in person, rather than from reproductions in catalogs and art magazines. It had been almost 50 years since the artist herself had seen some of them.

But would she ever have a chance to see them again? The painter took risks back then, choosing ephemeral materials with a short shelf life. Take the large installation on view at Dia, “Domain of the Variable,” a re-creation of the original that appeared on the cover of the November 1972 issue of Artforum — then the art world’s bible — and is Rockburne’s best-known work.

Composed of cotton rag paper, specially ordered chipboard, grease and charcoal, it was one of many large-scale works executed at a time when painters and sculptors made art with no regard for whether their pieces could be sold. When her second show at the Bykert Gallery on East 81st Street closed in the 1970s, “Domain of the Variable,” parts of which had been glued to the wall, had to be tossed in the garbage. Years earlier, Rockburne discovered that the paper she used would no longer be manufactured, and she purchased rolls of it. They, too, had disintegrated.

Other multipart paintings had been executed with crude oil, specially ordered chipboard, electrical tape, nails and tar. But crude oil, a component in homemade bombs, was no longer available. (It’s also toxic.) Heidie Giannotti, the exhibition designer, substituted heating oil.

Reconstructing the art on view in Beacon took months, lots of trial and error, and a team of six installers to get everything right. “At Dia, we substituted materials, but it didn’t matter,” Rockburne said, explaining that she’ll use any material that produces the desired effect.

You learn to roll with the punches when you have exhibited in celebrated avant-garde galleries; enjoyed friendships with A-list artists, dancers, poets, and musicians — Robert Rauschenburg, Cy Twombly, Merce Cunningham among them; managed as a single mother to pay the rent on a downtown loft where you made your work late into the night; and made your career taking on the big boys of the art world.

Rockburne’s understated work plugged into the prevailing minimalist aesthetic of the day but also reflected her lifelong interest in higher mathematics. Indeed, she refers to herself as both an artist and a mathematician. When people hear her talk about how her art relates to higher mathematics, they often roll their eyes.

According to Rockburne, “Everyone had terrible math teachers, but I didn’t.” “Domain of the Variable” is a visual equation, setting out specific material variations within a single installation. There was another aspect to her paintings. As the artist said in her spacious, well-lit loft on the edge of SoHo, “Even though it has an intellectual basis and mathematical structure, my work comes from a deep emotional source within me.”

Rockburne explained that someone could appreciate her art without being familiar with math. As she put it, “You don’t have to know the composition of water to swim in it.” But then, she added, “Once you know what water is, and that we’re 90 percent water, it becomes more interesting.”

Rockburne’s interest in mathematics was a gradual process. Raised in Montreal, she fell under the spell of illustrated books that her Welsh-born mother found on a trip to Alexandria, on Egyptian art. They fascinated her young daughter, who turned their pages avidly when she suffered from bronchitis and pneumonia during the long, bitter Canadian winters. (A number of paintings from Rockburne’s Egyptian series of 1979-81, comprising black crayon lines, and gessoed and painted white linen folded into geometric shapes and borders, will open at Dia: Beacon next November.)

Rockburne earned a scholarship at 16 to the Montreal Museum School. As she approached graduation, her two favorite art teachers counseled her to leave Canada, recommending that she attend Black Mountain College in North Carolina. When she got there, she found her calling.

She studied art with the abstract expressionists Philip Guston, Franz Kline and Jack Tworkov; dance, with Merce Cunningham; music with composers John Cage and Lou Harrison; poetry, with the postmodernist Charles Olson. Then, there were her fellow students: John Chamberlain, Twombly and Rauschenberg.

“Bob whispered in my ear, I have a car,” she recalled. “We three became thick, and fast friends.”

Yet, she has always acknowledged that she is most indebted to her mathematics professor, German émigré Max Dehn. She admired Dehn’s “lively, disciplined but fearless mind. His enthusiasm for everything was infectious.”

“When I told him that I was having difficulties with assignments,” she explained, “he said, ‘What you need is to understand the principles of math as they occur in nature.'” Consequently, he invited her to join him on his 7 a.m. hikes. Her fate was sealed.

In 1954, Rockburne arrived in New York with her husband, Carroll Warner Williams, an instructor she had met at Black Mountain, and their 2-year-old daughter, Christine. The marriage didn’t work out; and in 1958, she moved with her daughter from a cold water flat in the East 80s to a loft on Chambers Street.

Now she was hanging out with future pop artists and minimalists (Claes Oldenburg, Carl Andre, Robert Morris). The sculptor Mark di Suvero built a big swing in the backyard where her daughter played.

In the morning, Rockburne, a single mother, would bring her daughter uptown to school at Dalton. She’d paint from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. To cover expenses, she held a series of day jobs, including one as a waitress, and another as a “girl Friday” for Rauschenberg. When she grew disappointed with the art she was making, she took a break. Rockburne joined the now legendary Judson Dance Theater.

“They were young and revolutionary and wanted to change the world,” Rockburne said during a dinner in SoHo. “They had a huge influence on me; and I realized why I was dissatisfied. In the middle of a performance, I suddenly saw what I wanted to do. I never danced again.”

She began making the art that secured her reputation. Initially, Rockburne was inspired by set theory, a branch of mathematical logic. “Tropical Tan” (1967-68), named for a color of paint, and also for human tan skin, is the earliest work on view at Dia: Beacon. Four 8-foot-tall steel panels resting side-by-side were covered with wrinkle finish paint, which created a subtle texture on the smooth metal.

“Set,” a refined beauty, has also been newly rendered, now taller than ever, partly because of the high ceilings at the former Nabisco plant that serves as Dia’s home.

“Variable” is an astonishing introduction to Rockburne’s radicality during the early 1970s. The two-part installation encompasses an entire room. One section involves various pieces of paper and board covered with red grease, adding a striking color note. Paper board glued to the wall and then stripped off like a Band-Aid leaves vibrant traces of a rupture. A long line carved into the wall between the two pieces, provides a deep shadow. The overall impact is “a controlled chaos,” said Courtney J. Martin, the deputy director and chief curator of Dia. “The grease could have run; the wall could have been pulled apart, And yet neither of those things happened.” This work, she added, “always deserved more attention than it received.”

Jessica Morgan, Dia’s director, pointed out that Rockburne’s practice encompasses “both a rigor of thinking with an equally exacting desire to create sensuality in the work.” She added, “It remains radically surprising in its form, material, process and conceptual underpinning.”

With the Dia installation completed, Rockburne was asked what it was like to be young and idealistic during the ‘60s. Without missing a beat, she replied, “I am young and idealistic.”