Dorothea Rockburne’s Ephemeral Art and Enduring Legacy

Ms. 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 the 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.”


Contact cement & chip board tests for her installation “Domain of The Variable,” one of many made over months to recreate the 1972 work. Credit 2018 Dorothea Rockburne/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Yet, she has always acknowledged that she is most indebted to her mathematics professor, the 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, Ms. 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.


The artist is still pushing materials to the edge; here, grease tests on paper. Credit 2018 Dorothea Rockburne/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

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, Ms. 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. Ms. Rockburne joined the now legendary Judson Dance Theater.

“They were young and revolutionary and wanted to change the world,” Ms. 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.”


Detail from chip board tests for “Domain of The Variable.” The artist’s raw materials are variable and sometimes ephemeral, including crude oil, which is no longer used. Credit 2018 Dorothea Rockburne/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

She began making the art that secured her reputation. Initially, Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. 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, Ms. 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.”

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