Published  07/10/2013

Interview with Dorothea Rockburne

Interview with Dorothea Rockburne

Dorothea Rockburne: Drawing Which Makes Itself
The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
21 September 2013 – 20 January 2014


How easy is it to imagine drawing that makes itself, and why should drawing make itself to begin with? The Museum of Modern Art’s restaging of Dorothea Rockburne’s landmark exhibition, which originally took place in 1973, provides us with possible answers to these questions.

Drawing enters our bones, so to speak, when we begin to visualise Rockburne crafting delicate lines and fragile spaces with chosen material by moving through the space, folding and unfolding sheets of paper, leaving traces of her activity. It is in this imagining of the process of the actual creation that we begin to engage with the work. Through vision, our mind enters a space reserved for memory and visual engagement, which triggers our visceral sense of awareness and belonging.

Not only does the exhibition offer a breathtaking leap back into the invigorating aesthetic atmosphere of the 70s, inspired by the ideas of the modernist avant garde, but it also invites us to think about ourselves in relation to the world: how much of it is really “outside” and how much is a product of our thoughts and actions.

Dorothea Rockburne: Drawing Which Makes Itself was organised by Esther Adler, assistant curator in the department of prints and drawings. It consists of 31 works, roughly half of which were in existence in 1973. The rest are mostly from the mid- and late 70s, with one large geometric watercolour from 1982 and two watercolours painted five and six years ago. Rockburne spoke to Studio International on the occasion of the exhibition’s opening.

Natasha Kurchanova: Thank you so much, for agreeing to this interview. Looking at your work in this space, it strikes me that there is correspondence between your thinking and that of the Russian avant garde.

Dorothea Rockburne: Yes, I studied them in depth. My whole generation looked at that great work.

NK: I am thinking in particular about Vladimir Tatlin, about his tower and counter-reliefs. Your way of working in-between media, in-between painting and sculpture reminded me so much of him. Although you are different, of course.

DR: I have a picture of him hanging in my kitchen, with a cigarette hanging off his lip. Not many people pick that up; it is very interesting that you do.

NK: This does not surprise me at all; it makes sense. I noticed similarities not only because of the in-between spaces that you think through, but also because of the Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov, a great friend of Tatlin’s. He was very much into mathematics and cosmogony. He also invented the “beyond sense” language. He was reinventing the Russian language, basically.

DR: When I was at the Montreal Museum School, I studied with an artist who had worked with László Moholy-Nagy in Chicago. His name was Gordon Webber. He was a marvellous teacher – he introduced me to Russian Constructivism. At that time, I was 15 or 16 years old. While in Montreal, I had lived by Moholy-Nagy’s book Vision in Motion. Intuitively, I was trying to figure out who I was as an artist. I had this Beaux Arts training. I could paint. I knew how to paint technically. However, when I arrived at Black Mountain College in 1950, I did not know what to paint. At Black Mountain, nobody knew how to paint, but they knew what to paint: students worked like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and the New York School in general … And I did not. This was not because I wasn’t American; it was because I am a woman. I do not have the same body impulses, which are strong. Like Agnes Martin, a great painter, who was also Canadian, I did not grow up with the sexism that I encountered in America. My father treated me as an equal. My brother did not always do so, as brothers often don’t. Still, he was my ski teacher and he taught me to ski, to jump and to compete. So, my growing up was about equality. When I came to America, I ran into a wall of sexism.

NK: You had to fight against it somehow?

DR: I did not fight against it. I am not a fighter in that sense. I am a fighter in the sense that I am slow and tenacious. I looked at the problem much as a mathematician looks at a mathematical problem. I see what is there and then I go about trying to work with it and solve it.

NK: Are the works on display in this, the larger, gallery mostly from the 70s?

DR: They are from 1971, 1972, 1973. They were in the exhibition Drawing Which Makes Itself, which was done by the Bykert Gallery in 1973. In that exhibition, the floor was painted the same way as the walls, which were painted with matte, bright white wall paint. As people walked in, they completed the drawing, which was the total room, by leaving their footprints on the floor. Here, at the Museum of Modern Art, it was impossible to do that because there is so much foot traffic. We would have had to reinstall every two hours. Even so, I wanted the viewer to have the experience of looking down at the work, because most artists spend a lot of time looking at work on the floor, standing on ladders and looking down. This was an important part of the original conception and I wanted to retain it.

NK: Were you thinking about Carl Andre at the time?

DR: I thought his work was brilliant, of course, but I did not think of him when I was making my floor work. My sense of things came from the Russian Constructivists and also from mathematics. If I had one influence more than any other, it was Barnett Newman, who was tremendous in that sense. His writing was very important to me. He had such an historical idea about the stature of art and about not conceding to commercial demands ever. Don Judd was someone whose work and whose mental position I admired very much. Again, his stature testified to the solemnity of art. Not in any kind of gross way, but in a very elegant, original, way. Judd was also important to me, maybe partly because he flattered me. He said: “If I were still writing about art, I would write about your work.” He said that after my first show. Coming from him, this was really big. Also, Dan Flavin, not only because of his radical work, but because of his knowledge of philosophy. The Nominal Three (to William of Ockham) is a remarkable brick in the foundation of art history.

Abstract Expressionism, particularly second-generation Abstract Expressionism, which was around when I was in school, was all frills and very little structure. It was all about feeling your emotions in the paint, none of which I believed.

NK: So, basically, you want to position the viewer within the work. Is the arrangement of the work in the space here, in the Museum of Modern Art, the same as it was at the Bykert Gallery originally?

DR: No, at Bykert some work was on the wall and extended on to the painted white floor. And then there was a blindingly white room with footprints and fingerprints. It was very much a body/mind/eye activity, in the best sense.

NK: You provide handwritten and drawn instructions here, so that, by reading them, people begin to think where they are in relation to the work and the space.

DR: These instructions are not my writings: my assistant at that time wrote these, slightly after they were first made. The curator and I thought it would be good to share this information in order to give people a heads up about how to approach the making of the work. Also, there was something about this process that defied working on a grid. That was my point to begin with: I did not want to work on a grid. I found a way to engage a line on the wall that was based on topology. There is something (and I attempted to talk about this before) about sexuality in my work, something about female sexuality. I can’t illuminate it in any way – I do not know how to, but I know what I feel when I look at it, and I know how it felt when I did it. I said this to one of the installers. I said: “You know, there is sexuality in this work.” He looked dumbfounded. In America, the culture does not think sexuality. Sex and pornography are the generalisations, but not sexuality. This is sensuous work.

NK: Do you mean that this is a process rather than a product, that it requires engagement over time?

DR: Yes, that’s exactly right. The whole process of using carbon paper lines to reflect the light, to draw the line and then flip it … That’s also an engagement with time. It’s not direct, it’s indirect. It’s a sensuous involvement with the wall, your body, and your mind … Looking at it … The viewer is being asked to relive its making and feeling.

NK: What about these carbon spots on the wall? [Hartford Installation, 1973]. Are these your fingerprints?

DR: No, these are not my fingerprints. I had help with the installations. I think they are intrinsically a part of the work that involves the viewer, who is wondering why they are there, why the drawing or the wall is not pristine. Well, guess what? It’s not. Whereas this [pointing to Neighborhood from 1973] is. Most of the work in this show belongs to the museum. It collected my work in depth at an early point. A few things are from my own collection. I own the Hartford piece. It owns Nesting and most of the other works here. However, I want to give it all of the carbon wall works. It is its indepth collection, however, that comprises the show. A group of these drawings [pointing to Drawing Which Makes Itself: FPI 16 and Drawing Which Makes Itself: FPI 18 from 1973] were done in pencil and they were map-pinned to a wall in the original Bykert 1973 exhibition. Then, in the second show, somewhere else, I did different drawings in the same series, in pen, because I could see that the pencil could not hold up under the strong lights. Again, the museum bought the work from that first show, as it bought Scalar out of my second Bykert show.

NK: The exhibition is about drawing. Is Scalar also a drawing?

DR: Since it is a work on paper and chipboard, a paper product, I consider it a drawing. I was, at that time, wanting to redefine the usual parameters of the definition of drawing. The only painting we put in is Golden Section Painting: Square Separated by Parallelogram. We included it because the museum bought the painting, which was very early for me to have it buy work like that.

NK: And the one next to it? [Golden Section Painting: Square Separated by Parallelogram with Diamond]

DR: It belongs to me and was included because we felt it would be awkward to show only one Golden Section Painting. You will notice that most of the work is hung higher than is usual. Even when these pieces were being made, they were hung high in my studio for viewing purposes. I did this because I want the work to look at me: it is not intimate in the usual way. I wanted the viewer’s position to be like that of people viewing the painting in Italian churches, where the work looks down at you. This kind of bodily relationship causes the work to look at the viewer, and not the other way around.

NK: So, you wanted to convey the same kind of viewing and bodily relationship? I read about your fascination with Masaccio.

DR: Yes, that happened early on, very early.

NK: I also remember one of your quotes, which struck me as brilliant. You said something along the lines of: “The task of the artist is to try to reinvent painting. There is no progress in art, but only great art and not-so-great.” This also applies to drawing, correct?

DR: Yes, because what the Egyptians realised in their art 5,000 years ago is still valid today. Not so with their science, but with their art, yes. I find it absolutely intriguing.

NK: Thank you very much, Dorothea, for this enlightening commentary.  It will help people to enjoy your work on a deeper level.


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