In the wake of her 2011 retrospective at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, Long Island, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, this show of early paintings and drawings reaffirmed Dorothea Rockburne’s claim to a central position in the American avant-garde. Originally from Canada, she trained with Jean-Paul Riopelle and Montreal’s other forerunners of Abstract Expressionism just after World War II. But it wasn’t until the mid-1960s, following stints everywhere from Black Mountain College to Judson Dance Theater, that Rockburne merged her artistic practice with the set theory, topology and other fields of higher mathematics that she had been studying for years. The allusive, sometimes inscrutable work that resulted remains engaging half a century later – not least at a moment when many contemporary artists have turned to science and phenomenology to revive exhausted idioms of painting and sculpture.
Rockburne exhibited in Harald Szeemann’s seminal Documenta 5 (1972), where, bored out of her mind in her Kassel hotel, she bought adhesive labels from a local shop and started sticking them onto paper. Five of these collages, all titled Silence (1972), were on display here. They have a deductive structure – to borrow a term Michael Fried applied to Frank Stella’s early work. Rockburne has not cut the labels, and the forms she makes out of them – a grid, an X, a series of stripes – arise directly from the givens of a random German stationer.
In her series ‘Drawing Which Makes Itself’ (1971–3), Rockburne folded sheets of paper along various angles and with varying degrees of force, so that some creases are sharp while others are barely visible. (Rockburne insisted that the usually grey walls of the Craig F. Starr Gallery be painted white, in order to help visitors pick out the outlines.) The straight lines she then drew on the unfolded sheets seem to respond to those creases; at times they run parallel, at others they intersect at predictable intervals. But if there’s a single relation – or function, to use a mathematical word she’d prefer – that links the two kinds of marking, Rockburne doesn’t give it away.
Unlike her Conceptualist coevals, she never uses mathematical operations to generate her work. Mathematics, particularly set theory and topology, doesn’t displace artistic creation but provides a foundation for it. You see that in her large wall sculpture Scalar (1971), at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, six studies for which were included in this exhibition. A scalar is a quantity, generally but not always a real number, that can multiply vectors; it possesses only magnitude, not direction. In these studies, as in the final sculpture, Rockburne pours coats of crude oil, one after another, onto layered pieces of chipboard, each transforming the base in a kind of scalar operation.
The largest and earliest work in this show was Tropical Tan (1966–7), which comprises four panels of black steel, each of which bulges very slightly from the sides into a modestly sloping pyramid. You only notice their three-dimensionality when looking from an angle; viewed frontally, like a painting, they resolve into a series of flattened ‘X’s. Rockburne has overlaid these panels with a strip of wrinkle-finish paint in the titular beige. It looks like felt or fur, while the unpainted sections have a lacquered appearance.
Rockburne may seem like a natural part of the transatlantic post-Minimal tradition. But the anamorphic form of Tropical Tan, highlighted with a temptingly tactile paint job, helps place Rockburne in a group of artists – including one who was finishing his Etant donnés at the same time – for whom topological transformations, and the challenges they pose to artists and viewers, come closer to capturing human experience than the putative literalism we still associate with late 1960s sculpture.