“My work is sort of a fools dream,” says Dorothea Rockburne from inside her artist studio in SoHo — palatial, by modern Manhattan real estate standards — where she’s lived and worked for several decades. “There’s nothing to buy.”
Several of her works, explorations of astronomy, are arranged on the wall in an orderly fashion; a model of her upcoming exhibit at Dia:Beacon sits on a table underneath the canopy of lined-up lamps. For an artist studio, the space seems particularly organized, although it feels like a complementary setup for Rockburne’s math-based creations. The artist, 85, has spent the spring commuting up to the Beacon art museum in the Hudson Valley, where she’s been busy installing several of her large-scale works, including a re-creation of her 1973 piece “Domain of the Variable.” That installation, which is informed by set theory, will open next month, followed by an additional gallery of her work later this year which explores the Golden Mean, which incorporates her studies and admiration of Egypt.
Although the new installation is based on the same math-based calculations as the original (painter Carroll Dunham was one of her assistants), it has emerged as, essentially, an original piece.
“When I made it the first time, I lived on Chambers Street, and I bought all the materials across the street at the hardware store. First of all, there are no hardware stores anymore, and none of those materials exist,” says Rockburne, seated on the couch in her living room. Her black cat quickly followed suit, abandoning his post atop a filing cabinet in the studio. “So you make exchanges, substitutes. It’s a new work. And even though the mathematical structure is the same, it’s a new work — a different work.”
Rockburne, who grew up in Montreal, left to attend the radical Black Mountain College in North Carolina; although it closed in 1956, the school’s impact on culture was — and is — huge. (After the Bauhaus was shut down during World War II, Black Mountain College became a haven for many European intellectuals; Albert Einstein sat on the board.) It’s there that Rockburne encountered the math education — particularly, the topology and astronomy teachings of German-born mathematician Max Dehn — which would permeate and shape her subsequent work as she settled into the downtown art scene of New York City starting in 1954. There, she was involved with the post modern dance scene out of Judson Memorial Church, and worked as a studio manager for her friend and Black Mountain College classmate Robert Rauschenberg.
“I use mathematics as the structures of my work,” Rockburne explains, adding that dance has a strong hold in her creative process as well. “It’s like instructions on how to make art. Because to me, the thinking is not different, it’s just like: you condense it, you spread it out, you amalgamize, you do surgery on the equation — it’s all that stuff.”
While much of her work is rooted in set theory and geometry, her work doesn’t require any calculating for its viewers; at least not in the sense that comes to mind for most.
“Everyone’s terrified of mathematics, but my ambition is always to make other artists love it,” she adds. “Higher mathematics is very sensuous, too. If you look at a seashell, you love it. And it’s the same thing: higher mathematics is like looking at a beautiful seashell.”
“This work that will be at Dia, it’s [about] what happens to your body when you enter a room,” she explains. “It’s not just your eyes that see, you have eyes all over your body, and they see. You have eyes at your hip level — metaphorically speaking — your hip has a sense of what it’s looking at, and so on. It’s not an intellectual experience, it’s a physical experience. The intellect is there, but it’s a physical experience.”
The artist is wearing a slate blue COS sweater; and it’s no coincidence: the brand is a sponsor of the exhibit, and creative director Karin Gustafsson channeled inspiration from the artist into her collection.
“Her early work in paper and the lines and folds in the work particularly appeal to me,” says Gustafsson. “The tactility of her work and the techniques she used to create the work seem to me so transferable to our work with fashion.”
While COS represents a commercial diffusion of Rockburne’s ideas, her art remains on a different plane; one that feels hard to reach in today’s art market.
“I’m not about the marketplace at all and I never have been. Somehow I’ve managed to survive, I’m not exactly sure how,” she says. “After I began to do this work a lot of people approached me about making one thousand lousy prints and all of that stuff, and I said no, I’m not doing that. Because you only have one life, and as you go through your life you make yourself by the decisions you make.”
“I think that message needs to come across: that art isn’t about the marketplace. It’s about something else,” she continues. “What art does is it slows you down, you see it and you stop. And it stops your timing. And something happens to you — happens to me, anyway — and I stop and I absorb. My body absorbs, and everything changes for a moment. And that’s what I hope will happen in this exhibition.”