PRINT March 1972

A Note on Dorothea Rockburne

IF WE ASK HOW it is that ideas and objects intersect and what is the nature of the reciprocity between thought and sight we are asking the essential questions to which Dorothea Rockburne’s art addresses itself. Her work is central to the evolvement of the most penetrating being done today because it has broken with the use of language as representation.

Language in itself is now understood to be a system of elements—a threshold above which is difference and below which is similitude. Freed from transparency, language is order, and the order form becomes the content. Rockburne has developed a means of using materials which I, personally, would have thought impossible three or four years ago. Her materials never stress physicality as meaning. To accomplish this she has found that rigorous algebra of thought, set theory, to be an intellectually unifying premise for determining the diversity of her operations. What is particularly interesting is that her work demonstrates a singular usage (within an art context) of such concepts as “group,” and “repetition.” In so saying I am bypassing numerous relevant features of her art, such as size, scale, the integration of place into the pieces, or the direct assault on the idea of color-as-surface.

Given the complexity of her art (as opposed to its complicatedness) my focus remains on her adoption of set theory as a working premise. This is immediately manifested in her titles; for example, Set, Sign, Domain of the Variable. Each title refers directly to an organizing principle that indicates the initiation of her thinking and is also a key to the viewer’s grasp of the work’s intention. Set theory deals with the relationships, particularly abstract relationships, of the kind we employ in language when we say for instance “if,” “some,” “and,” “or.” These words have no concretion. Without them thought remains of limited contour. This runs counter to the positivist notion which regards language as a series of naming operations. A word of caution: Rockburne’s art has no one-to-one correlation with mathematical set theory. These are not illustrations.

Each work of Rockburne’s deals with some concept of interrelatedness and functions. This approach is radically at odds with all single-image art. To think in terms of set, however, concerns itself with the multiplicity of abstract relationships and includes as well a concern with transformation. By transformation I mean intelligible, though not necessarily formulized, change. In Rockburne’s transformations there is always the preservation of some invariant features. Invariance is the cohesive quality which allows us to identify the central core of her ideas. Thus, beginning with the group of elements she has chosen to work with (cardboard, paper, oil, nails), a series of operations takes place (soaking, rolling, unrolling, pressing, hanging, layering) which preserves certain properties of the whole, while making it intelligible within the context of the specific transformations involved. This is not process art. Rockburne creates a language which has its own nouns, verbs, and modifiers. She has broken with language as representation in that these elements are considered in terms of identification, and more importantly, in terms of conjunction. The works do not become objects but instead record the experience of how ideas infiltrate practice. They are records in the same sense that language is when it is transformed from the purely mental space of our thoughts and feelings and given this form on this page.

What is at stake here is determining a boundary of the most advanced thinking in art being done today. Are such systems of thought an interior reflection of the mechanisms of an objective reality separate from us, or is there a tie between these external structures and the minds that determine the manifestations of our actions?

Mel Bochner