PRINT April 1981

Dorothea Rockburne’s “Egyptian Paintings”

WORKS OF ART ARE TOKENS of an artist’s activity. They are gratuitous in practical terms unless and until we spectators can turn them into tokens of some activity on our part as well. Doing that means learning something of the difference between real and spurious activity in our own lives and in those we witness. We are burdened with this problem of knowledge because we live in a culture that profits from our confusion of action with obedience, and works tend to promote that confusion.

Central to the concept and experience of activity is the fact that we can refrain from it at will, not just for a moment, but for as long as we please. (Thus, breathing is not really an activity, while reading is.) For this reason, to experience oneself as truly active is to taste the only freedom realistically available to us in the contemporary world: inner detachment from the compulsions that shape our lives. These compulsions include those personal to us, our neurotic patterns, obsessions, addictions, and the external forces of such institutions as private property and wage labor that compel us respectively to pay for dwelling on the earth and to sell our life’s energy for survival. The aim of freedom from compulsion suggests a critical principle for preferring some works of art over others, “taste” aside. The question of which are the “best” works of art becomes objectively unanswerable because the best are those we can best use to know our genuine from our spurious activity. Some works provide us with occasions and contexts for realizing ourselves as active, and others do not.

The language of most art criticism today is largely uncritical where these issues are concerned. Most art writers speak the dialect of career management without knowing it, making criticism a sublimation of personal ambition that fools only other unselfconscious competitors. Critics continue to report art phenomena and the abstractions we use in thinking about them as if these entities acted and interacted on their own. Uses of language that project human action onto things, as if things acted, are echoes of ideology that could and should be a starting point for critical thinking. Criticism has the potential to exemplify to readers ways in which judgment and esthetic perception may be used to lead to more freedom. But to do that the critic must use art to think about language while using language to think about art, and that is not the kind of exercise that leads to a career in the spectacle.1

So far, these thoughts may sound very remote from specific critical tasks. In fact, they result from my thinking about style in recent American painting. I have been thinking about style since I saw a series of new works in Dorothea Rockburne’s New York studio. Rockburne was quick to admit that her new pieces are “out of step” with what is supposed to be happening in New York painting these days. I had to agree, but even while I was agreeing, it was not clear to me what either of us really meant by “out of step.”

Most obviously, Rockburne’s new works, which she calls the “Egyptian Paintings,” have a minimal, aseptic look that is consistent with some of her previous works, and one that is not now in fashion. The relations between individual works are not those of variation exactly, because the possible permutations of their recomposable components are not exhausted by the series. The aspects of these works that might be called their style are not just a matter of a clean, geometric generative format. The “Egyptian Paintings” have, so to speak, a style of being, a characteristic way of extending the possible uses of the word and concept, “painting,” as a tool of thought.

For anyone mindful of the modern history of art, to call something a painting is really to put forward a hypothesis—to propose that a specific object can be seen as belonging to a history of meaningful structures and acts. To wonder whether you should count some novel object as a painting is to exercise your idea of history, of the logic that links and orders past events, perceptions and judgments. “Recognizing” a new work as a painting is less like identifying an antique chair as a Chippendale than like acknowledging the validity of the artist’s thinking. The latter sort of recognition is more of a personal commitment. It modifies your experience of the object in question by modifying your relation to it, even if that relation is explicit only in your own thinking.

Rockburne’s “Egyptian Paintings” offer the right degree of resistance to our recognition of them as paintings to enable us to think these thoughts and to focus our vision by means of them. On the face of it, Rockburne’s paintings are paintings only in the dumbly literal sense—their main constituents are paint and canvas. Each work is composed of a set of systematically folded rectangles of canvas. Each rectangle has been folded so as to form a couple of overlapping triangles whose edges bulge slightly with the thickness of the folded material. (The low relief that results from the folds helps explain the title of the series. On the wall of Rockburne’s studio was a small black-and-white photograph of an ancient Egyptian relief sculpture frieze that exhibited the same gently ridged surface details that occur at the edges of each canvas unit in the “Egyptian Paintings.”) The canvas modules are assembled on the wall in various patterns, and are linked by ruled lines—black where they touch the wall, and blue where they cross canvas.

The structures of the “Egyptian Paintings” are more complex than they appear at first. The simpler pieces, such as Scarab, are easy to read at a glance. But even Scarab changes as you view it because its left half is bounded by a rectangle of ruled lines that seems to lift half the work optically off the wall, while the drawing itself actually affirms the canvas’ adhesion to the wall. Even in this simplest work in the series, you begin to see that the structure of the paintings is a matter of relations among objects, marks and operations.

The more complex works in the series have a degree of complication that causes you to regard the activity of looking at them as a constitutive one. Your perception (or the artist’s) is the operation that completes the relations that comprise each work’s existence as a signifying thing. The play among drawn figures and physical figures, and between the wall as ground and the canvas as ground, are elaborate enough in Saqqara, for instance, to make the work’s existence a fact that is neither simply optical nor simply physical. Despite its classical refinement, the “Egyptian Paintings” series is open-ended, both because its possible variants have not been exhausted, and because each painting is completed, converted into a “work,” only by a mindful, perceptual act on the spectator’s part.

Rockburne’s paintings are “out of step” in that they free us of the need to decide how we should apply the word “painting” to them (or to anything else). These are works that present us with the quandary of whether we want the word “painting” to be a cut-and-dried label or whether we are willing to use it as a word to think with. And by using the word “painting” as a spur to thought we can learn to adopt a less passive attitude toward language than the one our culture presupposes and instills in us. That is, we can learn to find in concrete nouns generally more of the openness of definition that familiar realities have when we regard our perception of them as constitutive and constructive, rather than merely consumptive.

Kenneth Baker is a free-lance critic who writes frequently on contemporary art issues.



1. “The spectacle” is a term coined by the French writer Guy Debord to describe the mediated character of contemporary life. The following definitions are drawn from Debord’s text Society of the Spectacle, first published in France in 1967, and issued in an abridged English translation by Black & Red Publishers in Detroit in 1977: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. . . . The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images. . . . The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable, and inaccessible. It says nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, and that which is good appears.’ The attitude it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtains by its manner of appearance without reply, by its monopoly of appearance. . . . The spectacle is the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue. . . . [It] subjugates living men to itself to the extent that the economy has totally subjugated them. It is no more than the economy developing for itself. It is the true reflection of the production of things. and the false objectification of the producers. . . . The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image.”