PRINT May 1993


DOROTHEA ROCKBURNE’S NEW MURALS in the Sky Lobby of Philip Johnson’s famous “Chippendale” skyscraper on Madison Avenue are like suns you can look into without being blinded. Theirs is a warm, restorative light. Confronting each other on the north and south walls of the lobby, these colossal orbs of red and yellow mist, shot through with whizzing lines of primary color, looping this way and that, abruptly ending and then shooting off in new directions, appear to rotate in their 30-foot-square fields. Intergalactic speed and micro- and macroscopic dimensions normally unavailable to the naked eye are somehow suggested by the venerable means of fresco secco and by Rockburne’s penchant for mathematically derived arabesques. According to an accompanying brochure, “The various curves were generated in situ to indicate the energy of the electro-magnetic field as it exists in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.”

Building upon her recent commissions for wall drawings in both private and public spaces, Northern Sky and Southern Sky face off against each other in one of the most lavish corporate interiors in the city. Once the headquarters of AT&T, Johnson’s building has recently been taken over by a new tenant, Sony Music Entertainment. In propagandistic terms, Rockburne’s murals on high can be seen as analogous to the transformation of the building’s street-level arcade that is taking place under Sony’s patronage. Both the Sky Lobby murals and the new retail spaces should be understood as a public-relations attempt to warm up Johnson’s early-’80s monument and make it more user-friendly—more in consonance with Sony’s projected desire to stress its entertainment subsidiaries rather than merely its electronic products. Yet the fact that this corporation commissioned a major piece of contemporary fresco art, rather in the manner of Renaissance bankers and princes, in the midst of a recession is not insignificant. In fact, the whole idea of frescoes subtly buttresses the classical backbone of the building, with its plethora of parodistic allusions, which range from Byzantine trecento in the entrance to neoclassical and neofascist in the Sky Lobby (the marble-clad staircases on either side of the murals are particularly reminiscent of Hitler’s New Chancellery, 1938, designed by Albert Speer). To contemplate Rockburne’s murals in this context is like suddenly learning the secret history of ’80s design.

With its intentional nods to Louis Kahn’s eyebrow arches, substantially warmed up with surrounding wood panels, Johnson’s once chillingly marmoreal space has taken on yet another incarnation as a kind of late-Turneresque skyscape. Rockburne’s murals propose a bilateral global vision of electronic energy, evocative not only of the huge, colorful mural La Fée Electricité that Raoul Dufy executed for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1937, but also of the kind of earnestly abstract scientific installation one might encounter in some modernistic Eastern European or formerly Soviet planetarium.

For Rockburne, whose geometric abstraction has since the early ’70s espoused the most stringent marriages of Golden Section proportions and sensuous, diaphanous filler, the Sony murals are a return to glory. I’ll never forget the impression that her work made on me in 1974 when I saw Jennifer Licht’s show “Eight Contemporary Artists” at the Museum of Modern Art. Here, in the company of artists as different as Brice Marden and Vito Acconci, were Rockburne’s exquisite geometric compositions, seemingly born of the wall and folding over themselves in immaculate and often partially transparent configurations, due to the artist’s use of materials like vellum. During the ’80s, her continuing preoccupation with geometry, now increasingly laced with lush atmospheric effects, stayed alive underground, as it were, during the turmoil of neo-Expressionism. She was, for example, included in the show “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where her esoteric interests in subjects such as the hierarchies of angels took on a broader resonance in the tradition of Piet Mondrian’s and Wassily Kandinsky’s often kooky spirituality.

At pains to play down the sillier associations attached to the notion of “spirituality” in the late ’80s and looking, perhaps, for the kind of renewal she had earlier found in pre-Columbian and ancient Egyptian art, Rockburne refocused her art, during a stay at the American Academy in Rome in 1991, on the Renaissance and Baroque traditions of wall painting. This rich, historicist vein in her work has been tapped to great effect in the last two years, just as the whole contemporary art world, and a generation of younger artists who never really experienced ’70s art firsthand, suddenly discovered the joys of Conceptual art as if for the first time. Now, too, Rockburne’s radiant geometries reemerge with obvious affinities to the work of another Canadian-born artist, Agnes Martin. One wonders if their painting might not be unified by memories of the immensity of northern skies; certainly both artists use radically abstract means to get at some intangible feeling—what Rockburne has called a “third color an inner light,” in a mystical marriage of science and art.

The Sky Lobby is an emphatically public space—a palatial waiting room where every messenger in the city will eventually drop off packages and where, the day I was there, a little girl in a leather chair waited patiently for her father to finish his business. Looking at this child viewer and then looking again at the murals, I remembered passing the time in a dentists’ waiting room, perusing Highlights magazine, with its early-’60s moderne graphics and science stories geared toward the younger reader. Rockburne’s murals are like Highlights writ large: they body forth the delirium of modern science not quite understood, providing an aura of utopianism—a heady sense of speculative breadth. In having a good friend like Tina Barney document the more gemütlich moments of the fresco process, Rockburne has fused Barney’s and her own sense of patrician communality with public art’s more vaunted social concerns. The murals catapult the old impulse of ’70s wall drawings onto a whole new plane where the aim is no longer to subvert commerce, as it was in the original Sol LeWitt–ian formulation of the wall drawing as an idea that couldn’t be sold. Instead, Rockburne’s murals ennoble the tedium of waiting with a kind of World’s Fair exhilaration and make a usually existential site into an intentional space, or, as the corporation’s executives characterize the Sony Media World planned for the arcade, a “destination spot” for tourism. Given the fact that both murals are partially obscured behind gigantic posts and lintels clad in black and white marble, so that the images can never be seen all at once, Rockburne succeeds quite brilliantly in transforming limitations into oddly visionary strengths.

Brooks Adams is a critic who lives in New York.