PRINT September 2018

Dorothea Rockburne

Robert Rauschenberg, Linoleum_, 1996. Performance view, Spring Gallery 68, New York, May 28, 1968. Left: Simone Forti and Dorothea Rockburne. Photo: Shunk-Kender.

WHEN I CAME TO NEW YORK, I was a single mom and I had no money. I was trying to be a painter but didn’t know what to paint. I did homework with my daughter, cooked food and cleaned the house, and went to a job. Robert Rauschenberg and I became close friends at Black Mountain College. He hired me to be his studio manager. To keep sane, I did math at night, though I didn’t know why. I had all of these abilities, but I didn’t know how to move forward—and I certainly didn’t want to stay in one place. Eventually, I took some classes at the American Ballet Theatre, but they bored me because you just go through the same paces all the time. And then I began to meet people from Judson. I started going to performances there, and some of them were also boring. I thought, God, I’d rather dance than watch! Then somebody at Judson asked me to dance, and so I did.

I started going to performances there, and some of them were boring. I thought, God, I’d rather dance than watch!

My memory is that I started in 1963 and stayed until 1966. The choreographers at Judson did not want trained dancers, and I was extremely trained. I started ballet at four, and had studied with Katherine Litz and Merce Cunningham at Black Mountain, but I think I was smart enough not to tell anybody that. I knew I didn’t want to be a dancer—I’ve always been a painter—but when I started to move at Judson, it was very appealing, because although I was kind of shy as a person, I could always command a stage. Of course, it was in the air then that you shouldn’t distinguish between performance and participation—between the audience and the participants, who were often your friends or other artists.

Once, I went to see a Simone Forti piece on the upper floor of a building near Union Square. I went into this semilit loft, and as I was sitting there these bodies began falling by the windows. We must have been on the fourteenth floor! They were probably in harnesses or something. In another performance I saw, the room was dark, and Forti crawled through the audience making animal noises. You didn’t know that it was her, or where the sounds were coming from. What young person wouldn’t want to be part of that?

I especially loved Steve Paxton’s work. First of all, the guy was gorgeous. And he had a beautiful way of moving. I also saw Trisha Brown’s Homemade (1966), in which she danced with a film projector on her back that was projecting images as she moved. Rauschenberg, too, had a real sense of theater. I was in Linoleum (1966), where I was nude in a clear plastic raincoat. (It was steamed up, but still.) It was a hell of a lot of fun—and so radical. I enjoyed it enormously. It’s what I needed at that time, because my life felt pretty grim.

Getting to rehearsals during the daytime was hard because I had a kid and a job. Yvonne Rainer rehearsed a lot and so I was never in any work of hers. (Then again, I don’t remember whether she asked me or not.) Fortunately, I never needed much sleep, and that allowed me to lead a double life. I got to watch Yvonne and Trish and Steve kick dance in the ass, or at least dance as I knew it. The way they thought and what they were doing—Cindy Childs and Carolee Schneemann, too—was greatly liberating to me. They allowed me to see that people could push the truck over the cliff with regard to dance, which in turn made me understand the importance of exploring ideas, not objects. This occurred as a revelation. One day, during a performance, I saw what I was supposed to do: I understood how to coordinate my mathematics studies into artmaking. That’s when I stopped dancing.

As told to Zack Hatfield.

Dorothea Rockburne is a painter who lives in New York City. A selection of her works from the 1960s and ’70s is currently on view at Dia:Beacon.