New York

Dorothea Rockburne

Bykert Gallery

Dorothea Rockburne’s new work really is new work. Her work over the last year has undergone such a consistent and complete change that the only continuity maintained with earlier work is the continued use of paper as a physical material forming the work rather than simply receiving the forms of the work. The most significant difference in her new work Drawing Which Makes Itself at Bykert is the replacement of set theory as a structuring principle imposed on the work from without with a logic which structures the work entirely from within it, and as such, the structure of the work and the work itself are not separable, even for discussion.

Though not particularly relevant to it, the inapplicability of conventional categories to Rockburne’s art does present certain problems of how to refer to the works. Rockburne’s new works can be said to be instances of Drawing Which Makes Itself, rather than being a group of drawings all with the same title. The two kinds of instances of Drawing Which Makes Itself can only be dealt with by referring to the material difference of the two kinds; the works in one room at Bykert are made with white paper and pencil, and the works in the other room are made with double-faced carbon paper. The last general given or ground rule of the situation is that the entire floor of the gallery has been painted white, the same white as the walls, which is somewhat whiter than the white paper. The white floor is extremely disorienting and it seems potentially flashy, but Rockburne does make use of it as an important element in the installation of the work, which is to say, in the work itself. In the room with the white paper works, the floor appears indeterminate, and the work seems to just be there in all that whiteness; the floor in the room with the carbon works is fastened down however. It is not less disorienting, only disorienting in a different way.

The eight white paper and pencil instances of Drawing Which Makes Itself (like those in the “3D Into 2D” exhibition) each consist of a 30“ x 40” sheet of white paper which has been folded and creased, but which is unfolded and open on the wall, and each sheet of paper has a few straight or right-angled pencil lines on it. When a section of the paper is folded, a corner for example, a pencil line is drawn using the overlapping paper corner as a straight edge; and when the situation arises, the pencil lines describing an overlap stop at a fold-crease rather than intersect the crease. The “how” is relevant to all of Drawing Which Makes Itself and one must deal with it first in experiencing the works, for it is obvious that these are not a bunch of arbitrary, impulsive, or formal creases and pencil lines. Clearly there is a logic involved which however simple is nevertheless elusive. To reencounter the works is to come to grips with the “how” again for each case, but working out the “how” or the logic isn’t the end of it.

The structure of Rockburne’s work and how it is made are identical, but this is not the same as Process art; and the difference is that her work presents a situation demanding a reconciliation of the information perceived and the mental construction of what sort of information it is, while Process art has been essentially involved with phenomenological considerations of physical causes and effects, of physical transformations. Even while attempting to reconcile the fact of perceived information and what the information is, one is, at the same time, confronted by the simplicity and obviousness of the two terms in the work. In these works, the relation of paper and pencil is one of structural synthesis. In the language of conventional criticism, the pencil line in conventional drawing is said to “activate” the paper or the pictorial space of the paper which, metaphorically, waits passively to receive the pencil line and be “activated” by it. However in Rockburne’s new work, as the folded crease of the paper determines the location and form of the pencil line, the situation of conventional drawing is reversed, for in this case the paper “activates” the line. But at the same time, the pencil line also “activates” the paper by being drawn on it in the usual way. Therefore both paper and pencil line are simultaneously “activating” and “being activated” by each other. Considering the folded crease as a line, the paper is the line and both “activates” and “is activated” by itself.

In the works consisting each of a 30“ x 40” piece of double-faced carbon paper, the paper literally activates all the lines and is activated by them by itself bearing the lines which it caused on the wall. In each of the four carbon works (a fifth, larger work is at the Whitney Biennial), the rectangular sheet of carbon paper has two intersecting off-the-perpendicular lines on a generally diagonal position on the paper; the lines of the carbon have been formed by folds and the making of lines on the wall. The sheet of carbon paper is fixed to the wall (that is, for those works which are on the wall) and surrounded by sets of straight and off-the-perpendicular black lines on the wall with relations clearly identical to those on the carbon. Obviously the lines on the wall are in a position which has a direct relation to the position and size of the carbon paper, but like the white paper works, it is necessary to reconcile the lines on the wall with those on the carbon, which means mentally constructing the “flips” of the carbon paper necessary to get those lines in those positions. Also like the white paper works, this process of reconciliation is never as easy as it seems it should be. In fact, once the reconciliation has been accomplished, it is usually necessary to start all over again.

As the floor is all white, it is no different from the walls except by being horizontal rather than vertical, and one of the carbon works on the floor is different from those on the wall only in this same respect. The other carbon work on the floor is low on an adjacent wall and is “flipped” along the base of the wall making lines on it, but in making the lines on the wall, the carbon is also “flipped” down, making intersecting lines on the floor that mirror those on the wall. The whiteness of the floor and the fact that the two works on the floor are on the floor in different ways, emphasizes the physicality of all the instances of Drawing Which Makes Itself, and seems to amount to an insistence that these works not be considered as two-dimensional or as drawings. The sheer handsomeness of this new work is surprisingly undistracting and, on the contrary, attracts one to involvement with the work and the kind of thought the work demands; it is only in this sense that the work involves perception. Rockburne’s is not the only show in town, but it is one among a few others which makes easy remembering what it’s all supposed to be about. It doesn’t answer the puzzling question of why so many people go to so much trouble, anxiety, hardship, and expense over art, but shows like this one make me forget how the question ever came up.

––Bruce Boice