New York

Dorothea Rockburne

Xavier Fourcade

The custom of terming the altered focus of an artist’s recent output a “new body” (of work) serves as an exceptionally apposite description for the latest developments in Dorothea Rockburne’s shaped canvases. The intensified radiance of these outwardly geometric compositions, their robust swaths of overlaid hues and their layered angles, catalyze a newly expressionistic physicality within her highly cerebral oeuvre that could easily bedazzle one into focusing on their formal novelty. They assimilate the emotional immediacy of the recent artistic zeitgeist yet provide a timely bridge to the revived interest in a cooler abstraction. But to look beneath the work’s au courant appearance is to perceive a newly visceral presence with affinities to a more fundamental source of expressionist imagery, that of the human body.

This mini retrospective, titled “A Personal Selection, Paintings 1968–1986,” succinctly demonstrated both the developmental course of Rockbume’s artistic concerns and a recapitulation of major issues of the art-scene-at-large. The work of the late ’60s and early ’70s, which either explored the nature of industrial materials by allowing process to determine form or drew upon elaborate, mathematical set procedures to determine proportions, clearly deemphasized the individual hand—and by extension the expressive inner self—of the maker. The early wall constructions, begun in 1972, consisted of a range of colors and tonalities cut in basic geometric shapes; the rough weave of the glazed linen was clearly apparent, in correspondence to the paintings’ designation as the “Robe Series.” Yet the works’ subtitles, such as Sepulcro (Tomb) and Noli Me Tangere (Do not touch me), from 1976, provide the verbal corollaries to their austere, deadpan demeanor. In the succeeding “Egyptian Paintings” the triangular folds of heavy linen and interjoining wall lines suggest analogues to the minute crevices and folds of skin and to the skeletal structure of the human body. They are “bloodless” in the best sense: emaciated, colorless (white and/or black), but aiming for a controlled purity within their expansive tensions, and evoking a desire for transcendence of the spirit rather than simply a dematerialization of the body.

From this interpretive perspective, the most recent corpus is vigorously fleshed out via muscular brushwork in passionate hues on heavy, large-scale shaped canvases. Outstanding among them is Extasie, 1983–84, a sublime combination of a spectrum of blues, crimson, orange, and pink, on two overlying panels that visually are a conjunction of a diagonal rectangle and a square, which together form a bisected center triangle. The upward urge it reifies evokes a “peak experience,” particularly an orgasmic one in which the spine momentarily extends and tautens. This reading is supported by the subject of John Donne’s poem of the same title (both use the Middle English spelling of “ecstasy”). It is a meditation on the primacy of the corporeal as a vehicle for the spiritual: “So soul into the soul may flow / Though it to body first repair. . . . Love’s mysteries in souls do grow / But yet the body is his book.” Rockburne’s composition may literally reflect the manner in which Donne’s lovers touched, the central vertical suggesting the way “Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread / Our eyes upon one double string,” and the overlapping forms conveying “So to intergraft our hands, as yet / Was all our means to make us one”; the colors suggest their environment
of the river bank, sun, and violet flowers. More broadly, its total configuration
conveys an ecstatic union. In this, the abstract, geometric in “configuration” is figurative, both in the sense that it is metaphorical—as is a “figure of speech”—and that it is inspired by physical sensation.

The function of fantasy in the realization of ecstasy Donne describes as “ . . . pictures in our eyes to get/Was all our propagation.” By extension, he acknowledges the power of images, mental or artistic, toward evoking and fulfilling desire. Beyond Rockburne’s stylistic merger of geometric abstraction and expressionist projection, the amplitude of her Extasie reiterates that art operates metaphorically—that even the most ostensibly “nonobjective” forms are representational, in that they objectify subjective states of being, revealing the relationship of the mind/body/Self and the world.

Suzaan Boettger