Dorothea Rockburne

Rose Art Museum

A decade of explorations into the transcendent qualities of abstraction, light, and geometry reveal themselves in this evocative installation of 26 works by Dorothea Rockburne. Renowned for her visual articulations of the sublime, Rockburne explores the multiplicity of corporeal and incorporeal relationships between rectangles, triangles, and squares. This exhibition, which documents Rockburne’s shift from drawing to painting in the ’80s, presents a cohesive, evolving body of non-objective art. It moves from the elegant series of white folded canvas rectangles and the fragile watercolor-on-vellum pieces, to multileveled shaped canvases. In the oil paintings, begun in 1982, Rockburne translates her fundamental folding operations to the hard edges of the canvas. She expands the low relief of her minimalist canvases into complex and heroic panel paintings inspired by the art and theory of the Renaissance, the Bible, and Pascal.

The severity of Rockburne’s Egyptian room, composed of three white rectangular canvases made between 1979 and 1980 and systematically assembled on three separate walls, is so great that one is bound to be surprised by the expressive brushwork and asymmetry of the newer oils on linen. The seductive purity of the tightly rendered canvases and the airy and cosmic washed evocations of the folded vellum works are more appealing than the harsh contrasts of unexpected color, flat uneven planes, and unfinished edges in the multi-layered canvases. However, the oil paintings are bold experiments in form and structure, and in many ways offer more formal and conceptual possibilities than the quieter, more cerebral works.

A stunning series of oils, begun in 1986 and inspired by Pascal’s Pensées, incorporate brilliant passages of gold leaf with evocative areas of veiled colors. In Pascal, State of Grace, 1986–87, individual rectangular leaves bathe a panel with intense gold light; on another panel, they shimmer beneath indigo blue paint. Seven geometric and asymmetric interrelated forms open up like some strange mystical flower from another universe. The soft brushstrokes recall Mark Rothko’s paintings of the early ’50s, especially the yellow passages of color in I Am Pascal, 1986–87. Here the progression of values of yellow creates a halo effect that echoes the dualities of solid and void, reason and faith in Pensées.

Rockburne’s recent shaped and layered canvases seem intuitively made. Some of these works get caught between the painted and the constructed, as in Light Shines in the Darkness and the Darkness has not Understood It, 1987–88. Yet Rockburne is most successful when her work is at its most restive.

Francine A. Koslow