New York

Dorothea Rockburne, “C” Study for Scalar, 1970, chipboard, crude oil, paper, nails, 30 x 20 x 1".

Dorothea Rockburne, “C” Study for Scalar, 1970, chipboard, crude oil, paper, nails, 30 x 20 x 1".

Dorothea Rockburne

Dorothea Rockburne, “C” Study for Scalar, 1970, chipboard, crude oil, paper, nails, 30 x 20 x 1".

This show of twenty-four works—ranging in size from the parietal Tropical Tan, 1966–67, to the diminutive group of drawings called Silence, 1972—reminded us of Dorothea Rockburne’s vital achievement. Moreover, the exhibition demonstrated that the once-radical pictorial solutions of post-Minimalism, with the passage of more than four decades, now strike affective notes unusual to the art’s original intentions (to the extent they can be determined).

This new, emotional key is registered, for example, in six studies for Scalar, the large 1971 work in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (which was not on view here). Saturated with oil—once available at thirty-nine cents a bottle (as I recall) from the bins of the old Canal Street “close-out” stores situated along the southern rim of a pre-gentrified SoHo—and affixed to chipboard grounds by penny nails, these paper sheets finally dried, and, miraculously, did not metastasize, presenting us with exquisite, dappled stretches of what looks like carbon powder, sprinkled, as it were, over brown umbrous patches. When first created, these “drawings” were experiments in blotting, reflecting Rockburne’s adherence to the principles outlined in her “Bauhaus Introductory Course.” That syllabus emphasized the examination of the basic properties of any given material, most often paper, prior to making “art,” a methodology taken to heart by Rockburne as well as by many artists of her generation, as manifest in the pre-executive ratiocinations fundamental to Minimalism itself.

More important, on the level of art didactics, is that the sheet of paper (obviously) comprises both ventral and dorsal faces. Rockburne saw this primary given as a means of “sculpting” structures not just of simple planar subdivisions—halves, quarters, and, ultimately, the axiomatic grid of Minimalism—but of more complex foldings, creases, for example, that registered a “line,” raised or channeled. As the paper is angled back and forth against itself, each new fold is, perhaps, marked with a pencil line, from which yet another generative motion may spring forth, leading to a new “linear” addition to a work ever in progress. This intriguing method of making an abstraction is inherent to the extraordinary series called “Drawing Which Makes Itself,” 1971–73.

Yet another group of works that have also moved from the confrontational to the nostalgic are the small Silence pieces of 1972. Comprising white-gummed labels pressed onto small paper supports, these “drawings” have become ghostly talismans of exquisite sensibility rather than of an abrupt, pragmatic method.

To be sure, paper and paper by-products—cardboard, say, or chipboard, so ready at hand, so cheap (even when the paper was rag or polished, relief-stamped Strathmore sheets)—signified the studio life of the poor artist. This signification is central to the sobriety of the day, and forms part of a revanchist substrate of associative class resentments against the dilettantism widely felt in the 1960s and ’70s as SoHo emerged as a premier artists’ quarter. Rockburne’s seriousness of intent—like that of her Canadian compatriot Agnes Martin—sprang from a career that came about against all odds, one driven by memories of life prior to money in the pocket. Such is the stern martyr’s dream coded into Rockburne’s beautiful work.

Robert Pincus-Witten