New York

Dorothea Rockburne, Trefoil 7, 2021, enamel paint and copper wire on layered boards, 40 × 40 × 2". From the series “Trefoil,” 2019–.

Dorothea Rockburne, Trefoil 7, 2021, enamel paint and copper wire on layered boards, 40 × 40 × 2". From the series “Trefoil,” 2019–.

Dorothea Rockburne

Interrogating those intersections where the body, the object, and the space that contains them meet, Dorothea Rockburne has long sought to assert the singularity of her art. Early on, her fascination with mathematical theory, topological models, and systems of proportion became a springboard for thought and form. For decades, the artist has tested and torqued her materials with an alchemist’s zeal while also incorporating movement as an important expressive element of her production process. She contributed significantly to the flow of Minimal and post-Minimal art—and she was able to hold her own as a woman in an extremely male-dominated arts scene.

Indeed, Rockburne hasn’t loosened her grip one bit for more than fifty years. And at eighty-nine years old she opened “Giotto’s Angels & Knots,” an exhibition of new artworks, in the same Manhattan building—24 East Eighty-First Street—that once housed the legendary Bykert Gallery, where she had her first solo show in 1970. Produced between 2018 and 2021, the objects that were on view qualify as “late work” and, as we see with great artists who enjoy longevity, afforded insight into the arc of her lifelong aesthetic concerns.

In Reflections, 2021, two automobile tires are stacked horizontally—the upper one rimmed with a sky-blue racing stripe and capped by a circular mirror that covers their hollow core. Thick industrial rope is looped back and forth around their girth to create a knot—one in which the ends are joined so it cannot be undone. A pair of black bentwood chairs, one flipped over the other to reveal a mirror underneath its curvilinear seat, crowns the whole thing. As we walk around the piece, its sundry elements—the embedded annular motifs, the bentwood curves, the looking-glass reflections, and the rope’s serpentine arrangement—produce a series of ambient visual knots that appear to be suspended in a state of continual transformation. In Interchange, 2021, Rockburne orchestrates another visual trick with a tire and several large galvanized steel tubs. One basin, filled to the brim with water, sits on the floor beside a sister stack that alternates—tub, tire, tub—with a mirror on top. A length of the same hemp rope encircles and crisscrosses the galvanized and rubber surfaces to produce an endless knot. When the work is seen from one angle, a beautiful symmetry emerges; yet from another, the concentricity breaks apart.

The wall-mounted, energized fiberboard assemblages in the 2019– “Trefoil” series dynamically activate the golden ratio and in turn are animated with sets of copper wires wound into three-lobed orbicular knots that seem to endlessly glide in between layered rectilinear polychromed forms. The work is so visually satisfying—the color cuisine, the play of matte and shiny surfaces, the flawless production values, the harmonious proportions—that we can imagine it, affectively, as a palliative form of resistance to the stultifying impact of the pandemic lockdowns.

One of the rooms in the exhibition was painted entirely in a dark, rich indigo. The intensely blue space, inspired by the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, which houses Giotto’s frescoes, created an immersive environment that seemed to muffle all interference from the outside world. The gallery was also a showcase for the “Blue Collages,” 2018–21, a series of works that feature Rockburne’s signature method of building up paper surfaces with paint or other materials, cutting them apart, then piecing them back together into different configurations so that every drip, mark, line, or gesture is a trace of what it once was and a prescriptive of what will follow. The integrative process might be laborious, but the result is lyrical and, unexpectedly, pictorial. As circles are subtly transmuted into spheres, they enable analogies to solar or lunar eclipses, glowing celestial orbs, and other cosmic wonders. The works in the dramatic series “Giotto Drawings,” 2021–, like abstract illuminations or arcane astronomical maps, impart a sense of rapture and momentousness. Rockburne also elevates the emotional quotient with titles that reference light, night, and lamenting angels, all of which allude to yearning, expansion, and transformation—qualities that saturate her “late work” but, clearly, have been there all along.