Dorothea Rockburne is an abstract painter and installation artist, whose work reveals her interest in mathematics, astronomy, and the cosmos. Her work has put into practice her love of the Golden Mean, the major proportion found in Italian Renaissance art and in the human body.
Rockburne moved from Canada to the United States to attend the experimental Black Mountain College in the 1950s, and her circle of friends included Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. She was under the tutelage of the German theoretician the mathematician Max Dehn, who told her he would teach her mathematics in nature and mathematics for an artist.
It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that Rockburne realized she wanted to express her own take on geometric abstraction in her art. She wanted “to see the equations I was studying, so I started making them in my studio . . . I was visually solving equations.” Since then she has created paintings and installations that dealt with mathematical concepts, and she continued to study equations her whole life. When she was in her late 70s, she got a doctorate in math.
While she had a well-received solo show in 1958, she did not think that her work was good enough to be exhibited. Although she did continue to paint, she never showed any of her work for almost ten years. During this time Rockburne worked as a waitress and as an assistant to Robert Rauschenberg to support herself and her young daughter.
In 1970, with a large amount of unseen work, she joined New York’s Bykert Gallery. In 1971, because of poor finances, Rockbourne worked with crude oil because it was cheap. The use of crude oil went along with the philosophy of Black Mountain College because it is a natural material. However, for her exhibition opening at Dia Art Foundation in Beacon, N.Y., she had to replace crude oil with heating oil because of its toxicity.
For this exhibit Rockbourne recreated her large installation from 1972, “Domain of the Variable.” This two-part installation encompassed an entire room. One section involved paper and board covered with red grease. A long line carved into the wall between the two pieces provided a deep shadow.
In 1991, Rockbourne was commissioned to create a site-specific work for Philip Johnson’s postmodern Madison Avenue’s AT&T skyscraper. Her radiant red and gold frescoes were situated on the second-floor lobby and depicted electromagnetic fields. Since the skyscraper has been sold, there was concern about the dismantling of these works and their placement elsewhere. Rockbourne felt that these frescoes would not make sense in any other setting. “To take them apart would turn a significant in-situ situation into decoration.”
Rockbourne has had more than a dozen awards, some of which are: a 1972 Guggenheim Fellow; a 1974 award from the N.E.H; 2003 and 2007 Pollock-Krasner Foundation grants; a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 from the National Academy Museum & School of Fine Arts; and others.
She has participated in dozens of group exhibitions in Paris, London, New York, and Chicago. She has had solo exhibitions in New York, Florence, and Berlin. She had a retrospective in Water Mill, N.Y. in 2011 and a solo show of drawings at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2013. Works from 1967 through 1972 were shown at Dia Beacon as part of a long-term installation, and paintings from her Egyptian series, 1979-1981, were also shown there starting in November, 2018.
Her work is in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Trust, the Pompidou Center, and Dia Beacon.