Dorothea Rockburne

b. 1932

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 where one of her professors, mathematician Max Dehn, told her to take his class.  He said that he would teach her mathematics in nature; he would teach her mathematics for an artist.

It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that Rockburne realized that 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.

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 an 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 crude oil is a natural material. However, for her exhibition opening at Dia Art Foundation in Beacon, N.Y., she had to replace crude oil – no longer available because of toxicity – with heating oil.

For this exhibit Rockbourne will recreate her large installation from 1972, “Domain of the Variable.”  This two-part installation will encompass an entire room. One section involves paper and board covered with red grease.  A long line carved into the wall between the two pieces provides 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 depict electromagnetic fields.  Since the skyscraper has been sold, there is concern about the dismantling of these works and their placement elsewhere.  Rockbourne feels 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 Museum of Modern Art in 2013. Works from 1967 through 1972 will be shown at Dia:Beacon as part of her long-term installation. Paintings from her Egyptian series from 1979-1981 will also be shown at Dia:Beacon in November of 2018.


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