Dorothea Rockburne/Artist Interview
Interview by Charles Hayes,
with Guenter Knop, photographer
New York City, Jan. 18, 2014
I learned about Dorothea Rockburne in 2013 from an art historian friend while I was editing the interview I had conducted in 1984 with John Cage. My friend, the historian, said, “You need to look into her, go to her show at MOMA (September 2013 to February 2014). I did go to the exhibit, which spanned about 40 years of Rockburne’s intriguing, often mathematically based works, and with the help of the staff at Ragazine, I learned Ms. Rockburne agreed to an interview.
On January 18th, photographer Guenter Knop and I ascended the stairs to Rockburne’s spacious Soho loft, and got the tapes rolling as Guenter moved about photographing. I began by asking the artist questions not so much about aesthetics – which has been the standard approach – but about her psychological and “human interest” perspective, since my own background involves an MA in Art Therapy. Just as I was not primarily interested in John Cage’s “indeterminate” aesthetics (which
has been explored extensively), I was not primarily interested in the “minimalism” nor other “styles” that have been hung on Rockburne’s variety of work over the past 40 years. My original purpose for going to John Cage’s loft in New York 30 years ago was to dig about into his experience with things like hindrances and how these may have shaped or reshaped his creativity. To ask Rockburne similar questions, and to hear her memories of Cage, were a big part of the motivation for the interview.
* * *
Charles Hayes: You said in the e-mail to me that you feel “gratitude each day” to your education at Black Mountain.
Dorothea Rockburne: I grew up in Montreal. I studied at Ecole de Beaux Arts – on Saturdays. Then when that program ended (I was 14), I attended the Montreal Museum School. But wherever I studied, it was 300 years behind the times. At the museum, I did have a teacher, Gordon Weber, who studied under (László) Moholy-Nagy in Chicago. So, I became aware of Russian constructivism … and I owned Vision in Motion (Nagy’s book).
Compared to other students at Black Mountain College, I had had decent training in French and English literature. When I got to Black Mountain, I went from a high school level of education to knowing the most sophisticated (laugh) group of people. I studied photography with Hazel-Frieda Larsen, but also with (Edward) Steichen. His brother-in-law, Carl Sandburg, lived in Asheville, so he spent time there and he would come and teach at Black Mountain.
CH: Do you remember Cage being there?
DR: Of course! I studied with him. I also took classes with Merce (Cunningham). They were there together in ’52, ’53.
CH: What kind of teacher was Cage?
DR: You’re aware of course that Black Mountain never had more than 25 students, so the teachers didn’t regard themselves as being above the students. They were interested in what you had to say – very different from the academic background that I came from. In my family, one came out of the womb taking lessons. I started ballet at four. So it was automatic to check into the dance classes being offered. No one really knew who Merce or John were. David Tudor was there also, because Merce’s prima ballerina was Carolyn Brown (who was married to David Tudor), and Tudor performed the “Concerto for Toy Piano.” I think it was first performed in the dining room at Black Mountain College.
CH: Did they do 4’ 33” (by Cage), where everybody just sat there and the noise of the audience was the music…?
DR: I believe he did that for the first time at Woodstock in 1952.
CH: After Black Mountain… When was your daughter born?
DR: I married one of my teachers at Black Mountain and she was born in October of ’52.
CH: So you were also doing art… what challenges did you have to face…?
DR: The most challenging situation was that I was clearly facing a bad marriage and while we did come to N.Y. together with my daughter, we separated. After separating, supporting my daughter and myself was challenging, although I continued, at night, to study and paint.
CH: What kinds of things did you do?
DR: Whatever I could do. Around 1963, Bob Rauschenberg, who had been at Black Mountain, asked me to come and work for him… That is one thing I did and I also did waitressing. I was trying to take jobs without any mental carry-over. In 1970 or so, Christine was getting ready to leave home to go to college, and I began to exhibit in group shows. Soon I was able to support myself from my work.
CH: I’m interested in your creative process. I found most interesting in an interview by Saul Ostrow when he told you that your work is theatre and you said, “No, I don’t like this!” You said things like, “I’m coming from the heart,” “This is not theatre,” and I “peel away” the layers.
DR: If you have sensitivity, you can tell the works are emotional. Philosophically and visually, it’s a different concept of space, however.
CH: You used the term “peel” back layers until you get to a realm of emotions you said you can’t even name, and then you’re talking about “risk taking” (and) “decisions” you have to make in the creative process. Could you talk about that more? It gets a bit esoteric.
DR: People credit me with mental processes that are, in reality, so much more GRITTY (laughs). When I was a kid in Canada, we used to ski in the Laurentians. My father was a good skier and my brother was a superb skier. There were hardly any tow ropes in those days – during the ’40s – and we’d climb up to the top of a hill and look down, and I’d say, “My God!” And my father would say, “Just begin to go down the hill and if you feel frightened, you can always sit down.”
He was a very gentle, strong person and I followed his advice. It’s the same with art. I’ve taken the biggest challenges to make exciting work. I often read books I can’t readily understand. I don’t read novels. I recently met a woman who is the editor of a mathematics journal. She’s a topological geometer. This kind of geometry has been around for a long time and in essence it’s more esoteric than the high school geometry we all learned. She asked,“Do you fully understand Riemannian geometry?” and, I said “Not all of it. I’m just absolutely fearless about attempting an understanding of it, and eventually I do.”
ROCKBURNE V10N2 MAR-APR 2014
Photographs by Guenter Knop
CH: So, in the creative process, being willing to be beyond the edge, can you pinpoint works where you made breakthroughs for you by having this …
DR: No. It’s a mystic process. It’s not something….
CH: … you can talk about?
DR: Yes, I can talk about it the best way I know how. I mean I’m not afraid to talk about it. After I’ve worked a while and I’ve gotten through to this ‘other place’ in my head and soul, and its not a conscious place… The Black Mountain poets referred to it as “the zone.”
CH: It reminds me a little bit of quantum physics in the sense of …
DR: Quantum has that mystic aspect.
CH: David Bohm, who said that there is this ‘implicate’ order and an ‘explicate order,” and the implicate we don’t have words for, and it’s this source, it’s like a fountain, and these tiny particles just …
DR: This is the creative process, and it’s not unique to me. You can, for instance, see it in a rock concert of the Rolling Stones. At the beginning of the concert, they’re performing what they know but halfway through, they’ve entered the zone.
CH: What things tend to keep that door opened?
DR: Never closes!
CH: There’s nothing you think or do that closes it? So the more you do it, the more it becomes the reality?
DR: No, it’s the same now as when I was five.What is difficult is that I have to translate my intuitive thinking, which is in pictures, into language. It’s like going from English to French.… Early on, writers and interviewers would ask me what I was doing and I’d answer “Well, I’m using “matrix” theory, “but” … there would be “the BUT.” It’s easier to nail something, look it up in the dictionary and so everyone was writing about me as if I was a mathematician, and not an artist. I’m not someone who does mathematics eight to 10 hours a day AND then makes a mathematical breakthrough. I AM NOT A MATHEMATICIAN. I’m an artist who uses math creatively as another tool in my work because mathematics and the ways of nature walk hand in hand.
When I took Max Dehn’s classes at Black Mountain, it immediately struck me that his was a new way of considering space, all space. I was also aware that, although the appearance of contemporary art was constantly changing, spatially, most work that I saw was still cubist, or based on a grid. While Max’s teaching presented an exciting alternative, it took me many years of study to understand how to create a new, topologically based way of creating art. A non-cubist, non-grid, spatial concept.
CH: I did the interview with Cage, and John said the same thing as Edward Albee, when the public and gallery world try to pin you down to what you’re already doing… Albee said that after he did the Zoo Story. “They try to stick me into doing the same thing.”
DR: Yes. It makes it easier for them to write about it that way, but pigeonholing limits the artist’s freedom.
CH: And he said this is a challenge. I realized that it is what courage is, his courage in breaking this and I know you have spoken about Pollock who started to do figurative works in the abstracts and …
DR: Everybody at that time hated his figure paintings!
CH: Was it because Dekooning was doing it?
DR: I don’t think so, in fact I think Pollock was doing it before Dekooning if I remember right. It had more to do with categorization. Pollock was an abstractionist. How dare he paint the figure! Those paintings are beautiful.
CH: Can you tell us a little about the ‘friction’ between public/critical perception of you and what you know of yourself?
DR: It was just that this critical thing happened … instead of talking about the work, talking about math, my work is of a visceral, felt, dimension… Anyone who is a mathematician, well, they don’t talk this way, it’s the people who are looking it up on Wikipedia (laugh) and it’s an easy way… they’d write it down and then someone else would copy what the other person wrote and then extrapolate and it went on and on and on, and I got so sick of it!
CH: What are you doing at present?
DR: I’m dealing with my MoMA show. A lot of paper work and details… I’m working from 10 in the morning to 19 at night (laughs)…
CH: So after all that’s done, you’ll try to get back to work?
DR: I’ll clean up the studio and we have the shipment that comes in on the sixth of February, and there’s lots of prep work for the shipment, and post-shipment inspection, unwrapping and re-wrapping, then storage. Also the computer records all that entails. I have assistants during the week who help me with these aspects, the physical aspects of running the studio.
CH: Do you have another show coming up?
DR: No. I want to get back to work.
CH: Another thing I want to know about was your references to art as religious, not religion, but religious.
DR: I don’t follow any religion.
CH: But you said it’s a religious experience, and I think I understood …
DR: That’s what I meant when I said “you go to a different place.”
CH: Tell me more.
DR: How to describe that exactly? I guess I think of religion in the best sense as when one is in touch with a creative source both outside of, and inside yourself, the Grand Creative source. Mathematics and art have been key in helping me understand that source.
CH: And you said something like those coming out of Greenberg, and creating appearances, didn’t have any intentionality, and (for) you, you talked about you having intention.
DR: I never would have said that in that way. I don’t really slam other peoples’ work. Being an artist every day of your life for years and years is hard work on so many levels.
CH: I wonder what intentionality means…
DR: I always title a work before I do it. Some people just work and let it go where it goes until it can’t go any further and then they move onto the next canvas. I don’t do that. I name it. Then I make it.
ROCKBURNE II V10N2
Gallery of work by Dorothea Rockburne to accompany interview by Charles Hayes with photography by Guenter Knop. New York. December-January 2013-2014.
1972. Carbon paper and carbon lines on paper. 28 1/4” x 40” (unframed);
32 3/4 x 44 1/8” (framed).[img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0541_indication-of-installation_whitney-piece_scaled-down.jpg]00Indication of Installation, Whitney Piece (1 of 2)
1973, Summer. Carbon paper and carbon lines on American Etching
paper. 42” x 54” (Framed - White).[img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0551_copal-15_scaled-down.jpg]00Copal #15
1977. Kraft paper, copal oil varnish, blue pencil, glue and
ragboard, 3M tape 415, Prismacolor 903. 39” x 29” (work); 40 1/2" x 30 1/2" x 1 13/16" (framed).[img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0588_roman-vi.jpg]00Roman VI
1977. Kraft paper, Winsor Newton copal oil varnish, blue pencil, 3M 415 mylar tape, 100% rag board. 44 1/8” x 47 5/8” (framed).[img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0590_gs_square-separated-by-parallelogram-with-diamond_scaled-down.jpg]00Golden Section Painting: Square Separated by Parallelogram with Diamond
1974-1976. Belgian Linen via England, Permanent Pigment gesso (calcium carbonate added), weldwood glue, blue plumb line. 64 3/8” x 104 1/2”. [img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0658_copal-viii_scaled-down.jpg]50Copal VIII
1979. Kraft paper, varnish, glue, blue pencil. Mounted on ragboard. 46 1/2” X 82 5/8” (mounted); 49" x 85" (framed). [img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0703_musician-angel_parallelogram-diamond_scaled-down.jpg]10Musician Angel: Parallelogram, Diamond
1979-1981. Vellum, pencil, watercolor, glue, mounted on ragboard. 52” x 42” (mounted, unframed); 56 1/8" x 46 1/8" (framed).[img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0714_white-angel-ii_scaled-down.jpg]10White Angel II
1981, July. Rives BFK paper, blue pencil, #415 tape. Mounted on bevel-cut ragboard. 74 1/4” x 50”.[img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0721_egyptian-painting_scribe_scaled-down.jpg]30Egyptian Painting: Scribe
1979. Gesso, oil paint on linen, glue, pencil. 93” x 56 1/2”.[img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0751_vellum-curve_parallelogram-w-2-sm-sq.jpg]20Parallelogram/2 Small Squares, 3rd Study (Vellum Curve Series )
1977. Vellum, colored pencil, varnish, glue, ragboard. 43” x 33” (mounted, unframed); 44 1/4" x 34 1/4" (framed).[img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-818_guardian-angel-i_from-transp_-scaled-down.jpg]10Guardian Angel I
1982. Watercolor,pencil, vellum, glue; on gessoed fiberglass and aluminum honeycomb panel. 75 1/2” x 57 3/4” (framed). [img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0944_15_dwmi-fp-15_scaled-down.jpg]30Drawing Which Makes Itself F.P.15
1972. Graphite on Strathmore paper. 19" x 22".[img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0946_extasie_scaled-down.jpg]00Extasie
1983-1984. Oil paint on gessoed linen. Two panels: 81 1/4” x 76” x 4” (6’ 9 1/4” x 6’4” x 4”)
Front panel: 61 1/2” x 76” x 2” (5’ 1 1/2” x 6’ 4” x 2”); Rear panel: 72 3/4” x 64 3/4” x 2” (6’ 3/4” x 5’ 4 3/4” x 2”). [img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1021_scalar_1971_whitewall.jpg]00Scalar
1971. Paper, chipboard, Crude oil, and nails. 6’ 7/8” x 6’ 1/2” (72 7/8" x 72 1/2"). [img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1026_leveling_scaled-down.jpg]10Leveling
1970. (Summer). Paper, chipboard, crude oil, and nails. 81 1/2" x 72" (4’ x 8’). [img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1038_pascal-state-of-grace_scaled-down.jpg]00Pascal, the State of Grace
1986 - 1987. Oil paint and gold leaf on gessoed linen. 6’ 3 3/8” x 4’ 9 3/8” x 4". Front panel: 3'9" x 2' 7 1/2" x 2"; Rear panel: 6'3 3/8" x 4'9 3/8" x 2". [img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1086_tintoretto-in-the-light-of-egypt_scale-down.jpg]20Tintoretto in the Light of Egypt
1989. Gold leaf, India ink, gouache, and watercolor on papyrus and 100% rag Museum Board. 29 3/8” x 25 1/2”. [img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1174_still-blue-circle.jpg]00Still Blue Circle
1990. Color area: oil paint on gessoed linen, White area: acrylic paint on gessoed linen, sprayed with varnish on gessoed linen. 66” x 66”. [img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1381_carbon-installation_whitney-piece_whitney-biennial-1973_scaled-down.jpg]00Carbon Paper Installtion Piece: Whitney Piece
1973. Carbon paper and graphite on wall. Dimensions Variable. [img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1415_einsteins-cross_scaled-down.jpg]00Einstein’s Cross
1998. Lascaux Aquacryl and Perlessence on cotton on abaca paper. 24 3/4" x 19 1/2" (work); 29 1/2” x 22” (mount). [img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1441_tearful-sisters_scaled-down.jpg]00Tearful Sisters
1993 / 1994. Gesso, Lascaux Aquacryl and Caran D'ache on papyrus. Lined and mounted on rag board. 25" x 33" (work); 35 1/4” x 42 3/4” (mounted). [img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1583_the-twins-castor-and-pollux_scaled-down.jpg]00The Twins: Castor & Pollux
2002, June. Lascaux Aquacryl and Copper on Gesso-prepared linen. Two Panels, each 24” x 24”. [img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1755_prime-partition-three.jpg]00Prime Partition Three
2006 - 2007. Winsor Newton watercolor on Duralar (Architect's treated mylar), stretched over canvas; Framed. 40” x 30”. [img src=http://ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1858_from-stardust-to-stardust_scaled-down.jpg]00From Stardust to Stardust
2011. Lascaux aquacryl, pencil, and copper on handmade Larroque paper. 25 3/4" x 19 1/2".
CH: You already have a certain amount of conceptual framework and that means intention. When I read “intention” I was thinking of some kind of emotional charge… like in the Medieval Ages when the priests created sermons, created pictures to educate the flocks, they had the word “intentio” which involved affect to create ‘punctum,” “going to the heart,” and that’s what I was thinking about with “intention” – that there has to be affect…and you were talking about emotions.
DR: I don’t know how to verbalize it. When I work I don’t think in words. I think and feel in pictures, and then I pull in, out of the blue, a certain amount of knowing. .
CH: Without trying?
CH: Do you ever get inspiration from dreams?
DR: No. I don’t dream for the most part.
CH: Or you don’t remember. Do you sleep well?
DR: I do, sporadically. I think sleep is overrated in America… I don’t seem to need much sleep. I get up early and go to bed late. I have that 10 minute rest at lunch, but not always.
CH: Do you get like four or five hours a day?
DR: More like five or six.
CH: I do, too! We’re supposed to be dead!
DR: (Laughs.) I think that some day science … will find out that when one has a strong imagination, your subconscious is open and a lot of people have to dream to be in touch with their subconscious. With an artist, the subconscious is made conscious, and then you’re flowing along and your REM states are happening while you’re awake. I think a lot depends on your natural disposition. I don’t tend to be depressed. I work like hell all day long, and I love it. Then I fall asleep at night, around 12 o’clock, and wake up naturally between 6 and 7, and I don’t wake up unhappy.
Guenter Knop: You’re an addict to your work?
DR: I don’t think so! I’m living my life!
GK: Isn’t that the motive?
DR: No, I’m just living my life. Life is the motive, life itself! I don’t think of stuff like that. I’m not giving up my life for my work, believe me! My work makes me feel exhilarated, challenged, and alive. It’s very exciting being a creative person. You never know what’s around the corner. The MoMA show (came) totally unexpectedly. You never know who’s been looking and taking account. For instance… I’ll show you a great letter I got… from an art historian. When he was an art history major, he wrote a catalog for me on the Arena drawings. He was very bright. It was 1974. He talked to the director of the John Weber Gallery and he wrote the catalog. I just received this letter from him… Michael Marlais, after all these years, after he saw the MoMA show. One never knows who’s watching.
CH: You mentioned to me in an email how you feel gratitude toward being a student at Black Mountain…
DR: It was fantastic! I was young and stupid, right? I was at the dry-sponge stage. It was “bring it on.” I came from a very good educational background in Montreal so it was natural for me to check in with academic courses. People don’t talk about the academic courses at Black Mountain, however, they were there and they were very good. For instance, the professor who taught philosophy had come from the U. of Chicago and it was he who wrote THE Philosophy 101 book. William Levy. He was FANTASTIC! I also immediately checked in with the linguistics teacher, Flola Shepard, who had studied with [Ferdinand] de Saussur. However, since I’m a reader, I already had a fairly trained mind…
CH: How do you feel you’re different now than then?
DR: Not so much, I’m older and … I’m still reading esoteric books
CH: How about gratitude? How does it count into openness?
DR: For me anyway, gratitude is coupled with love.
CH: Walt Whitman in the 1880s wrote a beautiful piece… he was at a Thanksgiving dinner, and someone said: “Mr. Whitman, what are your thoughts on Thanksgiving, and he told it like it was, he didn’t hold back …
DR: I’m part Indian so Thanksgiving is not the most favorite holiday in my family. … I’m part Algonquin…. My family, the Algonquin part was from Nova Scotia, Mi’kmaq Indians. My grandmother was part Mi’kmaq.
CH: Whitman said “I don’t give thanks one day, I wake up every morning and give thanks,” and then he goes…something like… “and the gratitude I can trace it back and see my poetry and I create from that gratitude what I give every day.”
DR: I don’t know how to put it in words, that’s why I paint. Black Mountain, that was a different situation, it was just so extraordinary an experience. Scholars would ask Max Dehn, the mathematician, why he was at Black Mountain, not at Harvard or Princeton? He was there because he was a creative person. Creativity was everywhere, everyone took his class, John (Cage) and Merce took his class, the poet Charles Olsen took his class, as did Joe Fiore, the painting teacher.
CH: We don’t have Black Mountain today. What is happening today?
DR: A guy I know who is a painter and teacher sent his best student to me as an apprentice… It was a waste of time. She was bright and talented, but the whole academic way of “get your degree and go live your life” translates to “Go be a slave,” as far as I’m concerned. “You gotta get that degree so that you can get that teaching job, you know, support yourself…” In my generation, none of us thought that way. You figured it out. It’s as though true self-confidence is eradicated by the current art educational system.
* * * * *
About the interviewer:
Charles Hayes began publishing poetry and essays in the 1970s and ’80s. His 1978 book, From the Hudson to the World (introduction by Pete Seeger) remains the most complete collection of Native American lore and art (gathered from 17th century Dutch deed books) to date. In the ’80s, Hayes started a book called Pearl in the Mud, which involved interviews with various famous and lesser-known artists, from John Cage and Elaine Dekooning in New York to excellent folk weavers in the New Mexico mountains. A book he funded on student loans.
Concurrent to his book project, Hayes studied Navajo language and earned his MA degree in Art Therapy from the University of New Mexico. Since then, he has become an avid amateur photographer who combines his photos with his writings. Currently, he is “taking the ‘Pearl’ project onward in the form of a smaller book, Ten Women Composers You Should Know.
Hayes is a frequent contributor to Ragazine.
About the photographer:
Günter’s work has appeared internationally in group and solo exhibitions and related publications. Features about his work have appeared on NDR TV News and Norddeutscher Rundfunk Radio as well as in a variety of books, magazines and online publications. In 2005 he released a book, Guenter Knop on Women, featuring art nudes.
Günter Knop began a career in photography, following his studies at the Christian-Albrecht University, working with fashion photographer Charlotte March. After traveling extensively, Knop landed in New York where he worked side by side with Henry Wolf, influential Art Director for Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar magazines, for many years. Together they created trend-setting TV, print and fashion advertising for major clients. Knop eventually opened a studio of his own in Manhattan and continues to work on a variety of projects ranging from still lifes to fine art photography.