The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City is showing a collection of work by artist Dorothea Rockburne, whose scope over the years has included mathematics, the golden mean, astronomy, and more. The exhibition, titled “Dorothea Rockburne: Drawing Which Makes Itself,” runs from September 21, 2013, through January 20, 2014.
The exhibition contains a series of wall drawings, along with a selection of Rockburne’s paper works and paintings, mostly from the 1970s, according to MoMA. The collection highlights areas of focus for Rockburne throughout her career, including the application of mathematics principles and the methods and practice of drawing.
The wall drawings are from Rockburne’s 1973 exhibition at the former Bykert Gallery that explored the question, “How could drawing be of itself and not about something else?” Rockburne used the wall as a surface to create a series of works with carbon paper. By manipulating the paper, she created various intersections of lines, shaping visitors’ perception of the gallery space and challenging the general concept of what a drawing is, MoMA noted.
“I was studying transitive geometry and I wanted to find a transitive material,” Rockburne said in a video piece, regarding the carbon paper used in her wall drawings. By folding and unfolding the sheets, “I could transpose the equations I’d been working into a materialized artwork.”
Following the idea of using the entire physical space as part of the work, she painted the walls a bright white, and viewers’ footprints as they came into the room became part of the drawing, she said.
Her interested in mathematics was piqued early on by German mathematician Max Dehn at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Rockburne grew up in Montreal and studied art there from a young age, eventually leaving (or rebelliously sneaking away, as she humorously tells it in a 2002 interview) to attend Black Mountain in 1950. In the 2002 interview, she describes her time with Dehn, who taught her at the college:
I was very shy in those days, and he sat at lunch with me for several days and I must have spoken up about something, after which he said, “I would like you to take my mathematics class.” And I was appalled, because there were people there from Harvard and Yale who were there just to work with him. And I said, “I have no background to take your class,” whereupon he said, in his heavy German accent, “Well good, you haven’t been poisoned. I will teach you.”
And every morning … we took a walk and he talked to me about mathematics in nature. And I’m sure he talked to me about the skies, about astronomy. … Then in class he would take me aside and teach me the equations for probability theory, which led me later to be able to do chaos theory. He was so precious with me.
Other works in the MoMA exhibition include two “Golden Section” paintings, both from 1974. The golden section, also known as the golden mean or golden ratio, refers to a ratio between two measurements equaling approximately 1.618. The ratio can supposedly be found everywhere from the Egyptian pyramids to ancient Greek art and architecture to Renaissance art, and some believe that it evokes a natural balance and beauty for the viewer.
“By this time I had been looking at a lot of Italian painting and realized that they were all based on the golden mean,” Rockburne said in the video. “I was very familiar with what the golden mean looked like. Now, our bodies are all golden mean. Everything is, you begin to realize. It’s a magic proportion: If you do anything using it, you can’t go wrong. It’s bound to be a success — it’s amazing.”
Three of the works in the exhibition are more recent and provide a colorful contrast to the other mostly white and earth-toned works. “Guardian Angel, II” is from 1982, “Prime Partition Three” is from 2006-2007,” and “Three Point Manifold” is from 2008. All three are watercolor pieces, two on Dura-Lar and one on vellum, and continue to utilize different geometric shapes (as seen here, for example).