“Giotto was a master at using visual devices that subtly control the viewer’s bodily movements. In order to experience the work, the viewer must walk along and by it. If one is visually sensitive, this viewing position mysteriously causes one’s body to function as part of the painting.
As I walked down the corridor of the Basilica in Assisi, using my peripheral vision I watched out of the corner of my eye while Giotto’s diagonal lines within the panels seemingly changed their position as they defined the end of one Saint Francis story and the beginning of another. I, the viewer, had become part of an invisible line constituting the vanishing point. It was almost as though I were a camera and the work required my viewing of it in order to complete itself.”
Dorothea Rockburne It seems to me that the big changes in art, if you want to think about it, are spatial changes, they’re not changes in subject matter. Subject matter, still life, geometric abstraction, the human figure, more or less, remains the same.
LH / RB Shifts between systems of perspective?
DR More, but yes. I think there was a tradition that was going on — and goes way back — that had to do with oblique geometry. Today, we’re unfamiliar with it. It’s in the Pompeii Room at the Met. Then, all of a sudden, the stuff just disappears. I think that if it was in Pompeii, it was an inherited tradition. And since there were no books, traditions were handed down pragmatically, from word of mouth — and doing. But it was all lost. There were remains of it, probably because artists are nosy and they’re nosy about the past. And probably Giotto, who certainly had a superb intelligence — that’s for sure — used that tradition, that kind of geometry, but not always.
LH / RB But many of these systems still carry into today, even though —
DR Yes, but mostly intuitively, not in any systemic way. Take David’s [Row] recent show. One of the things that really interested me is what he’s doing with topological geometry. We sat for a long time in front of that painting in the back, the black and white one [ Gizmo, 1974], and I said, “It’s very hard to tip a plane in an ellipse. It’s very difficult to do that because you’re not dealing with the rules of perspective — at all. It’s difficult. I’ve done it accidentally myself a couple of times and I can’t figure out what I did [laughs]. That is, asymmetric geometry.
DR Well, I was writing about Giotto that the only way you could experience those frescoes in the corridor of the Assisi Basilica was to walk by them. Twombly knew all those things the Renaissance guys were doing. You could not stand back. You could only walk by them. It is a spectacular thing because, as you walk down that corridor, it’s your peripheral vision that is changing. It’s amazing.
LH / RB “…this viewing position [as the viewer approaches from alongside] mysteriously causes one’s body to function as part of the painting.” It’s quite a beautiful idea. You and Twombly shared a love of antiquity while at Black Mountain. But for the collegeas a whole, not so much.
DR Yes, they were rebels [laughs].
LH / RB When did this start for you, your interest in —
DR Not with art, actually. When I was a kid in Canada, we had a country house north of Montreal. In August at night I would lie in a field and look at the northern lights and think about astronomy as a child might. And, now, at the Morgan Library there’s an exhibition of “The Little Prince.” What would I do if I rode the northern light, etc., you know? I was probably about, 5 to ten or eleven, doing that and thinking about it. It became a more major part of me than what I learned in school, actually.
LH / RB And antiquity?
DR I was looking at Egyptian work most of my life. When I was a kid, my mother had these books on Egypt; and when I went to Beaux Arts later, I realized that everything I had been looking at was Golden Mean. And when I learned Golden Mean, and I went back to those books, I thought there’s something about the exquisiteness of the Egyptian mind. There’s also a lot of fooling around they did with space. There’s some work, I think in Luxor, where the wall is 10′ thick and you see the outline of the people on one side and, as though seeing through the wall, you see the back of them. They fiddled around with spatial concepts a lot. It was interesting to me, too — I’ve been to Egypt once — to think they had a concept of perspective. It was clear to me that the West hadn’t recognized it because it wasn’t Renaissance perspective.
LH / RB And all this started coming together for you at Black Mountain?
DR Well, when I was at Black Mountain, I was doing student work. And I was learning about what other painters were doing and I wasn’t on the same page as most of the other painting students. I don’t know why. I certainly was when I was in Montreal and going through Beaux Arts and then later at the Museum School. But at Black Mountain, I felt everyone was doing Abstract Expressionism and that was kind of left over from Surrealism. It was all muscular, masculine, kind of stuff. And I had absolutely no interest in it, whatsoever. I mean, I did some work like that because it was de rigueurat the time, but I really had no interest in it. When I came to New York, I had Max’s books with me and I kept reading them and looking at them and going to where they led me.
LH / RB Max Dehn-
DR Max Dehn. Everyone called him Professor Dehn, but since I knew him well, I called him Max at his request. He did significant work in topology. He was teaching in Frankfurt and also in Berlin, I think, when the whole Nazi experience broke out, and he was arrested [and later released]… [Eventually,] he got to America. Albers had somehow been in touch with him and enabled Dehn to go to Black Mountain. Max was in Seventh Heaven at Black Mountain. He taught me about the underlying geometries in nature and art. His classes affected me profoundly.
LH / RB You’ve said elsewhere that the work should be sensuous, that it should involve the way the body senses feeling from visual impact.
DR I feel the work in my body. I feel it. I don’t know how to exactly express that, how to translate that into language. But most people confuse emotions in art with sentiment, and I’m out to crack that one. It’s not sentiment. Your emotions are something you’re almost born with a complete set of, and most people spend their whole life denying their emotions. But if you develop them, it’s not sentiment, it’s strength.
Dorothea Rockburne’s solo exhibition, Drawing Which Makes Itself, ran at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from September 21, 2013 – February 2, 2014. Other solo and group exhibitions include America is Hard to See, Whitney Museum of American Art, May 1 – September 27, 2015. Dorothea Rockburne: Indication Drawings From the ‘Drawing Which Makes Itself’ series, 1973, from October 1 – November 16, 2013 – at Jill Newhouse Gallery, Pliage/Fold at Gagosian Gallery Paris, February 28 – April 29, 2014, and Abstract Drawing at the Drawing Room Gallery February 20 – April 19, 2014. Dorothea Rockburne lives and works in New York City.