One of the many benefits of working at the Morgan is that our Volunteer Director organises regular opportunities for us to visit other cultural institutions and exhibitions around the city. The latest of these was a private tour of Dorothea Rockburne’s show at MoMA, Drawing which makes itself, just before it closed last week. I’m always keen to participate in this sort of thing, but this tour was particularly special as it was conducted by the artist herself.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever met a proper established artist before, so that was exciting to begin with, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Rockburne most certainly doesn’t project any stereotypical artistic personality traits: in her discussion of her life and work she came across as quite intimidatingly pragmatic. This seems to be borne out in her art, too – one of her earlier works on display was painted with crude oil because at the time that was all she could afford.
Now in her early 80s, Rockburne started art classes as a young child, studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Artes in her home city of Montreal. In 1950 she moved to North Carolina to attend Black Mountain College, where she took classes with Merce Cunningham and John Cage (amongst others). Perhaps a more surprising influence on her at that time came from the mathematician Max Dehn, who introduced her to ‘mathematics for artists’, and started Rockburne’s life-long interest in the underlying geometries in nature and art (to quote the MoMA exhibition website!). Rockburne initially resisted Dehn’s offer to teach her, as she had never studied mathematics before, but he persisted, claiming that she would be easier to teach as she wouldn’t have been turned off the subject by a bad experience at school. (His exact words were apparently “you haven’t been poisoned”!)
Some of the work on display had been created on the gallery walls, using sheets of carbon paper that had been folded and moved in regular patterns across the walls, with lines scored at certain points. This is the sort of art which I would usually only glance at briefly, but it actually rewarded longer consideration – and was much enhanced by discussing it with other members of the group, not to mention hearing about the creative process from the artist herself. Some of her other pieces were more apparently aesthetic, and several of us found the most colourful work in the show, “Guardian Angel II” particularly appealing.
Sadly I didn’t take any photographs (although I still don’t really like doing that in art galleries), but there are a number of pictures of Rockburne’s work on the MoMA website, and several of these were featured in the exhibition. (MoMA has apparently been a keen purchaser of Rockburne’s work over the last few decades, so they have a considerable collection of it http://www.moma.org/search/collection?query=rockburne.) There’s also a great picture in the New York Times review of the exhibition.