Finch Let’s begin with something you wrote in Artforum (November, 2011):
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.
DR 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.
Finch 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.
Dorothea Rockburne, Giotto, St Francis
Giotto di Bondone, Legend of Saint Francis, Homage of a Simple Man, c. 1300. the-athenaeum.org
Dorothea Rockburne, Giotto, St Francis (Detail)
Giotto di Bondone, Legend of Saint Francis, Homage of a Simple Man. (Detail)
Finch But many of these systems still carry into today, even though —
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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.
“…Rockburne has sought to essentialize the corporeal presence and movement of the viewer within her work. Suggested in her exposed process, shifts and repetitions imply an act that is to be sustained. The body is activated through folding and unfolding; one can imagine his or her finger and arms manipulating the peaks and valleys of the surfaces.” — Matthew Farina, Dorothea Rockburne: Drawing Which Makes Itself (Review; The Brooklyn Rail, 11/5/’13)
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.
Finch “…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.3But for the college as a whole, not so much.
DR Yes, they were rebels [laughs].
Finch 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.
aside: the specific mathematical equation said to spur the work along... +
“…is not written out for this or any other piece in the exhibition. Despite this absence, each tactile assemblage possesses balance and an energy that radiates outward, allowing viewers’ minds to reenact the spirit or tendencies, if not the numbers, of each system. Infallibility of mathematic principle imbues the work with a sense of purpose, despite the cultivated roughness and false starts that keep slickness at bay.” — Matthew Farina, Dorothea Rockburne: Drawing Which Makes Itself (Review; The Brooklyn Rail, 11/5/’13)
Finch 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.
Finch 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 rigueur at 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.
Finch 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 released4]… [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.5
Finch You’ve said elsewhere 6 that the work should be sensuous, that it should involve the way the body senses feeling from visual impact.
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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.
2 “When I walked into the gallery, strikingly, there was only one painting, which covered the entire south wall. It was impossible to view the work—Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor—from very far back. In fact, the gallery had moved a wall to separate the street entrance from the exhibition, making the viewing space narrower than it normally was. Therefore, the only possible way to view the work was to begin at one end and walk alongside it. ‘Hmm!’ I thought. ‘Cy has been studying the Giotto corridor in the church of Saint Francis in Assisi.’” (Artforum, November 2011)
3 “At Black Mountain College everyone was always rebelling, both in their lives and in their work, and it struck me at the time that it was only Cy and I who were not rebelling against the history of art. We both shared a love for ancient history, ancient art, and the poet Rilke. (It was impossible to come out of Black Mountain College and not love Rilke.)” (Ibid.)
4 Dehn was among the 30,000 Jews arrested in Germany in the days following Kristallnacht. He was released on condition of exile and forfeiture of property. After brief stays in Copenhagen and Trondheim, Norway, he and his wife, Antonie Landau, made their way to the United States (October 1940). He began teaching at Black Mountain in 1945.
5 “Mathematics was a peculiar experience for me. I went to a very girl’s school where you were trained to be a “lady,” basically, and science was home economics, etc., etc. I know it sounds like the year ‘one’ but that’s what it was. I was very shy in those days, and [Max] 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 for 2 years, 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. I’m sure it played in the background… You know we would look at a tree and he would say, ‘you have to imagine the roots underneath the ground are the same as what you’re seeing above ground in equal proportion. And you can track the way it’s going to grow according to probability theory.’ Then in class he would take me aside and teach me the equations for probability theory, which led me later to be able to understand chaos theory. He was so precious with me. All my teachers were.” (Dorothea Rockburne, in conversation with Connie Bostic at Ashville, NC, 19 April 2002.)
6 “The whole process of using carbon paper lines to reflect the light, to draw the line and then flip it … That’s also an engagement with time. It’s not direct, it’s indirect. It’s a sensuous involvement with the wall, your body, and your mind … Looking at it … The viewer is being asked to relive its making and feeling.” (Dorothea Rockburne, in conversation with Natasha Kurchanova, Studio International, 10 July 2013.)
For the most part, but not always — certainly not with Matisse — drawing had been a way of pre-thinking the structure in a painting. But drawing is not the orphan child of painting; it is a deep, material way of working.
Continuity in art has to do with a shared sensibility toward nature. Everything in nature is related to everything else in terms of its material make up. So when the movement in a Mannerist drawing seems to vibrate in tune with one of my own works, I know that they are saying something similar about the world and that they should be paired with one another. Again, it all has to do with issues of movement in space.
The thing that interested me so much about it is not just the esthetic value, but when you look at it from the side, it’s almost a square. You don’t think of the body as being square, you think of it as being thin. And it’s really formed out of a rectangle. It’s formed out of a block of stone, and it’s very clear. This concept of taking a rectangle and, as Michelangelo once said, releasing it, is very appealing to me.
When I came here from Canada, the prevalent attitude of artists towards art history was what I called the Mack truck approach. I found it extremely liberating. That kind of exaggeration was good at its moment when everybody still knew what art history was. However, to really abandon the knowledge of the ages would be stupid.