While re-reading Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, I discovered that in his youth Pontormo had studied with Leonardo and of course- in the drawings there it is- that extended, flowing, naturally rhythmic, sensuously logical, gracious line. This is not Andrea del Sarto. Pontormo’s line reveals a foundation evident only in Leonardo.
In the early seventies, while making installation exhibitions, I spent time in Florence. During those prolonged stays I studied every Pontormo in the area including the drawings in the Uffizi. I frequented the Certosa. Once I stayed near the Ponte Vechio on the other side of the Arno, close to Sta. Felicita, which houses the Capponi Chapel. Every morning on the way to work I would stop, study and marvel at this magnificent, radically innovative painting. On my return I would stop again. Seldom have I seen work which moved me on so many levels. My eyes, which, for me are a direct filter to my feelings, fell in love. Pontormo’s understanding of how to project emotion through paint and structure, while challenging all preceding painting, has reverberated in many subtle ways throughout my life’s work.
Throughout painting history eyes are an interesting study. Before my many long stays in Florence I primarily associated Florence with Giotto and Sienese eyes, which are almost Egyptian in their dark, slanted, linear elongation. And interestingly enough, many women in Siena still look like those early paintings. Eyes for Pontormo became his own special discovery. His was a new way of seeing and painting eyes. Each pair of dark, deepened eyes is set back from the plane of the face, even babies and children have sunken eyes. Pontormo seems to have changed the then language of eye painting.
Each pair of eyes in the Sta. Felicita Deposition and Annunciation not only express the emotions depicted in the painting they also mark a certain sensitive, elliptical movement within the painting’s overall composition. It’s as if the structure of those somewhat languid bodies are somehow being dictated, almost hung from the eyes, all the while balancing and descending toward the lower right hand corner of the panel.
In the Uffizi there is a small red and black chalk study drawing of St. Joseph for the Pala Pucci. Because it is drawing, Pontormo lets his chalk wander freely. Pontormo trained his drawing hand to think. Lines run everywhere collecting into mass forming both structure and freedom. There is a seemingly unexplainable line on the right side of the head which begins as a small truncated ellipse surrounding the light of that sunken eye. Bending on the upper cheekbone it then descends down the right side of the face disappearing into the bearded cheek, only to unexpectedly reappear briefly on the neck. This drawing is thought to have been a careful study taken from the discovery in 1506 of the Hellenistic sculpture, Laocoon and his Sons, which in some way came to epitomize agony and suffering in western art.
Every artist, whether intentionally or not, transfers their own inner light into their work. Traditionally, in the academy, great emphasis was placed on the way shadow and light falls on a page or in a painting. This academic concept of light did not change until the early twentieth century perhaps beginning with The Fauvists, Mondrian, the Russian constructivists and of course Matisse. Change in color is no longer dependent on shadow and light to express it’s voice. Instead, it assumes that each pigment has it’s own particular power, strength and illumination. That by deliberately placing one pigment next to another, light thrusts, engages the viewer, shines and illuminates the painting.
While, in some instances, Pontormo followed the tradition of darkening hues to depict light and shadow, he very often simply painted shadow by changing colors within the same shape, for instance from flesh color to bright pink, from bright light yellow to bright light blue. His color vision was several centuries ahead of his time. And then, as it always does in a great painter, the drawing practice shows. He outlines the pink shadow of a flesh colored arm with an even brighter pink line. The profiles of the body shapes, as they relate both to the mass of the bodies and to the sheer cut into the backgrounds from which they emerge, is a testament to drawing.
Every painting student at some time or other is given an assignment to make a work using the ugliest colors possible. Invariably a majority of the class make a work using bright pink and some form of bright green. These colors, however, occur beautifully and frequently in nature. Think for instance of petunias, certain roses, and some peonies. The list is long. These are the colors of Mannerist painting.
Pontermo may have been guided by seeing some of Michelangelo’s then seemingly radical color departures in the Sistine Chapel but it was Pontormo who first formed the mannerist color palette. Clearly, Pontormo studied flowers carefully often emulating the way one color mass is broken with another as well as utilizing seemingly radical color combinations. To this day I am both passionate, humbled and inspired before his work.
The viewer’s position in French Impressionist painting is an intimate one, even in landscapes. One psychologically walks into the painting which is hung at eye level. Every painting presents an intimate. bedroom experience, even in Van Gogh’s work. Growing up in Montreal during World War Two this primarily was the work I saw. Then, in the late sixties after living in New York, I made my way to both France and Italy. Observing that in Italian Renaissance churches the work was hung high I was forced to think about placement of artwork and how that affected it’s presence. I was not looking up at the work. It was looking down at me. By this simple juxtaposition of position the space between me and the artwork became activated.
To go back a bit, but not leaving that spatial subject matter, in the spring of 1954, I visited Ad Reinhardt’s studio. He had become friends with my husband. A very animated, alive and passionate person, Ad Reinhardt had an incredible, energetic sense of humor which poked fun at just about everything in the art world. Although married to Rita--a strong person, very beautiful, extremely intelligent, and a good painter herself-- Ad seemed rather sexist. To him, for instance, I was young, pretty and invisible. Luckily later, through my work, fate brought me in contact with Rita and we became friends. She has a great eye and was a fountain of studio, art practice knowledge, from that time.
Fresh from Black Mountain College, I was immersed in the structure of pictorial space and how changes in that space had served to alter emotional meaning throughout art history for, instance from three point perspective to Cubism. While understanding the various art movements I felt an almost mystic demand for an unknown, non verbal, perceptually projected, painterly dimension which would reach into the room.
Admiring Ad’s work I listened carefully as he spoke, mostly to my husband. The questions I asked helped me to understand that consciously, through his intention and by his painting method, he activated the space between the viewer and his painting, the “in-between space.” To fully inhabit his work the viewer must understand, Ad Reinhardt’s creation of that space as part of the painting/viewing experience. The modus operandi of much studio practice of that day consisted of throwing paint and testosterone around. Ad Reinhardt’s sensuous, and not at all dry or muscular thinking stuck in my mind. His work contains a deep and lived philosophy which activated my senses.
Part of bringing a canvas to life can be the use of surface differences, of matt areas contrasted to the natural gloss of oil paint. In Beaux Arts practice a matt surface can be achieved by mixing a small amount of plaster, (spackle) with water and linseed oil. A very small amount of this mixture is in turn combined with oil paint to achieve a matt surface. Done correctly with this method, containing the correct amount of binders, the surface does not crack and is archival.
Ad Reinhardt’s method of painting bordered on the dangerous even for that post World War Two, Existentialist time, when only the present mattered. Linseed oil is a necessary binder in oil paint. Rita told me that both Ad and Rothko, would lay oil paint out overnight on layers of newsprint which would absorb much of the oil and this absorbed paint when used in painting the next day would impart a matt surface. This matt technique, combined with a barely discernable grid of painted wide horizontal and vertical bands of close range, dark chromatic colors, seemed to cause the atmosphere of the painting to project into the room. This oil removal practice, however, somewhat threatened the longevity of the paintings.
I’d like to add a note here that with Ad Reinhardt’s work controlled lighting is of the essence. The work must be lit through virtue of bounce lighting. Light must be directed to the areas of the wall between the paintings so that the paintings are illuminated indirectly from the sides and not directly onto the canvas surfaces. Otherwise “the space in-between” and Ad Reinhardt intention is lost.
Standing in Ad’s studio in 1954 his paintings were at once challenging, mesmerizing and magical. His spatial reality became part of my being, part of my painterly understanding of the infinite possibilities of two dimensional pictorial space. Reinhardt’s perceptual revolution is one which is seated both in the east and in classic Italian ecclesiastic painting. Most of us, in some way, now use that space which Reinhardt explored and brought to the picture plane. It is one’s hope, as an artist, to leave a gift of knowing, as Ad Reinhardt did, for other artists so that our visual language can be further explored and built upon.
On the first floor of the Metropolitan Museum, a wondrous room from Pompeii had been reconstructed. It was once possible to walk into this room. Then, it was roped off, but it could still clearly be seen. In the late ’50s, when I worked there, I studied this room. It contained for me a personal conundrum because, although there were diagonal lines depicting space, a different kind of perspective system, not Renaissance perspective, was employed using geometric rules unknown to me. Where had they come from? That method of spatial division went into my visual memory file for later consideration. Then in 1972, while in Assisi and viewing the Giotto corridor with its many parallel diagonal lines, it resonated that this was the same Pompeian geometry.
Robert Ryman had made a statement declaring that what to paint was never the problem. The problem is always how to paint. With that simple statement he managed to turn the phenomenological subject/object upside-down. Merleau-Ponty, in his “Eye and Mind” essay, had earlier posited that, subjectively, artists bring their bodies into the studio. Were they, in a way, saying the same thing?
During the ’70s, when exhibiting in Italy, I had the opportunity to study early Italian painting. Ryman’s “how” question often came to mind. Exactly how did Piero della Francesca make such beautiful paintings? How had he made paint speak?
Eventually, I went to Pompeii and the Villa of the Mysteries. Although I have books of reproductions, I was not prepared for the depth of sensitivity in these ancient frescos. These splendid figures portray an uncanny understanding of human existence. My inner voice told me this was not simply a matter of subject/object. Behind these layers of beautiful painting lay an intense understanding of sub-structure and the long history of geometry and painting which had preceded Pompeii probably in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, and Greece. Here before me was historicity at work.
A simple explanation of historicity is when subject matter includes all the history which has gone before while indicating a path to the future.
Omitted from Ryman’s statement was the knowledge, hidden structure, and many subterranean emotions which lay behind the frontal image of all great art. This may be subjective, but it also contains a centuries long human pictorial language which continues.
During the ’60s and ’70s I struggled to find a new geometry, something beyond the grid and Euclid. Excited by topology and set theory I began to look at transitive geometry, always envisioning concepts in different, possible materials that could be made into art, but which were outside of art materials. Carbon paper seemed a perfect choice. My intuition demanded that previously unseen, invisible structures and proportions be made visible through a transitive process. In 1972 I began a group of work titled, “Drawing Which Makes Itself.”
Often in art, the past becomes the present. I have begun installing at MoMA some of the carbon-paper wall drawings which were shown at Bykert Gallery from January 27th to February 22nd, 1973. The present exhibition will open September 21. Following are some diary notes just previous to that first installation:
Sunday, Jan. 21. 1973.
1st. room. “Drawing which Makes Itself”
functions, operations, transitions.
The floor to be painted white and to be used as the wall.
2nd. Room: the way in which a sheet of paper can affect itself. All the information is contained within the paper. Painting the floor of the gallery white will allow that information to assert itself, quietly. Jan. 22. Began installation of the show.
April 17, 1973.
It became necessary to do a work which utilized all the discovered operations from the large carbon-paper series, “Drawing Which Makes Itself.” While maintaining in this work the conditions of transitive properties. I did not want these operations to be necessarily retrievable nor to deal with the innate transitive properties of carbon-paper. White velum paper 42”x48” has been used so that the determining lines of placement appear through the paper. The work is called “Neighbourhoods” which refers to the topological premise of neighborhoods, borders and parameters. The way in which external borders of territories shift by being informed through internalized functions.
Secrets of the mysterious Perigee Moon as I saw it on June 19 2013
While vacationing last June in watermill I visited artist friends who’s house is on Noyack Bay. As I arrived I could see on the opposite side of that spit of land a spectacular sunset taking place. I joined my friends, we had a splendid evening and then it was time to leave. Walking to the car we were struck by the amazing size of the low hanging Perigee moon. I had never seen such a large and beautiful moon made more evident by the surrounding velvet, indigo, nighttime sky.
No matter how crowded the east end of long island becomes it is a magical place. When that full moon occurred I had been in watermill six or seven days reading and resting, listening to the wind, listening to birds, eating fresh food, watching ripples of light gleam from the water of Sag Harbor Bay and generally allowing the feel of nature to fully enter my total self. Soon, a familiar restlessness began. I wanted to work but I had no materials.
Next day, with that moon memory vivid in my mind, I drove to an art supply store, purchased colored pencils and some small pads of drawing paper. An architect friend had loaned me his house so there was a drawing table where I could work. That moon remained vividly in my mind.
Ah, moon! It’s history most curious and mysterious. I remember many years ago watching a film called “Trip to the Moon” by an early French film maker, Georges Melies, wherein the spaceship lands squarely in the eye of the surprised moon. I remember vividly when the Americans landed on the moon. And now, here I was vacationing in paradise,…….yet thinking and feeling compelled to work.
The first question; how can I draw the shape of the moon when it’s shape is always changing ? How does the exterior shape relate to the interior shapes? Where are the edges? Why are my body’s fluid-tides attracted to that huge yellow moon or is it really yellow? Those soft moon edges pull at me.
Usually, when I work I work in silence, however I put Maria Callas on the sound system and climbed the circular stairs to Michael’s drawing lair seeking to find the defining lines to the moon’s activity, activity which had affected my singular yet related self. I was not engaged in thought. I began to draw freehand ellipses. Then, quietly and mysteriously, the memory of the work of Myron Stout entered my focus.
In Provincetown in the mid fifties I walked the beaches with Myron. He’d pick up an interesting pebble or shell and comment on it, then he’d muse on this and that as the sun set over Provincetown Bay. He was having friends to dinner. “Would I like to join them around nine?” I arrived at his small upstairs apartment with adjacent studio and looked at his always compelling work. His paintings are black and white, small with a perplexingly beautiful central shape. How had that indefinable shape been derived? Why did it pierce my visual soul? Several summers following I would see that same painting slightly altered. He would change the position of the central, hauntingly white, curved shape, not a circle, and move it slightly, maybe a quarter of an inch, usually to the right. Although small and plain the paintings were labor intensive. I was young. The other guests were intelligent and knowledgeable. I listened quietly. Eventually, around midnight, Myron would begin to cook! He was, of course, a marvelous cook.
When Maria Callas sings her line and color present contrasts ranging from a deep broad line which then slips into a slender acute one. Her voice, always rich and steady, can sway and curve in an emotionally sure manner. She seems to use her vocal instrument almost as a kind of drawing. I wrote once that, “drawing is the bones of thought.” Because, we are all human, are all forms of expression similar? Now, thinking about it, Myron’s mysteriously glowing shapes may have been the result of his constant observation and consequent digesting of the changing phases, shapes, of the moon over Provincetown Bay.
If we ask how it is that ideas and objects intersect and what is the nature of the reciprocity between thought and sight we are asking the essential questions to which Dorothea Rockburne’s art addresses itself. Her work is central to the evolvement of the most penetrating being done today because it has broken with the use of language as representation.
Language in itself is now understood to be a system of elements – a threshold above which is difference and below which is similitude. Freed from transparency, language is order, and the order form becomes the content. Rockburne has developed a means of using materials, which I, personally, would have thought impossible three or four years ago. Her materials never stress physicality as meaning. To accomplish this she has found that rigorous algebra of thought, set theory, to be an intellectually unifying premise for determining the diversity of her operations. What is particularly interesting is that her work demonstrates a singular usage (within an art context) of such concepts as “group,” and repetition.” In so saying I am bypassing numerous relevant features of her art, such as size scale, the integration of place into the pieces, or the direct assault on the idea of color-as-surface.
Given the complexity of her art (as opposed to its complicatedness) my focus remains on her adoption of set theory as a working premise. This is immediately manifested in her titles; for example, Set, Sign, Domain of the Variable. Each title refers directly to an organizing principle that indicates the initiation of her thinking and is also a key to the viewer’s grasp of the work’s intention. Set theory deals with the relationships particularly abstract relationships, of the kid we employ in language when we say for instance “if,” “some,” “and,” “or.” These words have no concretion. Without them thought remains of limited contour. This runs counter to the posititivist notion which regards language as a series of naming operations. A word of caution” Rockburne’s art has no one-to-one correlation with Mathematical set theory. These are not illustrations.
Each work of Rockburne’s deals with some concept of interrelatedness and functions. This approach is radically at odds with all single-image art. To think in terms of set, however, concerns itself with the multiplicity of abstract relationships and includes as well a concern with transformation. By transformation I mean intelligible, , though not necessarily formulized, change. In Rockburne’s transformations there is always the preservation of some invariant features. Invariance is the cohesive quality, which allows us to identify the central core of her ideas. Thus beginning with the group of elements she has chosen to work with (cardboard, paper, oil, nails), a series of operations takes place (soaking, rolling, unrolling, pressing, hanging, layering) which preserves certain properties of the whole, while making it intelligible writing the context of the specific transformations involved. This is not process art. Rockburne creates a language, which has its own nouns, verbs, and modifiers. She has broken with language as representation in that these elements are considered in terms of identification, and more importantly, in terms of conjunction. The works do not become objects but instead record the experience of how ideas infiltrate practice. They are records in the same sense that language is when it is transformed from the purely mental space of our thoughts and feelings and given this form on the page.
What is at stake here is determining a boundary of the most advanced thinking in art being done today. Are such systems of thought an interior reflection of the mechanisms of an objective reality separate from us, or is there a tie between these external structures and the minds that determine the manifestations of our actions
An Interview With Dorothea Rockburne
Originally published in ARTFORUM
What led you to the form your work takes now, and why did you choose paper as your predominant material
I don’t like material as such, whether it’s oil paint or anything else because it leads you into a trap. The trap is that materials, in themselves present a certain truth, which one has to work with. I didn’t want to work with the truth in materials, except in a very limited way. The paper curls because it comes on a roll and I don’t mind that. It can have that much license but not too much more, because I’m interested in the ways in which I can experience myself, and my work is really about making myself.
Yet it isn’t possible for me to work without materials. There are some artists whose work I admire who don’t use materials as such, but that’s not the way I think. Among the various levels of thought, the visual is paramount. So, when it came to dealing with materials, I chose paper because it has no weight and isn’t a bother to store: all practical reasons. Also I didn’t want to manufacture antiques and I like its impermanence.
Materials present situations, which are unexpected, and I enjoy that. It is possible to think things out beforehand and know the answers, but the materials will then present unknown visual systems that could not have been anticipated, it is a kind of dialect: I have and idea and the material; then I put them together, and it is always dreadful- invariably it’s just dreadful. There is a separation between the idea, the work and me. The work is there, so it’s a matter of understanding all aspects more clearly. How to bring it together? It is taken down and put up several times. When near completion, it’s as though the work and I exchange places; I no longer contain the information the work does. Then there is a process of small adjustments, to make the ideas and the work more cogent.
Your work as a strong evolutionary character; one work leads consequently to another.
Yes, I seem to have been doing the same thing always. My thinking deals with the involvement of experience, then experience accumulates to become phases of information. While it is being ingested it takes on a new form, which then goes into the work. Once settled on, I don’t veer from the original concept, the idea is followed through. The reason for this is purely subjective: the procedures an functions become my focus, and one step leads to the next, when I did the work Intersection it was the intersection of Disjunction/Or and Group/And. It took in all the parts of both works but I didn’t want to use graphite in it, so following the original concept there is a substitution.
Do you make a distinction, as I find myself doing between the pieces using brown paper soaked with crude oil, and the graphite and white paper pieces? Or are they the same kind of work to you in terms of idea and execution?
No they are not the same. When I used graphite in A, C, and D from Group it was purely for identification purposes, I didn’t want to use three boards all with the same surface because A, A1 and B all needed separate identifications.
How do you view the process of staining with the crude oil?
Although I’m sure I’ve used that word I really don’t think of it as “staining” – That’s just other people’s vocabulary – because it isn’t staining. It really is just applying one sheet of oil onto or between, or through, one sheet of paper.
The pattern of marks that it makes doesn’t interest you?
No it’s a question of letting the material do what it will; however, I am the author of my work and sometimes don’t like what it does, and so censor it. I am not completely free of esthetic criteria.
You don’t seem interested in color
My work deals with color very clearly. I am interested in color but in such a way that what it physically is, are not separate, that is to say that graphite is a surface which distinguishes one part from another, the oil is a permeating sheet of its own color
Then you deal with the color in an aleatory way, according to the natural colors of the materials of your choice?
Yes when I used crude oil in Disjunction/Or, I used it because the nature of the oil presented a procedure which indicated the nature of the function of disjunction. If sky is blue and grass is green, and you want to prove one of these statements, you must first disprove both in order to prove one or both are true. I equated using oil with this procedure and it worked very well. Again, from that, because the oil does deal with procedures, I felt that Set Membership was defined.
In your studio I’ve seen many photographs, notes and drawing. Does empiricism play any part in the execution of a work, or is it all absolutely preconceived?
I do plan. But the reason that art holds my interest is that there is no map, and there is always that dialect wherein you take two parts and from them you get not just a third, but a fifth, sixth, and seventh. An opening occurs into an infinitely more diverse experience.
I know that Set Theory is an important factor in your work; can you say something about its relationship
My interest in Set theory is not that Set Theory has to do with my art, because it doesn’t. I am an artist and it is one of my tools, the way graphite is. The usage of it comes from personal experience. In college I had the good fortune to meet a theoretical mathematical. Mathematics didn’t interest me but somehow Max Dehn’s enthusiasm was contagious. He erased the panic and showed me how to put one foot in front of the other. He introduced me to math as a consistent history of thought, the thing I responded to in art.
Then too, I was angered by the fiction I read because to read novels, on no matter what level requires some empathy with the people who are being portrayed. Women are usually depicted as plodders, fools or victims. I couldn’t’ in any sense identify with them and stared to read books on mathematics. Math by contrast was straight, simple thinking and it never enclosed its own situation. If it did it was only a situation to be set aside for later consideration in relation to something else which would again open the total concept. I was excited by this and bored by art school instruction. I knew, though that I was an artist and not a mathematician.
We began earlier to discuss your working methods, can you elaborate?
One area of interest to me that I see no one else working with (this is not a critical comment but simply a choice) is work, which occurs in units. I make parts that make units, and in forming a unit I make combinations. I try not to make useless combinations, After arriving at certain combinations, that will in themselves make one unit I make combinations, I try not to make useless combinations. After arriving at certain combinations that will in themselves make one unit, I join units, so that a work is a combination of many parts, units and then larger units. This of course comes from math, which deals with combinations of parts and units.
Most work that I look at I can take in at a glance – that is not a denigrating statement – some of it I like very much. The experience I want is of going into the work. Perhaps that is the reason for the crude oil; I really want to look at the layers of correspondence through the work therefore I work for complexity of ideas when my work is seen one can’t possibly find out what is going on at a glance, but that does not mean it is complicated.
Do you thing that people “read” these qualities in the work
One of the things that disturbs me is what happens with new work. Either it is completely rejected because its new, or it is read in an old way; a way that wasn’t intended. Often my work is misread as painting
Your recent trip to Peru made a strong impression on you. How has it changed your attitude to your work?
In Peru I visited the ruins at Sacssayhuaman out side of Cusco. The way the stones go together got to me. It’s not about huge stones. The experience of the object relates to particular intellectual inquiries: The decisions of mass and interstices, one never dominating the other. The “Set” of stones sits there quietly, and experience of information.
Had you known much about Inca and pre-Inca civilizations before you went to Peru? Had the trip been planned for a long time?
I had known about Machupichu, and always intuitively known that a relationship between Machupichu and the work wherein I was trying to define Set Membership existed. To specify a set, You must identify the objects in the set, that is the members or elements of the set. The work called Leveling deals with how parts can be similar and yet maintain their differences; this is a consideration in Set Membership. For example what constitutes sameness in the citrus family and yet what is the difference between an orange and a lemon? That was an aspect of the level of thought I was working with in Leveling Seeing Sacsayhuaman was a reaffirmation; until that moment I’d been working in the dark. I was impressed by the way in which the work, the ruins, function in the space they occupy – a beautiful fertile valley. They turned the place into an object. Whichever ruin one looked at one was in a circular situation always in the center.
Do you have any idea of directions your work might take in the future?
In a way, yes. For instance there is a piece in the studio now that is quite incomplete. I don’t know what the hell it is doing, only that it comes from Sacsayhuaman, and a matrix system. There are two different sizes of boards, The smaller boards have oil on them and the larger do not because I don’t want any uniformly involved There is a random order working which I’ve never used before. It’s really hard to find it, it’s been taken down and put up several times and still it isn’t formed
Your work takes shape according to the place of its installation taking into account the surrounding architecture.
The place and the work should be and integrated thing that presents a point of change to turn the place in which I work into the object; by object I mean object as experience. My aim is to integrate the place without making it in any sense atmospheric or theatrical. As I work I devote a lot of my time and energy to what I personally think of as horizontal growth. This horizontal growth, the result of constant study, accumulates to an enormous degree, although in Peru I was not sitting down with the books, the time there was an intense period. This precedes vertical growth. To exhibit is the result of vertical growth, My work habits seem to depend on some kind of interior timing. I work all the time and do very little. It’s very slow, I find a great joy in working