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Dorothea Rockburne: Astronomy Drawings

Abstract painting can conjure competing, almost contradictory associations that vacillate between virtual and concrete extremes. The very word “abstraction” connotes a remove from the mundane or the particular to soaring, theoretical heights, and yet the experience of abstract painting is to ground viewer and maker alike in literal, material facts and to distill the viewing experience to fundamental sensory phenomena.

Dorothea Rockburne takes her painting in polar opposite directions – at once cerebral and visceral, earthbound and ethereal.  She is intimately concerned with the properties of her supports and mediums, and with retinal and emotional reactions as surely as physical ones.  But her visual thinking is always beyond the material plane.  To think of an artist working in so stridently a dialectical fashion as Rockburne, one has to cast far back into the origins of abstract painting, to Mondrian, Malevich or Kandinsky.  Her subject matter goes as far as it is possible to travel, physically and theoretically, from the easel – to outer and inner reaches of astronomy and mathematics.

It is telling, incidentally, that in order to locate her imagery, the terms that come to mind are scientific disciplines, rather than objects those disciplines study—I didn’t say numbers and stars, but mathematics and astronomy.  It is not that she embodies, evokes, or depicts extraterrestrial events, say, or numerical sequences or sets, so much as she seeks visual equivalences for the systems used to describe and analyze them.  Rather than talking about Rockburne’s scientific imagery, therefore, and resorting to a form-content relationship between subject and means, it is better to speak of Rockburne’s painting as embedded within the ranks of scientific disciplines.  Her dialectics find their syntheses in her visual thinking.

— David Cohen

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