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Dorothea Rockburne: Drawing Which Makes Itself

Contemporary artist Dorothea Rockburne talks about mathematics, magic, and materials. To learn about how art changes over time, enroll in one of MoMA's courses online. Created by The Museum of Modern Art.

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Video transcript

Dorothea: Drawing is the bones of thought. I always find I'm reading or seeing or doing something and the only way I can think is with my hands and drawing. I went to Black Mountain College in 1950. Two weeks after I was at Black Mountain I must have said something because Max came up to me and said, "I want you to take my class." Max Dehn was a mathematician. While people came from all over the world just to study with him, he never had more than three students, but the students he had were really significant. When he asked me to take his class, I was horrified. I said, "I've had no training; I can't take your class." He said, "You haven't been math poisoned" which is right. He said, "I will teach you mathematics for artists." He showed me mathematics in nature. He wasn't teaching a mathematician, he was teaching an artist how to think mathematically. It was so wonderful and so heady. I felt big! (laughs) I was studying transitive geometry and I wanted to find a transitive material. I located the carbon paper, and by folding and unfolding the sheets, I could transpose the equations I'd been working into a materialized artwork. I was very interested in the fact that the whole room should represent the art. I painted the walls with the brightest white paint you could find. As people walked into the room, their footprints became part of the drawing. That was my plan. I lived on Chamber Street. I was working all kinds of jobs at once plus I had a child I was raising, and I didn't have the money to buy art supplies; they were expensive. So I went across the street to the hardware store and I bought crude oil, gallons of crude oil. People look on the crude oil as a big insight into material. Believe me, it was not. It was accident. (laughs) But I also had done some tests and I knew what it would do and I knew that it had incredible properties. Color-wise it fell right into my Beaux-Arts training because this was a natural, in the earth material and to me it has a lot of color. By this time I'd been looking at a lot of Italian painting and realized that they were all based on the golden mean. I was very familiar with what the golden mean looked like. Our bodies are all golden mean. This is all golden mean. Everything is, you begin to realize. (laughs) It's a magic proportion. If you do anything using it, you can't go wrong. It's bound to be a success! It's amazing! I wanted to work with curves because everything that moves in the universe moves on an elliptical. I was able to work with the watercolor very, very thick, so it has a real presence to it. The canvas has been painted white, so that acts like the white surface of paper, and it resonates through the colors. When one is dealing with art or mathematics, there's always an element of magic. If everything adds up and works out well, you're on the wrong trail.