If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

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.

Want to join the conversation?

  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Dayvyd
    What math did she learn "for artists"?
    (7 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Dayvyd
    What is transitive geometry?
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf green style avatar for user SteveSargentJr
      First, there's nothing in math called simply transitive geometry. Therefore, the artist is either:
      1.) Saying "transitive geometry" when she means something else entirely
      or
      2.) She, frankly, has no idea what she's talking about (when it comes to mathematics, at least).

      And, since everything else she says about Math is either incorrect (such as the statement at that "everything that moves in the universe moves on an elliptical") or not particularly (mathematically) sophisticated (such as what she says about the "golden ratio"), I'm inclined to believe #2.

      Now don't get me wrong--she's clearly a great artist--it's just that it sounds to me like she knows about as much about math as Stephen Hawking probably knows about art history.

      [Note: I apologize if this answer sounds overly critical.]

      And, as an aside, Stephen Hawking is technically a physicist and not a mathematician, per se (I mentioned him because contemporary physicists tend to be more well-known than contemporary mathematicians).
      (6 votes)
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    At , Dorothea Rockburne is flipping through a mathematics book it would seem. What book is this? I would love to study whatever she studied!
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine sapling style avatar for user Johanna Strong
    how does everything working perfectly wrong?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Raven (phantom) Van De Grift
    here is a question. drawing it seems, or in particular art drawn with pencils vs. paint seems to have become underminded. Very few people are willing to buy hand drawn art no matter how good the quality. the only places that appreciate such art are tatoo parlors. why are drawings made with pencil slowly becoming completely irrelevant?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user elliot gilmore
    What does she mean by saying "if everything adds up and works out well you're on the wrong trail" is she saying you have to struggle to find meaning in the work?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user elliot gilmore
    Before Max Dehn took her to study math in art form how would she create her works?Was she more successful with the help of Max?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

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.