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Art In Conversation

Dorothea Rockburne and Klaus Kertess

Dorothea Rockburne (left) and Klaus Kertess (right) Photograph by Bill Bartman and Art Resource Transfer.
Dorothea Rockburne (left) and Klaus Kertess (right) Photograph by Bill Bartman and Art Resource Transfer.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Bill Bartman (Rail): Dorothea, how did you and Klaus first meet each other?

Klaus Kertess: At Bob Rauschenberg’s house. Dorothea was working for Bob, as was Brice [Marden]. Brice was exhibiting at my gallery and we lived near each other. I often talked to Dorothea on the phone and at dinner at Bob’s. She was always very elusive about what she was doing. She was really smart, but I had no idea what her art was like. Many years went by before I finally asked if I could come down to her studio.

Dorothea Rockburne: And I was horrified. My work then was searching. I didn’t know how to do what I wanted to do; I just knew I had to do it.

Kertess: That must have been in the late 60s.

Rockburne: Klaus would call Bob’s house to speak to Brice. We’d fool around on the phone with some wonderfully funny kidding. Klaus’s first visit to my studio was amazing. I had been working in isolation a very long time. I was working with sheets of chipboard partially painted with graphite. Some sheets had plain brown paper attached; some remained plain. These various elements were nailed to the wall as a mathematical permutation. Klaus looked long and hard, in a way I’d never before seen anybody look at art. Then he said, “You need to condense it. It’s too spread out.” Once said, I knew his insight was correct. That work was an early attempt to visualize set theory, to meld art and mathematics into a readable art experience. It was the beginning of an understanding I use to this day.

Kertess: There were also those very early pieces on metal with partial Wrinkle Finish paint over them.

Rockburne: Yes, the “Wrinkle Finish Paintings” were just shown at LA MoCA.

Kertess: That was such a great time—the art scene was and still is tribal, but there are many more tribes now. Most of the people I saw then, that I dealt with, were my generation. We were all growing together. The scene was much friendlier. It was less about commerce. It was more playful. There was a kind of interactive community between the poets, dancers, and artists that I don’t think has happened since.

Rockburne: Experimental!

Kertess: I think people probably looked harder. Dorothea, what were you looking at when you made those first early pieces in the ’60s?

Rockburne: You mean the “Wrinkle Finish Paintings.” Outdoor signs—I had a subscription to a sign painters’ magazine called Signs of the Times. I didn’t want to paint on canvas because I felt some previous art school history had formed habits I didn’t want to continue. They weren’t bad habits—I just needed to make a break. So I went to a metal shop in Long Island City and ordered sheets of metal, pig iron, and brought them home. When I leaned those four eight by three foot, thin-gauge metal sheets against the wall, predictably they naturally sagged in the center. There was something wrong with the way my body experienced that sag. When leaning, the panels didn’t push back at me. Sinking into the wall conflicted with the velvety voice of the tan Wrinkle Finish, which I had painted horizontally across the center of the four panels in a six-foot-wide band, leaving one-foot on top and bottom of exposed beautiful blue-black steel. Well, my back window on Chambers Street had looked out onto a roof with an air conditioning unit. I noticed that in order to make those sheet metal sides stand up on their own, their sides were crimped with an “X.” I reordered crimped metal and began again. That work is called “Tropical Tan.”

Kertess: I’m trying to reconstruct, you were in a group show first and then a one-person show after, right?

Rockburne: Yes. Before I was in your Bykert show I was in a group show at Paula Cooper’s. Paula asked me to join the gallery. It was very hard for me to say: “What do you think, Klaus?” and you said to me, I remember your words: “Well I’m always too late asking people, and I’m not going to be this time.”

Kertess: I was so slow. I’m trying to put that show back together in my head. I think Brice’s painting was across from your work? [Bob] Ryman was also in the show. There was also a Van Buren in the back room. I remember Ryman told me that this was the first big painting he had sold. I looked in total disbelief, because that was in ’68. He had been showing since ’62. I was stunned. It was this incredible painting, a big white square with restrained interior markings. Then he used a plumb line to frame the wall.

Rockburne: One of the many reasons I had wanted to be in Klaus’s gallery was because there was a sort of daring, devilish tolerance for the extreme. I once did a show at Klaus’s where I painted the parquet floor with exactly the same paint as the wall and installed drawings made by tracing diagonal fold lines from large sheets of carbon paper. These black carbon removal lines formed an elusive geometric rhythm, which moved around corners and from the walls onto the floor and back again. The floor and walls became one continuous surface with little visual differentiation.

Kertess: At least the first day.

Rockburne: When viewers left footprint traces surrounding the drawings on the floor, well that was planned as part of the drawing. Then there was a hideous snowstorm. The floor drawings became obliterated by midday. I had to re-install the show. But I have to say, it was a spectacularly disorienting experience to go into the gallery, purposely over lit and blazing white, with the black sheets of carbon paper placed in relationship to the consequent removal lines. Viewing these geometric forms was elusive, yet demanding. Another time I did a work that involved a large pool of black crude oil. These are works you couldn’t do at other galleries.

Rail: When did you start making major wall drawings, besides the paper pieces?

Rockburne: I began the set theory work in 1968 or 1969. The set theory work used the whole room as the carrier for the artwork. The carbon paper installation series, “Drawing which Makes Itself” (1972), followed suit. Doing it, of course, is a physical killer. I swore I would never do it again.

Kertess: That’s a show that actually could be done again.

Rail: It’s an important show that must be part of your retrospective.

Kertess: It was pretty beautiful.

Rail: Are there photographs of that show?

Rockburne: There are. But perhaps that work was just part of that time. The atmosphere then at Klaus’s gallery was a unique experience. In the back room there was a huge, white leather couch in the office where everybody plopped down and talked to Klaus. His desk was opposite it.

Kertess: I used to lift up cushions and pick the change up. Part of what made it interesting was who walked into my office. There was one spectacular show after the next. It was stunning. Even though I knew the artists, knew their work, I was never ready for what they delivered. Brice, Ralph [Humphrey], Dorothea, and many of the artists were really dealing with continuing the idea of the sublime in art. It certainly was food, the kind of food I don’t have enough of these days.

Rail: How long did Bykert exist?

Kertess: Bykert began in 1968. I left it in 1975. Dorothea had left a year before, in 1974.

Rockburne: I had begun to sense that your writing was beginning to take a more dominant role and you were trying to make a change, as was I. By the late ’70s, I’d made several trips to Italy to reconnect with my love of Renaissance painting, initially begun at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Montreal. My desire was to meld the topology of my previous work with the Golden Section Proportion of the Renaissance and the way Renaissance artists painted robes.

Kertess: Which included angel’s names?

Rockburne: Yes, angelology as well as early Christian philosophy and science. Eventually, of course, my interest in science naturally led to astronomy. As artist-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome in 1991, I visited a Mannerist villa. In one room, on the curved ceiling there was a Galilean sky chart painted in fresco. A low window surrounded by a Mannerist painting was a clear indication of where the telescope had once been situated. I was utterly captivated. How beautiful the sky chart was with its paths of stars and planets. The path of Pluto was especially surprising, since it wasn’t discovered until 1930. Fascinated, I returned to the American Academy and Vatican libraries to reference texts relating to Pluto but couldn’t solve this mystery. Then, much later, I casually mentioned it to someone who explained that Pluto has a highly eccentric elliptical orbit, which rotates in the opposite direction from most other planets. Its orbital inclination is much higher than other planets, so every several hundred years or so it is naked-eye visible to the earth. This fresco has inspired most of my work since 1991. Now I understand how to paint from the principles of nature.

Rail: And that lead to the Sony building commission on Madison Avenue?

Rockburne: Yes, except that Sony utilized the equation for chaos theory and how specific energy centers of the universe might be located using this marvelous equation. Sony is a “sky chart” of energy centers and their possible movements instead of planetary movement.

Kertess: Let’s shift back to your studies at Black Mountain. What sort of work were you doing?

Rockburne: Education at Black Mountain was an embarrassment of riches. Everyone studied everything. I came to Black Mountain when I was 18, steeped in French, post-World War II culture. I’d had some good teachers: Paul-Emile Borduas, [Jean-Paul] Riopelle, and others. I’d been involved with the Automatistes and their political revolution, which had been sweeping through Quebec. I loved Renaissance art, particularly the Mannerist school.

Kertess: Yes, I remember that you were always talking about Pontormo. Before I started studying 20th century art, I wanted to study Renaissance painting, but at that point, most art historians considered the 16th century a miasma. After passing Michelangelo, it was all down hill. Pontormo was considered totally decadent. Then once when I was in Florence I visited Santa Felicita, a church near the Pitti Palace, containing Pontormo’s “Deposition.” The bright pastel-like colors and jarring combinations wiped me out.

Rockburne: Pontormo was definitely the radical artist of his time.

Kertess: You were actually at Black Mountain with [John] Chamberlain, [Bob] Creeley and [Charles] Olson at the same time?

Rockburne: Chamberlain and Olson were there. Creeley came later. My years at Black Mountain are full of rich memories. Although always a painter, I studied math with Max Dehn, dance with Merce Cunningham, music with John Cage and Lou Harrison, photography with Edward Steichen and Hazel-Frieda Larsen, and on and on. Rauschenberg and [Cy] Twombly were in my photography class. In painting, I worked with Esteban Vicente, Franz Kline, Philip Guston, Jack Tworkov, and others. I studied philosophy with Bill Levi, linguistics with Flola Shepard, and poetry with Olson. I was like a dry sponge starved for this kind of nourishment.

Kertess: Wasn’t de Kooning down there earlier with Elaine?

Rockburne: Albers had invited him in 1948 after his show at Charles Egan. Later, I knew de Kooning but never worked with him. Both Jack Tworkov and Vicente liked the figure drawings I’d done for their classes using silver point. At the close of that summer session, Franz Kline traded a painting with me, and Peter Voulkus traded a pot, as did [Shoji] Hamada.

Kertess: That doesn’t surprise me.

Rockburne: I also participated in many plays and performances. An important area was my study with the great mathematician Max Dehn.

Kertess: I remember in prep school I couldn’t deal with math. We had a seven-foot-tall teacher who was terrifying. He used to lean over me, sway back and forth, and say, “Kertess, rabbits can multiply. Why can’t you?” It was the only course I could never do anything in, but the level was very simple.

Rockburne: Max Dehn taught higher math. Once you get to higher math it’s somehow much easier, more logical, and interesting. Maybe Max just made it seem that way.

Kertess: Who exactly was Max Dehn?

Rockburne: He was a German mathematician who’d worked with Einstein. I found out recently from the Vincent Katz book on Black Mountain that Einstein visited Max every summer when Black Mountain was at Blue Ridge. I told Max I was having some difficulties with assignments. Understandingly he said, “What you need is to understand the principles of math as they occur in nature. We will take a walk every morning, and I will teach you math through nature.”

Kertess: That’s brilliant.

Rockburne: And so we would begin every morning at seven. He spoke of how everything we know has recognizable properties. He talked about trees and different kinds of leaves, about what was above ground and how that related to the root system below ground. He said it was all mathematics and went about describing nature mathematically. He translated everything into equations. Similarly, my later artwork became solving equations. Each element had its own natural properties, and each property, while maybe only varying slightly, was extremely different from another. If the paper had natural curl, I brought that into the work. It is a way of feeling.

Kertess: Be more specific.

Rockburne: If one is emotionally centered and reaching out of their own feelings into the feelings of somebody else, or of something else, then the difference between it and me is the way it feels. I wanted to know that difference through a kind of visual equation. Most people are afraid of math unless they fiddle with it all the time, but equations can have humor. I can see you’re looking a little—

Kertess: It is hard for me to believe, but I can see the possibilities. That part of math is something no one ever taught me, the structure of learning was always—

Rockburne: Memorizing. Memorizing without making any sense.

Kertess: Memorizing was totally boring.

Rail: Anyway, you first met Bob Rauschenberg at Black Mountain and later started working for him?

Rockburne: Yes. Bob knew I was well organized so he asked me to work for him, to which I agreed, but only for a very short time. Of course, I stayed for five years. It was difficult because besides the work I did for Bob and my own paintings, I had to be up early to take my daughter, Christine, uptown to school every morning. But, somehow, I was able to work at night and not sleep very much.

Kertess: Nobody slept much in the ’60s. I mean the young artists today don’t sleep much either. But when did you meet Mel Bochner and Sol LeWitt?

Rockburne: I met Mel on New Year’s Eve of 1965/1966, Sol later. Through them I met Dan Graham, Brian O’Doherty, Eva Hesse, Bob Ryman, Lucy Lippard, Don Judd, Dan Flavin, and Bob Mangold. We began to form a kind of group. Mel was interested in conceptual thinking. I, on the other hand, always regarded myself as a painter working with and through physical materials in addition to an attraction to the history of ideas. Before meeting Mel and Sol, the work of artists I related to were artists I knew: de Kooning, Johns, Rauschenberg, Oldenburg, Whitman, Carl Andre, Bob Smithson, Frank Stella, Barnett Newman, and the painters who were showing at Bykert like Brice and Ralph [Humphrey], Ryman, Agnes Martin, Chuck Close, Richard Tuttle, David Novros, and others. They had a hands-on, materially restrained yet sensual, and painterly way of working.

Kertess: And were you aware of Bob Ryman’s work?

Rockburne: I was very aware of Bob’s work. Right from the beginning, from his first show—the show with work on cardboard and coffee filters. There’s something about our everyday domestic life that nobody talks about, which is not slicksville. It’s what we really experience. It’s not Pop art; it’s really what we do. And it goes into our work.

Kertess: Yes, I mean, it’s much more literal. Like Nauman, after seeing a Man Ray retrospective, he couldn’t figure out how to paint. Then, all of a sudden, he became aware that he paced in his studio a lot. I relate to this, because I pace all the time. Bruce’s early work is based on this pacing, fiddling around, being bored and annoyed at the same time. There’s a videotape of him pacing around in a square configuration. A lot of things come out when you don’t have the faintest idea of what you’re doing.

Rail: What happened next?

Kertess: I left it in 1975, but I made a mistake by leaving it open. I wasn’t worried about Brice or Chuck, but the artists who came in afterwards like David Rabinowitch and a couple of others concerned me. I thought if the gallery stayed open the younger artists like David would have a chance to make a transition. Unfortunately, I entrusted the gallery to a crook who then drove the gallery into the ground. He robbed me of the little money I had that I was planning to live on for the next two years while recovering from the shock of divorcing 18 people.

Rail: It’s just amazing. The art world is one of the few places where you could get away with that.

Kertess: Everyone was so trusting. I was extremely stressed about this sort of separation and difficulty, but I learned to move on. I liked showing younger artists and helping them into the world. That part was exciting—going to studios, seeing their work. I used to do group shows, like the one we discussed, that were truly beautiful. If I’d see some artist who I thought was interesting, I would usually put them in a group show. Later, some of the artists began saying Bykert was too established, that I didn’t permit them to do certain things that were cool; well this really annoyed me. Then the whole notion of career management arose—Chuck needed it, he was there and he was going to grow. That was clear. Same with Brice. Needless to say, I wasn’t interested in the business of career management and I knew my ego needed a change of some sort, so I took a year off from the art world. That was when I began to write. I thought I could both write and run the gallery, but that was clearly not possible.

I remember what actually exacerbated it to that final point. Jo Baer came to me wanting to show with Bykert and I couldn’t lie to Jo. She is a terrific artist and she was a friend. I couldn’t say to her, well, the gallery is full. Or, I’m not thinking of taking anybody on right now. I mean, that’s just B.S. That’s what most dealers say when they don’t want to be bothered. That was certainly not something I could say to Jo Baer. By the time Brice’s show was up at the Guggenheim in 1974 everyone knew I more or less was leaving Bykert. Brice’s show represented everything I had wanted, and everything I wanted to get away from.

Rail: It’s very hard to walk away from places or people that you once strongly identified with, that have been part of your life. The choice to do something else is like walking off the edge of a cliff. It’s the unknown, even though you know it’s right.

Rockburne: How about Ralph Humphrey?

Kertess: Ralph was the first artist I showed at Bykert. At that time you could see every gallery uptown in a week without any trouble. I remember walking into the Green Gallery and saw this exhibition of Ralph’s paintings. They had a gray center, not uniform gray, with a border that went around the outside of the rectangular support of the canvas. The paintings totally baffled me. I couldn’t believe anyone could paint anything that nihilistic, purposefully empty. I kept returning to the show because it made me so crazy. In the end, I realized Ralph’s paintings were like a mirror for me: they were desolate and yet they had an amazing giving component at the same time. He wasn’t easy to find. I kept asking people “Where’s Ralph Humphrey?” and no one knew. Finally, I looked him up in the phone book.

There was this moment before Bykert opened—I mean, I had an incredible amount of goodwill extended towards me because not many people were looking at artists or going to their studios. When Kynaston’s [McShine] Primary Structures show opened at the Jewish Museum, Carlos Veja, an artist who was around then with the fattest address book in New York, said to me, “Hey, man. So who are you gonna show?” I responded, “Well, I really like Ralph Humphrey’s work,” and he said, “Oh, if you like Ralph Humphrey’s work, you ought to go upstairs and meet Brice Marden.” Brice Marden was working at the Jewish Museum at that point. That was the way it got started. Ralph was really the key, and we went on from there.

Rockburne: What was interesting to me in the early ’60s was that I experienced many sexist barriers. While trying to follow my own work and thinking, I kept finding this leftover notion from certain Abstract Expressionist attitudes pertaining to women. For a woman to be an artist basically meant she had to paint, drink, etc. as much as any man. Joan Mitchell, Elaine de Kooning, and other women seemed comfortable with that standard, but I was not. For one thing, I had my child to care for and I painted at night. Also, I needed to make my own terms. Motherhood made me somewhat isolated. So, humanly flirtatious conversations on the telephone with you, Klaus, were important to me. You were infinitely generous, coming to my studio, taking time to look at my work, and making insightful remarks. Believe me, to make work that unites mathematics with art in 1967 was almost obscene. Nobody understood what the hell I was talking about or trying to do. Klaus believed. The work Klaus was showing at Bykert was wonderful and exciting. Do you recall Bill Bollinger’s show where he installed a pile of graphite on the floor of the gallery?

Kertess: I still remember Marion Javits coming in with Jake [Javits], and there was that green cleaning compound piled all over the floor, then swept. That was in one room. Then there was a pile of graphite that went from the edge to about the middle of the next room. Marion looked at me and said, “Would you explain to the Senator what this is?” I replied, “Not today.” There was related work that Virginia Dwan and Betty Parsons were showing, so I certainly wasn’t alone.

Rockburne: But you were more radical, I think, simply because Bykert wasn’t corporate.

Kertess: That’s true. It was a shoestring operation. When we opened on 57th Street at Dick Bellamy’s funky old space, the Green Gallery, the rent was very low, the elevator was no worse than Pace’s elevator. I painted the gallery, cleaned the toilet. I did everything by myself.

Rockburne: Lynda Benglis was your secretary.

Kertess: Yes, she worked two days a week. The first mark of success was when I could hire a painter to paint the gallery. It would be hard to do anything like that now and get away with it. Bykert wasn’t quite as polished or corporate as Pace was, right next door. I’m always amazed these days when I call up a gallery if I’m doing a catalogue essay for them, I’m always told to speak directly to their archivist. There was no such word as “archivist,” or “registrar” in the ’60s art scene. Even Leo Castelli, I don’t think he had an archivist. So, the gallery scene has changed pretty radically. The years of Bykert were a great time.



Bill Bartman


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 04-JAN 05

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