Dorothea Rockburne Interview by Connie Bostic

Transcribed by Jolene Mechanic

This is Connie Bostic.  It’s April 19th, 2002.  We’re in the studios of Bonesteel Films on Carolina Lane in Asheville, North Carolina and we’re with Dorothea Rockburne. Dorothea could you tell us when you attended Black Mountain College?

I came in the fall of 1950 and I left the following June, and then I returned in the beginning of January of 1951. I was there for a long time, I think until 1955.

That was quite a long time.

Yes. You know, I was married and my daughter was born there. So, I took some time out for that.

Can you tell us a little bit about your early life and how you came to go to Black Mountain?

Yes. I was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and pretty early on a teacher from the public school that I went to took me to Ecole de Beaux-Arts on Saturdays to study drawing and painting. And while I was there, I worked with some pretty wonderful teachers who taught me  Renaissance techniques, and one in particular became quite a well known Canadian artist and showed in New York and later went to Paris. His name was Paul Borduas, and his parting words to me as he left for America were, “as soon as you can you have to leave Montreal.” In those days I spoke French and he didn’t speak much English. By that time I was around 14. I’d fooled around and skied in the winters, and I wasn’t determined about exactly what I was going to do with my life. But by the time I was 13 I had stopped skiing so that I could paint on the weekends. I went to the Montreal Museum School and actually that’s where, a little bit later, I met Marie Tavroges. Her last name is now Stilkind. I studied there with some very good teachers. I took a drawing class with a man named Moe Rhineglat and he kept saying to me, “leave.”  And my parents meanwhile had me tracked to go in a completely different direction and I have an older sister who went in that direction and I thought, “if I do that, I’ll die.” There was another teacher whose last name was Weber, but not only did he say ‘leave” but he said “you should either go to the Slade School in England,” because I had this academic training, “or you should go to the Institute of Design at Black Mountain College.” And I was sort of precocious and rebellious and I had a boyfriend who was older than I, and he had been to Black Mountain. His name was Jeffrey Lindsay. And he said I should go to Black Mountain College. He had a little dinner for me, and at that dinner were some Indian dancers who were just coming through Montreal, because Montreal was a big place to come to and leave from in those days, and their names were Veena and Vashi. I questioned them very closely about Black Mountain because I was very young, and I was going to leave my family against their desires, so this was a big, rebellious step. Fortunately I had an older sister who completely agreed with what these teachers were saying and she helped me. I didn’t have a passport, so I used her passport. We did lots of plotting and planning and all kinds of things because I had to have a police clearance before leaving the country. My sister was very good at imitating my mother’s handwriting. So, I wrote to Black Mountain, and sent them my work, and was admitted on complete scholarship. Because of the scholarship, I was able to work and save money. I’d started saving for my escape very early and a couple friends helped me. So that’s how I got here.

That was a pretty amazing journey.

It was! Because there were no planes, it was a train journey. I changed trains in Washington because that’s where the color line began. I didn’t know about prejudice. So all of that was a big adventure. And I stayed overnight in New York— it was a huge journey for me.

How old were you when you arrived at Black Mountain?

I’m very unsure about that but I think I was 18, I could have been 17—no, I had just turned 18.   I was confused because of my sister’s identity. (Laughing)

Crime doesn’t pay (both laughing)

She could have changed the name on the passport but she couldn’t change the date, because the date was stamped on her birth certificate. So it’s all mucky, but I think I was 18.

What teachers influenced you most at Black Mountain?

Well, there were many, many influential teachers. Certainly John Cage. I had always studied dance in Montreal. In my family you came out of the womb enrolled in dance classes, so I had taken ballet, which was then called toe-dancing (laughing). So it was just automatic to check into a Cunningham dance class at Black Mountain. I also took classes with Max Dehn, the mathematics teacher, which revolutionized my life. I was already bent in that direction because by the age of 13 I had a subscription to Scientific American, which was a very radical thing for a 13 year old to be doing.

Particularly a girl

Yes, particularly a girl. You know, my family could never understand what I was up to. And I was to a degree, for my age, musically sophisticated. Also Pete Jennerjahn was big. His light/sound/movement workshop was of great interest to me. And I took Flola Shepard’s linguistic course, and semiotics and I just flourished. I was like a dry sponge. I couldn’t believe it. And then I took Bill Levi’s Introduction to Philosophy and while I’d done some sporadic reading on my own, I certainly read Sartre and things like that, his course was beautiful and basic, and it just gave me a foundation to read anything. And right now in my life I’m reviewing the early Greek philosophers and trying to relate their concept of atomic physics to particle physics and quantum mechanics, I mean I’m trying to put all of that together. And you know because I was young when I did all this the first time I didn’t understand that Aristotle was not a scientist he was a poet, which is why his concept of astronomy was poetic. I’m just beginning to put that together but it was my education at Black Mountain that gave me the tools to do all this.

And I believe you studied. . .

And I was never just a painter. I always did and still do fish around. I study. I want to know everything at once. I want to be an interdisciplinary person.

You studied photography at Black Mountain.

I studied with Hazel Larsen and my fellow students were Cy Twombly and Bob Rauschenberg,   and of course, Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan were here for visits. I studied with them and also Steichen. And Steichen asked me to bring my work to the Museum of Modern Art when I came to New York, and he tried to help me with a photography gallery. And I’ve looked to see if my work is in the Modern collection and it’s never listed but he bought work for the Modern, so who knows what happened to it. I’ve always used photography as a way to draw. Because I had this academic drawing background, I never wanted to draw realistically. And I still use my camera to draw.

Of the teachers you had at Black Mountain, which ones do you think were most influential?

It was probably Max Dehn. But it’s hard to say because for me my entire experience there was just spectacular.

Can you tell us a little bit about Max Dehn’s classes and what they were like and what his theories were?

Yes. Mathematics was a peculiar experience for me. I went to a very dumb girl’s school where you were trained to be a good housewife, basically, and science was home economics. I know it sounds like the year ‘one’ but that’s what it was. I was very shy in those days, and he sat at lunch with me for several days and I must have spoken up about something, after which he said, “I would like you to take my mathematics class.” And I was appalled, because there were people there from Harvard and Yale who were there just to work with him. And I said “I have no background to take your class,” whereupon he said, in his heavy German accent, “Well good, you haven’t been poisoned. I will teach you.” And every morning for 4 years, we took a walk and he talked to me about mathematics in nature. And I’m sure he talked to me about the skies, about astronomy. I’m sure it played in the background as I said to you at Black Mountain yesterday. You know we would look at a tree and he would say, “you have to imagine the roots underneath the ground are the same as what you’re seeing above ground in equal proportion.  And you can track the way it’s going to grow according to probability theory.” Then in class he would take me aside and teach me the equations for probability theory, which led me later to be able to do chaos theory. He was so precious with me. All my teachers were.

It’s interesting you’ve mentioned people who teach a lot of different subjects but being a painter you haven’t talked much about the painting teachers.

Well, Esteban Vicente was tremendously influential to me because again, we shared a European background and he knew what I knew. So, he understood where I was coming from and took me under his wing. He had a studio that was separate from where he lived. He invited me to come to New York on a spring break and stay in his studio. Jack Tworkov had more of an academic background and understood that I could draw and he was totally wonderful to me. I started out studying with Joe Fiore and we just locked horns and I did not continue studying with him, which is why you’re not hearing me talk about him. But I painted all the time at Black Mountain.  I painted and I did not know what I was doing nor did I want to know what I was doing.  Because many of the art students were doing ‘New York’ art, magazine art, which is fine. I mean it’s not a criticism. They were copying it and taking their place to later become their own person. But I did not like the Albers classes, I did not like the concept of giving color a job. It was like color was on the unemployment line and you have to make dark colors come forward and light colors go backward, and after having an academic training where you learn that in many of the Renaissance paintings for example, the dark blue of Mary’s robe will come forward. You know what I mean? It’s an old problem, and I just thought it was a big yawn and didn’t want to do those things. I wanted to make every mistake possible and I did. And I did have an exhibition here, at the end.

Did you!  Tell us about that.

I don’t remember too much about it. Mostly as things would happen, they would just get thrown in boxes. So I have a young art historian working on putting these things together. I remember that outside the studies building there was a small exhibition hall.  I don’t know if it is still there, it was a wooden building. I did have an exhibition so I must’ve not been too bad, but I don’t remember any of it. I remember when I came to New York I carried on working. I mean everybody around me was making successful work and it was abstract expressionism and they were having shows and reputations based on it and I determined that before I could do what was going to be my work, I had to establish what was my vocabulary. And I wanted to work in a scientific method from the general to the specific. I didn’t want to start out with art. I was young, you know. I figured I had my whole life to figure this out. So I didn’t really come to any mature work until about 1967.

Could you talk a little bit about the other students who were there when you were at Black Mountain?

Well, for a while Viola Farber was my roommate in that stone house. She was living with somebody else actually, so she wasn’t there very much but she was wonderful. She was a very all-around person.  She didn’t start out as a dancer. We both went into Merce’s classes together, and she was an accomplished pianist and her family was used to performing as a quartet. So she was a very well-rounded musician. We didn’t start out studying with Merce. We started out studying with Katherine Litz, and she had a very unique way of moving which was sort of like a broken butterfly. She had this shimmering quality to the way she moved which was riveting.  And then my next roommate was Mary Fiore who also wasn’t living there and who was a very good poet. Unfortunately she didn’t, as far as I know, continue at Black Mountain. She was a lovely, lovely woman and yet we were not close. When I lived in Montreal I had two friends.  One was Marie Tavroges and the other was Inga Peterson and Ingie, as we called her, and Marie both followed me to Black Mountain. Ingie didn’t stay, but Marie stayed for a while. I didn’t have any real students that I was close to, because we seemed to not be on the same page ever.  For one thing, I’ve always been an early morning person. I wake up at six o’clock and I have never needed a lot of sleep but I’d never stayed up til two or three in the morning. And mostly the students really had a night life. I did not. And I was never born to run with the pack anyway, I’m still not. So they were up and drinking. I mean I remember someone name Bert Morgan that I was close to, and Basil King to a degree. They had a still in the quiet house.

They had a still in the quiet house?

Mm-hmm

This sounds like an interesting story. (both laughing)

I don’t know too much more about it except that they were brewing stuff and selling it.

Well now Basil King never told me about that!

Well you must ask him about it sometime!

I certainly shall, I certainly shall. . . a still in the quiet house.

But again, we weren’t really close. I remember Bert Morgan was a lovely man and I remember that he could see the inequalities going on in my marriage, and I remember he was very kind to me. And I don’t know what ever happened to him. The last I heard, he was living outside of Baltimore somewhere. And Andy Oates was a friend of mine, but again I was never close to any of the other students. I felt close to Hazel, I felt close to my teachers, very close to Max, very close to Vicente and Tworkov, and I remember working with Guston. When I asked Guston’s family they said he never came to Black Mountain, but he was here. He may have only been here for a long weekend or a week or something but I remember a drawing class that Guston was in.

Hmm.  Well that’s something else that would be interesting to pursue.

Yes.

You were here when Cage did Theatre Piece Number One, is that right?

Yes, and I was in it.

And what was your participation in that piece?

You know, probably extremely minor. I don’t remember. The one thing I do remember is that Rauschenberg and Twombly rewrote Hamlet, and I was Ophelia, and they made this raft for Lake Eden and I was sort of laying strewn over the raft. I had long hair dragging into the dirty water (laughing). I also remember Wes Huss doing Brecht, and I was Mother Courage. I think I was like 20 at the time. The theatre here was sparkling.

The Night of Theatre Piece Number One has been described by a number of different people and every description has been very different.  Could you tell us specifically what you remember about that particular evening?

Well I remember there was a very high ladder, and M.C. Richards was sitting on the top of it reading. And since I have a mathematical interest, my memory of it is probably the way in which the time space took place. There was a lot of disjunction. You know, something would happen and it would be purposely interrupted, and something else would happen, and there would be a cacophony of sound which you couldn’t distinguish. Purposeful chaos. And  something would arrive out of that, like somebody’s voice singing perhaps. It wasn’t a collage because nothing really overlapped. There is a mathematical thing called disjunction and it was much more like that.

Could you talk about who was doing what?  Do you remember any specifics about what was happening and who was involved?

It was so long ago.

Besides M.C. on the ladder.

You know, I remember other kinds of performance things, but I can only relate it to Ciclo de Pronto, which I had seen in Montreal in about 1948, which was early to see that. It was right after the Second World War, when many immigrants came into Canada on a displaced person program, from camps and so on. Suddenly Montreal was alive with culture. And Ciclo de Pronto had a lot going on in it, a lot more than the refined versions that you see of it now. It was very radical, and it fit right into this French thing that I had seen, which was to overthrow the establishment. Of course it was theatre in the round, and so the point was to overthrow the proscenium stage and to have people who appeared to be the audience actually be actors and so on. I think that’s why it’s called the first happening–because it started a lot of other sorts of events. Of course, there was such a dialogue between New York and Black Mountain and there were a lot of things going on about the disjunction of time. Years later in New York, I don’t know if you know who Jack Smith was but on a very hot July evening I climbed up about 6 stories to view something of his called Clytemnestra’s Brassiere. And we were all to be there at eight o’clock and it was New York and it was a hundred and whatever degrees outside and the windows were open. We were all sitting there hot and sweating and nothing happened for hours, and eventually somebody said, “you know, if this doesn’t begin soon I’m going to leave,” and there were dead Christmas trees everywhere. Then somebody else said, “well, if you leave I’m going to punch you out,” and of course this was the performance, but you didn’t understand that it was performance. But I think that the first event at Black Mountain had a lot of impact on these further events and things that Andy Warhol did with movies like Empire State and Kiss, using this method of elongation and compacting of time. I remember what it was about more than specific things. And I think I did something about moving. But I can’t remember, to tell you the truth.

And you were also friends with some of the male students, is that right?

Yes I was friends with Cy Twombly and Bob Rauschenberg and we saw a lot of each other, particularly Bob and I. I was always a more quiet person, but we did a certain amount of hanging out together without question.

And who were they studying with at the time.

They weren’t studying with anybody.  They were there on the GI Bill under the guise of being students because they got free room and board and a stipend. The day Steichen appeared we called him Commodore Steichen. When Steichen appeared Bob was definitely present.

The school never had any money.  And having been there as someone who was teaching there can you talk a little bit about the fact that there was never any money at Black Mountain, teachers were very poorly paid and. . .

Well one of the things that I did at Black Mountain was the bookkeeping. I had this strange ability to look at a column of figures and know the sum of them after barely viewing it, which is some freaky talent. Black Mountain wasn’t that poor, but it all had to be watched very carefully.  I don’t remember the books not balancing when I did the bookkeeping. Things were ok, but  nobody had any money, so it wasn’t unusual in the society at that time.  And when Jack Tworkov was invited, I don’t even think he got paid. He came with his wife and daughters and they had a summer in the country in a very stimulating atmosphere. I also studied with Franz Kline, and if he got paid anything I’d be very surprised.  Because there wasn’t anything that was generating money. It was more like a farm economy. The farm, in great part, fed the community.

So you did participate in the work program in other ways than just doing the bookkeeping.

Yes, I worked on the farm. Susan and I went through the kitchen yesterday. I liked the cooks very much, Malrey and Cornelia were very overworked. Since I get up at the crack of dawn to this day, I would come early in the morning and help them with lunch, just to put out the canned peaches and things that we did in the morning. I helped them with setup and breakfast and so on.  And we became friends.

Do you think the physical beauty of that campus had a lot to do with what happened there?

I’ve never thought about this before. But you know, there are certain sites in the world that have previously been populated by Indians.  And I don’t know if there was Indian activity here a long time ago, but the Black Mountain site had that quality of a sacred site. And I didn’t know as much about sacred sites as I do now. Certain sites have special energy and it still has that energy as though it was once a sacred Indian site. Do you know if ever it was?

I don’t know if it was. I know there were Cherokee living in this area, but I don’t know specifically.

Oh yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised.

The political climate of the country was strange during that time, was there talk about that on the campus, was there political activity?

Well remember, I grew up in the Parliamentary system and also in a Class system, and there were no black people to speak of, so no color prejudice. And here I am, dumped into America, where Kefauver was running for president. And if I think he may have come to Asheville or even come to the campus. I had absolutely no idea who these people were. However, what did happen was FBI people showed up all the time and they looked like something out of a grade B movie.  They always had trench coats on and you could spot them a mile away. And of course the students at Black Mountain put on an act for them. Like one of the favorite student tricks was to not have shoes on in the middle of the winter, and to crunch out a cigarette butt with their bare feet. So everybody did their best to please them, you know. (laughing)  It confirmed their worst opinions and we did not answer any of their questions. I do remember that very much. But remember there was no television, and certainly I don’t remember even a radio. Everybody had their own phonograph and things like that, but communications were very different and the surrounding community was very redneck.

What about the relationship with the college to the local community?

They hated us.

In a word. . (laughing).

And it was very much the Bible belt, you know, and we were considered sinners.  When we went into the little town of Black Mountain we were looked on as potential shoplifters. I remember for instance once going into a butcher shop and asking to buy brains, because I grew up French.  And they said, “lady you don’t want that, that’s nigger food.”

That must’ve come as quite a shock.

I’ll have a pork chop please?

It’s not just that it was a prejudicial shock, which of course it was, but I’d never heard anybody say anything like that in my whole life. You know?

Definitely a different perspective.

Yeah.

Definitely a different perspective.

And at that time there was this thing they did in Black Mountain.  There was something called poling niggers, did you ever hear about that?

No

On Saturday nights cars would drive by and they would have a pole, and they would knock anybody off the sidewalk who was black.

Good heavens!

That was an entertainment. Yeah, and I mean, when I hear myself say that now, I recognize it as prejudice. But then, it seemed barbaric!

Well it still seems pretty barbaric!

You know, like the Spanish and the Indians kind of stuff.

That’s appalling.

Yes. That’s appalling.

Is there anything that you look back on now and think. . . might have been a missed opportunity at Black Mountain, something you didn’t do that you think now you might have done?  Or someone you didn’t get to know better that you think about now?

You know, I’m sure I would come up with something if I was to sleep on that question, but the way I’ve always felt was that Black Mountain saved my life. It was a monumental event, even though I crossed people because I wasn’t going to obey stupid rules. But having said that,  somebody that I haven’t mentioned was Hilda Morley. I studied poetry with Creeley, which was a wonderful experience. I began to take Olsen’s course but I didn’t like it so I dropped it, but studying literature with Hilda Morley was a beautiful experience. And these things laid a foundation for the rest of my life. It was as though I could read but didn’t know the books before, and once I was opened to how to go about it, I never stopped.

So your Black Mountain Experience had a huge effect on the rest of your life.

Spectacular.

Thank you very much!

Footnotes:

Mary Emma Harris generously offered the following information in regards to this interview: “According to my notes Dorothea was there 1950-51, away for the summer of 1951,1951-1952 and 1953 SS. The dates are not that clear because at some point she was faculty wife. Also staff. I think that it was after the summer of 1953 that she moved into the village before moving to New York. She says that she studied with Dehn 4 years but he died in June 52 so it would have been 2 years maximum. Steichen was there only for an afternoon to examine Andy Oates. He did not teach. Hazel later took some photos to show him and I think he bought some. I think they may have gone into the study collection. She says she did not take the Albers classes. But she is referring to Jennerjahn’s classes. He was teaching the Albers curriculum. Says she worked with Guston. Guston was there briefly one afternoon long after she left. If he was there before, I am not aware of it.