To achieve the simultaneously luminescent and earthy texture of Scalar (from the Latin word for “ladder”), Rockburne worked with crude oil, an industrial material she favored largely because it was cheaper than paint. She had recently visited archaeological sites in Peru, and had been greatly impressed by these stacked–stone ruins, an experience that influenced the form of Scalar. The ancient structures called to mind her studies of set theory, a branch of mathematics that looks at groupings of objects. “It’s not only about huge stones,” she wrote at the time, “so much as it is about the experience of how these objects relate to particular intellectual inquiries: the decisions of mass and interstices, one never dominating the other.”
Gallery label from Dorothea Rockburne: Drawing Which Makes Itself, September 21, 2013–January 20, 2014.
Scalar inherits the geometry and literalness of Minimal art, but softens these qualities through variations in its tones and in the disposition of its forms. Tacked-up rectangles (and one cylinder) of paper and chipboard suggest a modular order, but differ in size and proportion. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes leave the wall bare; their placement seems both careful and irregular, as in Incan masonry. Unpigmented oil applied to their surfaces has left gentle mottlings and stains, which have spread through an interaction between oil and support that must have lain largely outside the artist's control. These planes against the wall invoke paintings, but at the bottom they rest on the floor, so that they also cite sculpture and weight.
In reaction against Abstract Expressionism, many American artists of the 1960s, such as Rockburne, tried to minimize or erase signs of their own individuality in their art. Instead, their work drew attention to the process by which it was made and to impersonal agents in its making: its physical context, the qualities of its materials, the force of gravity, a system or procedure that might generate a form independently of the artist's aesthetic judgment. Scalar is party to these ideas, but with its blotched surfaces, its echoes of painting, and its rhythmic arrangement of uprights and horizontals, it remains subtly pictorial, in a powerful combination of rigor and delicacy.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 277.