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Bonfire of the Vanities Rachel Haidu on Rosemarie Trockel at the New Museum, New York

89-haidu-5 “Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos”, New Museum, New York, 2012/13, exhibition view, Photo: Benoit Pailley

The massive formal and conceptual statements comprising recent blockbuster monographic exhibitions often aim to overtake institutions, with the underlying desire of strong-arming viewers into remembering the artist as a household name.

But what would it mean to oppose this trend – to sacrifice the sovereignty of the artist-brand and risk the high visitor stats that come with a marquee, must-see show? Portraying Rosemarie Trockel’s practice via a cosmology of more or less related artworks as well as non-art objects, curator Lynne Cooke cast the artist’s survey into unforeseen territory: Most of the work in fact derived from the past few years, rather than the years in which Trockel made a name for herself, serving to prevent its easy ascription to one prevailing interpretive framework.

Perhaps the days of the artist’s retrospective, with its glistening highlights and historicizing tail-end view, are numbered. After a decade or two of another kind of monographic exhibition – in which the artist takes over an institutional space, in either a supra-architectural or meta-performance blockbuster – we are now seeing curators undertake a kind of post-monographic practice of their own. Not by doing the artist’s work (as some have complained), but by actually rethinking the curatorial mandate, refusing to let the stakes of the monographic exhibit fall so readily into predetermined categories and value structures. How might a monographic exhibition disperse the artist’s identity in a way that is commensurate (if not at all identical) to the impulses behind artists’ collectives or even the way that historical work, included in contemporary art biennials, shifts our understandings of the present and the past? How might a curator even mine the lines between “professional” artists and whatever their opposite is, between craft and whatever its opposite is, between the binaries that continue to power the markets and other institutions? What could be made of – not just elided by – massive historical and geographic shifts between artists?

Any recent account of how exhibitions might undertake these challenges would have to start with discussions of metaphors like the one advertised in the title of “Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos”. If the notion of the “cosmos” suggests an orderly universe without any real gravitational center, then curator Lynne Cooke has ingeniously reconceived how a monographic art exhibit might behave “cosmologically”, displacing the ordinary pulls toward a singular center with new kinds of relationships that remain fundamentally mysterious. Given the cosmological precept of a unity of time and space – their interweaving into a fabric that bends between points that are both geographic and temporal – and its own apparent desire to move away from the purely monographic, “Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos” cannot rest easily on contextualization, intimations of influence, or even such academic commonplaces as the “period eye” (Michael Baxandall), though it brings together works by disparate artists in ways that suggest, as in a “real” cosmos, multiple centers, gravitational pulls, and weights. In place of familiar modes of relating one artist or artwork to another (or to history), we have in this exhibition intimations of cosmological darkness – the black night sky echoed on the cover of the accompanying catalogue and on the dark walls of one of its central rooms, on the bottom floor, where indeed the majority of the other artists shown in this post-retrospective join Trockel. Promotional materials describe the “small, tiled room reminiscent of a Wunderkammer” (which actually overturned that cliché with its audio accompaniment to caged mechanical birds and an upside-down Broodthaersian palm tree hanging from the ceiling) as the show’s “epicenter.” But my experience was that, whereas the tiled white room was so celestially bright it was hard to stay in it for very long, the rest of that dark and cavernous floor was the show’s real tour de force.

Yet that was not where the bulk of Trockel’s work, nor the works that gained her a “reputation”, could be seen. The museum’s third and fourth floors held works using wool on or in the place of canvas, as well as freestanding objects, videos, books, and glazed ceramic sculptures. But not only did Cooke avoid giving us any of the “greatest hits” of Trockel’s work from the 1980s, she stayed almost entirely within the artist’s ­production of the past few years. Drawing our attention to and then keeping it well past the arc that canonizes artists’ early work only to conveniently drop them off the map of visibility, Cooke gives us such a concentrated focus on Trockel’s present work that she performatively invalidates such sell-by dates. Only a handful of works – for instance, “My Dear Colleagues” (1986), a sculpture bearing the eponymous phrase inked onto a plastic mold of a torso of indeterminate gender, with knitted sleeves – and a host of books refer us to the period in which Trockel came into international renown, the period that might have represented her career, until this show and with the exception of her intermittent gallery shows.

Of course that’s not the only way that Cooke rewrites the concept of the monographic show with this cosmos. On the third floor she surrounded and interrupted Trockel’s new works that use wool on canvas with works by Judith Scott, who wrapped ordinary objects in multicolored yarns so obsessively that they take on the uncanny shapes of small, domestic monsters (fabricated from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, these works are all untitled). As underscored by the Perspex frames that Trockel often places over the knitted or laid-wool canvases in her recent works, yarn defeats the “surfaceness” of the canvas’s two-dimensionality, absorbs our gaze in the manner of a dark color (most of the wool works shown were in hauntingly dark blacks and blues), and encourages us to perform a kind of up-close looking. These sculptural qualities took on a new dimension next to Scott’s works, with their far more immediate pleasures. But perhaps most interesting is the confrontation between the kind of canonical feminist challenge once emblemized by Trockel’s works in wool and the singularity of Scott’s story – that of a woman with Down Syndrome who was also deaf and mute, and who only began making these objects in her middle age in the supportive environment of a facility for the disabled. If such brief sketches of Scott’s life story redirect and also perpetuate feminist concerns with the body, with identity, and with confinement and institutional invisibility, it reframes not only Trockel’s “classic” works but also the currency of her present efforts. Issues such as domesticity and labor, implied not only in many of her materials, processes, and thematic concerns, are subsumed in a kind of suspended temporality suggested by Scott’s works, which testify to a truly other way of being. Thereby jolted from the congealed discourses on feminism’s “waves”, Trockel’s recent works also offer remarkable formal interest that complement and complicate such politicizations.

On the fourth floor, we found Trockel’s ceramic objects and books, including some oversized ceramic monuments – a massive white sofa draped in plastic and paint and yarn, another white plinth wearing a black shroud – that seem to both invite and refuse traditions of rethinking domesticity, including those of the Bauhaus and post-Bauhaus variety. Are these Post-Minimal in the Richard Artschwager-Tom Burr lineage? Such incorporation seems anathema not only to Trockel’s work, but also to Cooke’s vision of it. For, in a cosmos, Trockel is far more likely to bump up against – or fall into a circuit with – an “outsider” artist such as Scott or someone from an entirely other time-space. One wall running along the staircase leading to the fourth floor contained several monitors showing the remarkable 1912 films of Wladyslaw Starewicz that use beetle carcasses to enact familiar early film melodramas on a new scale. Thus Starewicz – like two other artists in the show, Salvador Dalí (not included in New York but on view when the exhibition was presented in Madrid’s Reina Sofía) and Ruth Francken – shared Trockel’s apparent belief that melodrama and scale need to be thought in relation to one another. Thanks to these disparate planets that now catch Trockel in their orbits, we can understand her interest in scale according to the psychosexual manias they make explicit. A new postwar Surrealist thread emerges, altogether extinguished in Joseph Beuys’s and Georg Baselitz’s heroicizing – or even the hermaphroditic figuration of Louise Bourgeois. If it seems most sympathetic to the oversized scale of Annette Messager’s collections and weavings, even such a “canonical” relation becomes, in the Trockel/Cooke version, less academic, loosened into another sense of history altogether.

On the museum’s second floor is where we found Trockel’s more “private” works, something like a collection of her favorite prints as well as companions made by a host of artists who are likely to be first-time discoveries for almost all audiences: Günter Weseler, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, Mary Delany, Maria Sibylla Merian, Manuel Montalvo, José Celestino Mutis. Those who are perhaps familiar – James Castle, John James Audubon, Morton Bartlett, and the aforementioned Dalí and Francken – are only marginally more so: We might know their names or importance or even their work, but that doesn’t mean we have understood their work as contemporary art (only in Castle’s case can one unequivocally say that this has taken place – thanks again to efforts by Cooke and others [1] ). Here the professionalism of art is subdivided, with model-making and illustration sharing space and overlapping with obsessive taxonomies. We begin to see, perhaps, a world in which categories (of the Blaschkas’ jellyfishes, of the pitchers and wine glasses, parrots, and phone numbers of Montalvo’s handmade notebooks, of Merian’s insects and Bartlett’s ballerinas) generate ideas about what art can be and vice versa. But more powerfully, art in “Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos” is tasked with generating new thought about categories – thought located in both labor and its apparent others (domesticity, natural life). In so doing, art becomes a stake without precise definition. There may be no better use for the monographic format than its auto-destruction, but if there’s going to be a bonfire, let it look like this.

“Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos”, New Museum, New York, October 24, 2012–January 20, 2013.

Note

[1]“James Castle: Show and Store” (Reina Sofia, May 18–September 2011) was also curated by Cooke.