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THE NEW MUSEUM | OCTOBER 24, 2012 – JANUARY 20, 2013

With the boundaries between artist and curator ever porous, it’s no surprise that the locus of meaning in Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos is as much in the exhibition’s organization as in the works. What’s refreshing is that while the overall exhibition framework is essential to the show’s conceit, it’s not privileged over the art: the viewer will delight in individually compelling objects as well as the relationships among them.

Rosemarie Trockel, “Replace Me,” 2011. Digital Print. Image courtesy of the New Museum.

Curator Lynne Cooke and Rosemarie Trockel (b. 1952) arranged A Cosmos typologically, with galleries devoted to knitting, ceramics, and books, respectively. Each floor also quotes a different exhibition style: the modernist white cube, the Natural History Museum, and the Wunderkammer. Beginning in the mid-16th century, the Wunderkammer displayed “objects of curiosity” without distinctions between art, archaeology, ethnography, and zoology. That spirit pervades the entire exhibition, as Trockel juxtaposes her own works with objects made by individuals from various disciplines who were never self-consciously making art. Trockel doesn’t try to re-classify objects as art. Instead, she undermines traditional taxonomies, while highlighting unexpected affinities within this quirky array of objects. 

The work most representative of the exhibition’s ethos is found in the ceramic-tiled room featuring an upside-down palm tree and moving, taxidermied birds. On the wall is “Replace Me”(2011), a black-and-white digital print of Gustave Courbet’s “L’origine du monde” (1866), that wittily titled crotch-shot originally commissioned for a private collection of erotica. Here, Trockel transformed the pubic hair into a spider, ominously crawling toward the figure’s pudendum. This surrealist-inspired association between female sex organ and animal encourages the kind of free association that the entire exhibition is meant to foster, while its category-mixing (zoology, erotica, and art) evokes the collisions between the public and private that abound throughout the show. That Trockel takes an image originally meant to objectify and turns it into something perverse emphasizes the subtle but ever-present feminist undertones in her work.

Trockel is still best known for the large, wool knit “paintings” featuring commercial logos that she started making in the ’80s. These early works are absent, but given the breadth and complexity of Trockel’s work over the past three decades, they are not missed. The recent knit and Perspex works formally evoke modernist paintings. A vertically oriented canvas with three brightly colored horizontal panels looks a bit like a Rothko, while the saturated aquamarine monochrome “Weight of the Fall”(2011) resembles Yves Klein’s trademark International Klein Blue. Although the use of knitting lacks the feminist traction that it had in the ’80s, Trockel’s lyrical titles imbue the works with a personal narrative absent (or more accurately, purged) from modernist painting. In that vein, Trockel’s vivid colors and structured compositions recall the sculptures of Anne Truitt, whose works sat uneasily within the Minimalist paradigm because of her unabashed use of narrative titles. Trockel’s allusive titles and deliberate composition highlight taboo elements of Modernism, which were there all along.

Trockel’s long-standing fascination with animals is everywhere, from zoological specimens to the inclusion of filmmaker Wladyslaw Starewicz’s fantastic stop-animation piece The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), featuring beetles acting out domestic dramas.  As a foil to the many images of animals, there are also images by animals, specifically paintings by an orangutan named Tilda. I initially wondered if it was problematic to juxtapose paintings by a primate with works by so-called “outsider artists” (another problematic designation). But the aim of this exhibition isn’t to negate differences among objects, or to suggest that everything on display bears the same cultural weight. As Cooke argues in her catalog essay (citing art historian Svetlana Alpers), “What the museum registers is visual distinction, not necessarily cultural significance.”*  Trockel brings together objects that encourage free associative play, unencumbered by the rigid ordering often imposed by the museum.

Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos makes a compelling case for both the artistry of the curatorial act, and the curator-as-artist. While this may not be so new in 2012, it’s still important. One question plaguing the art world for the past decade or so has been where to go after the Pictures Generation, with their moratorium on image-making in favor of strategic appropriations and interventions. To talk about Rosemarie Trockel as a “post-Pictures” artist isn’t entirely accurate, in that she’s not part of the generation that came of age in the ’90s.  Nonetheless, Cosmos offers a viable answer to this question of how to deal with the Pictures legacy. Trockel’s juxtaposition of her own works (which often rely on quotation) with others doesn’t negate the validity of authorial identity, as so many works from the ’80s did. Instead, she creates a constellation of objects in which there is value created by some surprising relationships. 

* Lynne Cooke, “Modelling a Cosmos.” In Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos. New York: The Monacelli Press, 2012: 31-44; 34.

235 Bowery // NY, NY


Paula Burleigh


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2013

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