Rosemarie Trockel

At the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, May 1991.)

Rosemarie Trockel practices an art of semblance and resemblance, analysis and disillusion. She doesn’t have a style; she has an attitude — a jaded palette; a sophisticated shrug; an ironic smile. She casts a cold eye upon traditional notions of beauty, expression, and meaning in art and coolly dissects the conventions of painting.

A large beige rectangle with the words Cogito, ergo sum hangs on one wall of the Institute of Contemporary Art. The rectangle resembles a painting in shape and scale, and the words of Descartes‘ dictum — I think, therefore I am — resemble handwriting. But Trockel’s Cogito, Ergo Sum was actually knitted by a machine following a computer-generated design. It’s an ironic commentary about painting, and women’s work, and what it means to live and think and be in an age of mechanical reproduction. And it’s a good introduction to the first American exhibition of the German Feminist Conceptualist artist.

Trockel was born in 1952 and lives in Cologne; she studied at the Werkkunstschule in Koln. She was in Boston to supervise the show’s installation, but did not wish to be interviewed. (It’s no longer fashionable to be an art star; the trend now is to declare that you don’t want to be an art star.) But the two curators of the show — Sidra Stich of the University Art Museum, Berkeley, California, and the ICA’s Elizabeth Sussman — conducted a dazzling discourse about the artist’ work at the press preview this week.

“She is constantly questioning all categories and categorizations — constantly raising questions about male and female roles and zones, and about what constitutes a work of art — bringing up gender issues and art issues and raising new issues and turning them upside down and turning them inside out and then leaving them out there in a state of ambivalence, irony, or absurdity,” says Sidra Stich.

“What does women’s work consist of? What is thinking? What’s inside of us? The objects that you see here are ruminations on those questions — hermetic, mysterious ruminations,” says Elizabeth Sussman.

Painting Machine is steel printing press with 56 paintbrushes; each brush is made from a lock of hair of a different living artist — donated by Arnulf Rainer, Annette Lemieux, Sophie Calle. Sigmar Polke, Cindy Sherman, and others. Near the machine are four mechanically made “paintings” — black brushstrokes floating down a long, thin piece of white paper.

“This is a machine to pull apart the conventions of what makes a work of art,” says Stich. “The hand — the craft — the thinking. There’s the individualized, personalized paintbrushes made from the hair of different artists — but then that’s overturned by the machine which makes the work of art. It’s about difference moving into anonymity. Male/female. Animal/human. Modern/the past. You can’t tell the difference. Yet at the same time, they’re like the very primal marks that humans make — the gesture of an imprint — the signs of `I am here.’ And at the same time, they look like Japanese brushstrokes or Jackson Pollock drips. And it’s all coming out of a process which is so antithetical to making a work of art! It’s about creating a sense of order and disorder — both at once — neither one nor the other — a sense of flux, of change, of many different possibilities.”

Certain images and material recur in Trockel’s work — animals, eggs, wood, wool, hair, fur — natural things made unnatural. Creatures of Habit is an installation with three animals cast in bronze from dead animals found in a pet mortuary in Cologne, and a series of framed images that look like small, delicately painted works on paper, which are really xeroxes of drawings based on photographs of found objects.

“All these images are obliterated, defaced, lost,” says Sussman. “It’s about those marginal, mundane experiences that are for some reason significant to her. There are certain things about her work that are mysterious. They remain mysterious. And she treasures that mysteriousness.”

A series of machine-knitted balaclavas — caps invented by Baltic fishermen, adopted by skiers, and adapted by terrorists to hide their faces — are patterned with abstract designs based on swastikas, hammers and sickles, Playboy bunnies, Op art, and plus-and-minus signs.

“Rosemarie’s clothing works raise issues central to her kind of creativity,” says Stith. “It raises issues of gender and the aestheticizing of the body — covering and revealing, uncovering or hiding. And it’s a deflation of the symbols, so all of those things become equalized in the most absurd way. It’s about signs and the way we communicate in this society. There’s a mixing together of the art zone, the political zone, the commmercial zone, all mixing and merging — opposites coming together, interchanging, something plus something else, both at once — some kind of joining of opposing forces so they are no longer in oppsition. Devalue, revalue, transvalue — that’s how Rosemarie uses images. She takes them out of one zone and puts them into another zone. She takes art out of its cage.”

During installation, Trockel asked the ICA to remove a wall that for many years has been hiding four graceful high-arched windows. Now the upstairs galleries look out onto Boylston Street, and are bathed in soft, natural light.

“There’s an endlessness to Rosemarie’s work,” says Stich. “A sense of things not ending but changing and moving. The notion of resolution is foreign to her. Her work is in a state of non-resolution. It’s anti-doctrinaire. Bringing up the issue and getting at the underpinning.  Turning it upside down and turning it inside out. Taking it apart and putting it together so you see its absurdity.”

“Everything is extremely well thought-through,” says Sussman. “She has a preference for almost a lack of color — browns and greys and bronze — and she works brilliantly in a palette of non-color. Transparency is also an issue — which is probably why she opened these windows. There’s a transparent, fragile quality to her work, even when it’s heavily laden with ideas.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

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