Rosemarie Trockel is an artist’s artist and although I’m not an artist, I am a huge fan of her work and that makes the disappointment of her current exhibition at the New Museum even more awkward. Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos, is a three-floored exhibition, including some stairways, and it is a mini-retrospective in some ways. It formulates itself as a survey not only of her own work but also of her influences. It is within the formulation that the failures occur and most surprisingly in the arrangement, display and general installation, which you think would not be the biggest issues when a museum is the presenter.
Throughout the show, which is curated by Lynne Cooke in collaboration with Trockel and with additional support by Massimilano Gioni and Jenny Moore, there are systems of seeing and of contextualizing that hark on ways of presentation found in science, academia, and other forms of institutionalized display. This reliance on these methods inadvertently, or possibly advertently, sucks out much of the magic and the humor that makes Trockel so formidable in her own influence. This technique was first seen on the fourth floor which is oddly the way shows start, from the top down. Here there are a collection of zines, books, pamphlets and drawings by Trockel that ranged from 1980s to the 2000s and they are a fine selection to view as they show her wit and her unhinged imagination with words, images and quick release of both. The somber display of a considered height with a slight slant to the shelf with a painted brown back runner and clear acrylic case, was highly practical yet sufficiently dull. Display of such materials always seems to be problematic at best but there was something notable in the full embrace of that tendency for failure here. Also, the use of books, as a tool of subversion but also as a tool of authority to the artist and to the contents and gestures, made heavy imprint in the way the rest of the show could be viewed.
The rest of this floor has some very nice sculptures in ceramics with fantastic glazes, like platinum, as well as the use of furniture as sculpture. The ceramics are hung mostly on the wall and they are great to see but they seem lost and somehow just arranged in an unimagined way. The sofa sculpture and the platform with fabric draped over seems off in contrast with the ceramics, it’s like a home furniture display that forgot the big ticket items. This odd lacking of something carries throughout the exhibit including the third floor that has Trockel’s knit canvases. She is well known for these yarn paintings and these are always wonderful to see in real life as the tactility and hues of them are as engaging as the concepts behind them. The selection is a bit uneven and it feels as if they had to work with only what was available versus what may be the best. The works that have unknit yarn stretched over the stretcher bars to create a minimalist string painting were notably uninspiring. In addition to Trockel’s work, this floor also included the work of Judith Scott, an outsider artist who makes wrapped abstract forms out of yarn, string and other fabric remnants. Her work is very-very good regardless of her labeling and the inclusion of many strong works by her is fitting but the combination of Scott’s and Trockel’s yarn works in the same room as it was installed felt like a hindrance to both women. Also, Scott’s pieces were so strong it almost seemed to suck the light away from Trockel’s.
The finale on the second floor seemed to be the brain of the show. Here the “cosmology” of Trockel’s influences converges in addition to some of her more stellar pieces. One method of this display recalls the fourth floor’s old timey scientific display, which mixes Trockel’s own curiosities of flora and fauna with those wonderfully detailed naturalism illustrations. The systems of categorizing, labeling and ordering through the scientific methodologies of the past are heavily emphasized. This again brings to point the act of legitimizing, of giving the author, in this case Trockel, authority over her subject, or the ideas behind the visuality of it. This is in no way a fault but there is something too transparent in the act that lacks surprise to any degree. In the other side of this floor are large rectangular clear boxes that act as curios of her influences that range from spectacular outsider artists like James Castle and Morton Bartlett to contemporaries and nearly forgotten aesthetic compatriots. The objects are interesting; the gathering of them impressive but again the display seems to vacuum seal any life away. It is not all terrible though, within the suite of collected specimens there are standouts, one in particular, a large crab on top of a clear box that has her signature fabric patterns, is one the best objects around. This is the problematic aspect of this entire show. There are so many incredible pieces but somehow not arranged in a way that lets them act that way.
This is a show that has all the components for a fabulously successful exhibition. The work is there; the ideas are there, the timing is just right, as Trockel’s name and influence has been in resurgence over the past few years. She is a fantastic, smart, worthy to be recognized artist who will continue to be an artists’ artist so the concern of her legacy is not tainted. But, it is incredibly frustrating to see all these good parts, all the makings of a show that could re-spark or introduce for the first time her work to a new generation. The show did not fail so much as just fizzle away into dullness. I love Trockel’s work, her punk attitude, but if I hadn’t already and this was my first dose, I would have just blinked the whole show away. The show’s overall structure is smart and makes more then perfect sense with Trockel’s art and life, it does invigorate many of the most important things about her own work and hopefully next time this is presented or re-imagined there will be a balance of the formulas with the aesthetics, because if one thing is for certain about Trockel, it is that she makes wonderful things to look at and to puzzle out what it all means.