Rosemarie Trockel is certainly considered one of the most famous, and ambivalent contemporary German artists. Her survey exhibitions have been few, despite her ongoing career, which spans more than 50 years. Now, a comprehensive exhibition of Trockel's work is on display under the direction of Susanne Pfeffer at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, who has showcased Trockel for over twenty years. The distinct qualities of Trockel’s work may also be the reason why it is so difficult to approach—as a modernist-to-postmodernist border-crosser, the exhibition confirms that Trockel’s work can’t be pinned down to specific media, strategies, or discourses. In curating the first comprehensive survey exhibition on Trockel’s work, Pfeffer shows us that the sense of ambiguity found in the artist’s subjects is a vital factor for understanding both Trockel’s body of work and the complexity of life.
As in other exhibitions curated by Pfeffer at MMK Frankfurt, the central hall of the museum takes on a crucial role in the reading of the show, as it is staged as a prologue to the exhibition to follow. Here, the postmodern architecture by Hans Hollein dictates the visitor’s gaze and connections between Trockel’s works can be made early on across all floors of the museum. The first work one encounters is Trockel’s silkscreen print Prisoner of Yourself (1998), which is mounted on all three walls of the central hall. The blue silkscreen of Prisoner of Yourself resembles a graphic knit spaced by holes that, upon closer inspection, do not follow the strict weaving of warp and weft. The design appears, rather, as a flexible net in which visitors metaphorically become entangled, and from which they can pull further strings.
On the first level of the museum, viewers are greeted by the textile works that made Rosemarie Trockel world-famous: Made in Western Germany (1987) and Untitled (1985), on which a multitude of Woolmark’s white quality seals are shown over a black background. With what can be described as a knitted painting, Trockel formulates her feminist critique of both the persistent violence of patriarchal gender role imposition and the degradation of women in the 1980s by confronting the gendered art of handicrafts with machine-operated knitting techniques.
Craft knitting is a completely individualized activity in which no two stitches are alike. Craft techniques, like the knitting Trockel’s works evoke, have always been read as domestic and thus, feminine, leading to their marginalized position in art history. Trockel, however, uses a computer-controlled machine knitting process for her paintings, which supposedly produces a perfect knitted picture. Yet on closer inspection, her knitted paintings are riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies. Gender-based, cultural, and art historical stereotypes collide, provoking new questions about the way these constructs continue to shape our social structures. In the 1980s, Trockel turns the Strickbild into a Trickbild, challenging the supremacy of painting as a genre in contemporary art and reappropriating the functionality of the machine—associated with mens’ labor—for questioning feminist aesthetics. In order not to fall into dangerous binaries or rash value judgments, Trockel complicates cultural classifications of what is considered “male” and what is considered “female” by withdrawing the artistic hand altogether, thus interrogating cultural production on both material and conceptual levels. Her machine-generated textiles symbolize the supposed perfection of the machine and its inability to work more consistently than humans after all.
From the entrance hall, the visitor’s net can be easily spun to Trockel’s stove plates on the opposite wall, which surely emanate from the same feminist understanding. Untitled (1992) and Unplugged (1994) represent two different constellations of stove plates on painted sheets of steel, which Trockel, as a conceptual artist, skillfully appropriates into her practice. Untitled and Unplugged become wall sculptures that formally compete with the supposedly male dominated Minimalism, and challenge these artists’ reduction of women’s role in postwar Germany. Not following a symmetrical order, the unplugged stove plates move rather freely over their steel surface, allowing for further interpretations. In the photograph Sabine (1994) directly next to the stove plates, we see the artist's sister wearing nothing but sunglasses sitting on a four-plate kitchen stove—like the crouching Venus, one of the most iconic sculptures of antiquity. Here, Trockel’s critique of the fetishization of the female body spans the worlds of both commodities and art history. By employing all artistic media, the artist shows us her concept of material, and the material as concept.
On the second level of the museum, another leitmotif of the artist becomes unmistakably apparent: her multifaceted aesthetic approach to the relationship between humans and animals. The hegemony of the human subject over the animal object testifies to her personal engagement with this subject. The most violent examples are three red-glazed wall ceramics all titled Shutter (2006 - 2010). At first glance, these works appear to be made of brick formations. But looking more closely, viewers can see the marbling of flesh; the red glaze becomes warm, a kind of greasy blood on the surface of the ceramics. In doing so, Trockel hints at the perceived distance between the suffering of the animal, from which, as the title suggests, we literally shut ourselves off, as well as the goods that are handed over the butcher's counter. For the creation of this series, Trockel pressed meat from a butcher into ceramic molds. Shutter is a wall of meat. Its glossy, shiny surface turns the ceramics into an abject art object, representing the commodification of animal flesh. Once again, however, she expands the interpretive potential of her work by extending this series of ceramics with Always Leave Them Wanting More (2009)—a photograph of an elderly woman feeding white swans at an urban water. Could the relationship between humans and animals be more innocent?
When visiting this exhibition, we encounter an artist who repeatedly confronts and complicates historical and sociopolitical issues. Each conceptual composition creates a larger context of meaning, only to then remain decidedly ambiguous throughout her highly emotional approach. None of Trockel’s works ever result in a definitive reading, but allow for different analyses and interpretations, literal, expressive, real, and imagined. Trockel shows that for every level of interpretation, there is another contradictory or complementary one. This is specifically reflected in the seriality and self-referentiality of her work across mediums and work periods, which Pfeffer has emphasized so evocatively in her curation. The exhibition leads to a very enriching reading that compels a reassuring and constant reengagement on the visitor’s side: it should not be confused with indiscriminate or even arbitrary behavior, but an effect which understands life to be not that simple and invites intricacy.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Cover: Rosemarie Trockel, Always Leave Them Wanting More, 2009, Private Collection, © The artist & VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022.
fig. 1: Rosemarie Trockel, Prisoner of Yourself, 1998 (detail), MUSEUM MMK FÜR MODERNE KUNST, © The artist & VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022, photo: Axel Schneider.
fig. 2: Rosemarie Trockel, Ohne Titel, 1985, Sprüth Magers and the artist, © The artist & VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022.
fig. 3: Rosemarie Trockel, Unplugged, 1994, Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Gespendet von den Freunden des Moderna Museet, 2001, © The artist & VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022, Foto: Axel Schneider.
fig. 4: Rosemarie Trockel, Sabine, 1994, Courtesy of Sprüth Magers, © The artist & VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022.
fig. 5: Rosemarie Trockel, Shutter, 2006, Private Collection, © The artist & VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022.