LOS ANGELES — The current show at Sprüth Magers gallery, Eau de Cologne, has a title that might seem like a play on words (that’s what I initially thought), but it is actually quite straightforwardly unironic. It is simply the name of the art magazine published by Monika Sprüth between 1985 and 1989 that presented interviews with and essays about contemporary German and American women artists. When Sprüth first opened her own gallery in the city of Cologne in 1983, she was championing the practices of the then-emerging artists Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and Rosemarie Trockel against the tide of the male artists overwhelming the art scene. Now she is able to take a few victory laps, which she does with this show.
Sprüth Magers came to be in 1998 when Sprüth merged her gallery with the one owned by Philomene Magers, who also had her own blue-chip roster of postwar American artists. Together they became a powerhouse, soon opening other gallery spaces in Munich, London, Berlin, and just in February of this year, an enormous 14,000-square-foot arena in a building on Wilshire Boulevard just down the street from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in Los Angeles.
This exhibition both represents and is premised on the gallery’s success in presciently choosing to invest in and support the work of these women when it was not necessarily fashionable or lucrative to do so. Now, these artists occupy the upper echelons of the market in terms of the prices their work fetches at auction (close to the one million mark for many, and over for Cindy Sherman, though still less than their male peers), and are firmly ensconced in the canons of postmodern and feminist art. More, due to their significance within scholarly discourse and their positions within the market, these women’s work circulates among the most prominent galleries and museums in major city centers around the world. This ranking is worth discussing here because there is something triumphant in the presentation of Holzer, Kruger, Sherman, Trockel, and Louise Lawler in this show. Although a good deal of the work is decades old and has been seen many times before, given the scarcity of women in these positions of prestige, it feels like a celebration worth having.
I remember the first time I saw a work by Kruger that showed a wedding party of men playfully tugging on the hands and face of one, with the tag line: “You construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men.” It struck me then as it does now as one of the most insightful observations I’ve ever read of the complexities of what can be at times the brutal exercise of American masculinity. What I mean by this observation is that Kruger’s work had and has more to say about the challenges of being in the world than can be safely tucked away in the rhetorical corner of “women’s experiences.”
The show contains a mix of work, displaying the powerful ways in which these five women evoke relations among persona, image, language, and sentiment: several text pieces by Jenny Holzer with ironic and aggressive statements are framed and hung on walls or incised into granite benches. Kruger has some versions of the iconic combinations of text and image long associated with her. Sherman is represented by some expected portraits that deal with identity as a seemingly endlessly reshuffled deck of playing cards, but the gallery has also included some images from a Broken Dolls series — black and white photographs of dolls put in provocatively abject poses against blank backgrounds. Rosemarie Trockel is quietly determinist in her work that almost crosses over into architecture, and Lawler is the most visually alluring with paintings that reference but also transform the work of other well-known artists, such as her recontextualization of Jeff Koons’s iconic silver bunny against a field of cleanly modernist geometric planes of color in “(Bunny) Sculpture and Painting (adjusted to fit)” (1999/2016). Referencing the long history the gallery has had with these artists, it has provided small enclosed tables with issues of Eau de Colgne and other keepsakes from that era. The exhibition is not surprising, but rather is rooted in an appreciation for these women who are rare in the field of contemporary art: strident and singular and commercially successful.
Eau de Cologne continues at Sprüth Magers gallery (5900 Wilshire Blvd, Miracle Mile, Los Angeles) through August 20.