Rosemarie Trockel, “Atheismus” (2007). Mixed mediums, 24 7/8 x 30 x 25 5/8 inches. Courtesy Sprüth Magers, Berlin/London, and Gladstone Gallery, New York/Brussels. © Rosemarie Trockel, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012.

It’s not very often that one can report that a triptych by an orangutan isn’t the best thing in a show, but it’s not very often that one has the opportunity to take stock of Rosemarie Trockel’s art.

The triptych is a brushy abstraction by a simian named Tilda, and it is hanging on the second floor of the New Museum, where the major exhibition Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos is ranging across three stories of gallery space.

A Cosmos is not a conventional retrospective. As the curator Lynne Cooke explained during the press preview, Trockel finds the concept uninteresting and preferred to show her work in concert with the art of those she considers “kindred spirits.”

According the exhibition’s introductory wall text, the work she gathered up is by “individuals not normally recognized as professional artists”:

Many worked in the field of natural history, and zoology and botany in particular. […] In addition, there are a number of self-taught artists, including James Castle, Morton Bartlett, Judith Scott, and Manuel Montalvo, who worked in isolation and obscurity…

There are also two contemporary artists, Günter Weseler and Ruth Francken, “whose reputations have unjustifiably gone into eclipse.”

Trockel’s redefinition of standard museum fare, a welcome development, is similar to what the Quay Brothers are doing uptown at the Museum of Modern Art, where they have devoted a sizable portion of their retrospective to their forebears and influences.

Rosemarie Trockel, “Less sauvage than others” (2012). Three paintings made by the orangutan Tilda, each 31 1⁄2 x 31 1⁄2 inches. Private collection.

The way that Trockel presents her own work in A Cosmos, however, is considerably more self-effacing, almost to the point of vanishing altogether, but this has as much to do with the elusiveness of her artistic persona as it does with the underlying concept.

As the exhibition makes plain, Trockel has produced a multiplicity of objects, some with formal affinities to each other and some without. In this way she has escaped the trap of pigeonholing herself while pursuing an aesthetic openness few can match. But this denial of the ego can result in her work receding in the company of others.

A case in point is the third floor, where Trockel’s wool paintings are on display. While they represent a major effort to endow a material associated with craft with the kind of cultural significance too long enjoyed solely by painting and sculpture, for the most part they struck me as soporific. The lumpy wool sculptures on hand in the same gallery, however, possess a magnetic, messy realness a world apart from the paintings’ academic tedium.

These are the work of Judith Scott, who was born in 1943. A wall text supplies the following bio:

Institutionalized for decades because of Down syndrome, Judith Scott embarked on her first artistic ventures in her forties, after her twin sister moved her to California and enrolled her in the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland (a facility for individuals with disabilities). It was there that Scott, who was deaf and mute, slowly developed her distinctive process of wrapping found objects with densely woven layers of string, cloth, or yarn.

Trockel is rightly celebrating the work of Scott, as well as that of Castle, Bartlett and the others, but she is also raising troubling questions. Lynne Cooke writes in her catalogue essay that Trockel’s inclusion of kindred spirits is representative of:

[…] her persistent challenge to conventional hierarchies among art forms; and her deep-seated interest in diverse forms of creativity, whether of the trained professional or the self-taught artisan, or seen in modes of aesthetic expression particular to other species.

Yet, to place her work beside Scott’s, or in a display case with sculptures of birds by Castle, who also could not hear, speak or read, creates an uncomfortable alliance. The juxtaposition may seek to define art as a necessity on a par with oxygen (and Tilda’s triptych goes even further, suggesting that the creative impulse is embedded in our pan-species DNA), but in each case the work of the “professional” artist is more polished and inevitably more self-conscious than the “amateur,” raising the specter, however unintended or regrettable, of the former colonizing the latter.

It is also open to debate whether A Cosmos succeeds in its intentions, as outlined the catalogue foreword:

This cosmos, with its indefinite article A (as opposed to The), unites two basic concepts: firstly, that there is an internal order to the ways in which humans approach and represent the world, and that this order can be questioned, and secondly, that this desire to map the world creates a series of interconnected constellations.

“Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos,” installation view, from left to right: “Replace Me” (2011). Digital print, 23 1/2 x 351/2 inches. Private collection; “Untitled” (2012). Plastic, 138 x 39 3⁄4 inches. Private collection; “Made in China” (2012). Glazed ceramic, 10 1/5 x 21 1/3 x 13 inches. Private collection.

The second floor of the exhibition may be a fascinating pulling-together of oddball artifacts, natural history specimens and artwork, but it remains diffuse. Instead of illuminating Trockel’s practice, it resembles a three-dimensional catalogue essay full of examples of the artist’s work alongside her influences and associations, but with no central text, just captions and sidebars.

This is where it is conceivable that Trockel’s principled opposition to a signature style may work against her. By aligning her loose botanical acrylics with earlier, more exacting botanical drawings, or her punched-and-squeezed ceramics with exquisite nineteenth-century glass sea anemones, the effect is not one of communion across generations but of roaming all over the map, of there being no there there.

This sensation is exacerbated in what the exhibition’s introductory text calls the “epicenter” of A Cosmos, “a small, tiled room […] reminiscent of a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, [that] mixes the fantastical, the erotic and the perverse.”

The room contains a white, wall-mounted ceramic; a digital print on metal, Perspex and cardboard that resembles a vinyl LP; an upside-down plastic palm tree that recalls Natalie Jeremijenko’s “Tree Logic” in the courtyard of MASS MoCA; a framed black-and-white reproduction of Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World” (might we call for a moratorium on the appropriation of that image?) with a strategically placed tarantula; and a white cage housing lifelike mechanical birds.

Like many of the objects produced by Joseph Beuys — the Promethean figure revered by Trockel’s cohort of mid- to late-career German artists — these pieces come across as performance-related artifacts instead of self-contained entities.

Beuys’s artworks, however, with their abstracted forms and autobiographical materials (felt and fat), almost always possess inherent visual interest. Other than the birdcage and the white ceramic, the items in Trockel’s tiled room engage neither the viewer nor each other.

“Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos,” installation view with Günter Weseler, “Objekt für Atemtraining” (“Object for Breathing Exercise”) (1969). Plastic disc, synthetic fur, and balloon, 1 1⁄2 x 5 inches. Private collection (left); Undated and untitled sculptures by James Castle. Found paper, soot, pigment of unknown origin and other materials, various dimensions. Courtesy James Castle Collection and Archive LP, Boise, Idaho (right).

To my eye, Trockel’s best works, like the red-glazed ceramic “Touchstone” (2012) or the upholstered sculpture “Atheismus” (“Atheism,” 2007), are those that come off as creepily theatrical or creepily utilitarian. In each, the presence of others is implied through the form, which can be used as a dinner plate or a seat, however uncomfortable.

I was therefore intrigued to discover, after I had seen the show, that in her contribution to Trockel’s catalogue, the venerable art historian Dore Ashton singles out “Atheismus” and relates it to Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, or the distancing effect of Epic Theater.

She quotes a line from Brecht that sums up rather neatly what Trockel has set out for herself in her art:

From time to time you have to abandon yourself,
lose your head and lose your mind…

Trockel abandons herself throughout much of her practice, which is perhaps the reason why those pieces that seem built to accommodate others feel so right. It is as if she is recognizing the vacuum at our core — the vacuum we spend much of our lives trying to deny — and inviting others to fill it. These works are listeners, not speakers, yielding themselves to the agitations of empty air.

Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 20, 2013.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.

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