Cool, free and German. Those are my first thoughts as I enter Rosemarie Trockel’s exhibition at Moderna Museet in Malmö. Apart from a show at the legendary gallery Anders Tornberg in Lund in 1983 and a presentation of drawings at the Royal Collection of Graphic Arts in Copenhagen in 1992, this is – believe it or not – Trockel’s first substantial solo show in the Øresund region ever.
The ‘cool’ aspect is immediately evident: a stringent, well-installed semi-conceptual exhibition of paintings suffused by that special nonchalance so typical of Trockel when she’s at her best. Which she is in works such as Replace Me, the vast sofa sculpture first seen at the 2011 Venice Biennial, which is as effortlessly superior here in Malmö as it was in its Venetian setting.
The elongated, modernist-looking sofa piece sprawls out across the exhibition space, covered in a large piece of plastic bearing coarse, black brushstrokes. Underneath it all we can make out the flat upholstered cushions, cast in plaster. On top of this is a heavy woollen throw draping itself across the sofa in a haphazard manner, its black woolliness and thick fringes making it appear disturbing even as it exudes an exclusive air. Or, to paraphrase the exhibition title, it combines “Det Lika Olika” – a difficult-to-translate pun that is as exquisitely elegant in Swedish as it becomes generic and flat in English, “The Same Different”.
As a work, Replace Me encompasses much of the Trockelsian register. Wool as colour, colour as form, form as painting, painting as picture, picture as layers, etc. A great place to begin for painting geeks – or art geeks of any description. For you need to be something of an art nerd to spy ‘the differences in the similar’ here. Trockel is something of an acquired taste, and this is precisely what makes her work so furiously splendid and somewhat annoying. More on this later.
Rosemarie Trockel, Yellow Mood, 2013. Acrylic wool on canvas in a fibreglass frame.
The exhibition itself is a retrospective of the kind that famous artists will now – reflecting the general (and insane) growth rates of the art industry – often do several of during their own lifetime. The results are frequently rather too introspective re-readings and reshufflings of the artists’ own materials; the current Danh Vo retrospective at the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen leans towards this side.
Trockel’s approach to her own back catalogue is cooler than that. For example, she has created two large wall installations consisting of fifteen to thirty pictures from different periods, combining them to form a large, rectangular plane, a kind of screen. She uses the term ‘clusters’ to describe this mode of presentation, which is actually a rather banal way of reflecting the interconnections and unity of her oeuvre. Still effective, though.
Spotting the formal connections is soon done, but then there are all the references hidden within each individual picture. Take Homesick (2017), for example: a classic portrait of a beautiful young woman looking out at the spectator. At first glance we perceive this as a framed advertising photograph, possibly the cover of a fashion magazine. However, it turns out that the sitter is the daughter of the influential German gallerist Monica Sprüth, who has been Trockel’s gallerist for many years (and who, in an aside, tiptoed around the press view at Moderna with the artist, both keeping a safe distance from the assembled press).
The small picture on the woman’s earring is a micro-portrait of German philosopher Hannah Arendt, while the bar code placed in the lower left-hand corner is a reference to a work by Arendt, whose writings have held special significance for Trockel. Once again, nerds are welcome to geek out.
As is customary for the kind of art scene in which Trockel is inscribed, such information is not provided to museum guests in the form of signs or other communication efforts. I myself only know it because I had access to hearing curator Iris Müller-Westermann’s presentation at the press view. And speaking of ‘access’, this brings us to the point of the overall sense of freedom that permeates this exhibition. A feeling that is less about Trockel being a major name on the international art scene, allowing her to do whatever she pleases, and more about her operating on the basis of a special context that she can be said to carry with her.
Trockel’s work very obviously stands on the shoulders of a tradition as far removed from Anglo-Saxon art didactics as you can possibly get. But freedom is never kostenlos, and there is something distinctive about this approach that harks back to the 1980s art scene of Cologne, and which has now grown far beyond the boundaries of the cathedral city. Nevertheless, it remains solidly anchored in a particularly German mode that can be traced from Martin Kippenberger, Isa Genzken, Rosemarie Trockel and Michael Krebber onwards to the next generation of artists such as Jutta Koether and Sergej Jensen – a mode characterised by a laid-back attitude that is partially propped up by an underlying web of references for those in the know. Interestingly, this is also a mode of expression that is nourished by an almost osmotic relationship between the artists and their respective gallerists – in an invisible, cool way, of course.
To sum up: the fact that the young woman with the earring is supposedly the gallerist’s daughter, and that she happens to be the same person who appears as a young girl in the brilliant short film Zum Beispiel Balthasar, 6 Jahre (1996), also on display in this show, may not be need-to-know information, but it’s certainly very nice to know. At least for anyone familiar with the Rhineland attitude – if you’re not, this kind of information makes less sense and may even become misleading. This might be the reason why Moderna has chosen not to include this information in their presentation. Of course, this entails the risk that many museum visitors will have to rely on more formal readings, but then again this is precisely the position adopted by this oeuvre. You’re either on board with it or not.
Speaking of attitudes creating forms, the Malmö exhibition includes a new work, When Attitude became Form, 2018 – a single, simple photograph depicting two megaphones of the kind used for political rallies and protests. The megaphones point in separate directions, and according to curator Müller-Westermann, Trockel specifically chose this work for its Swedish context as a kind of comment on the current political situation in Sweden following the recent general election where form and attitudes are still being negotiated and many questions remain unresolved: who will govern the country, how one should respond to Sverigedemokraterna, etc. Of course, the work is also a nod to the legendary 1969 exhibition bearing almost exactly the same title, When Attitudes Become Form, by Swiss curator Harald Szeemann. In this way, Trockel makes the form of art and the attitudes of politics part of the same issue.
You can find any number of such exquisite subtleties in this exhibition, which comes across as a huge, well-installed treasure trove. I am perhaps a little bored by her more recent, monumental knitted pictures in green or blue with the stretcher mounted on the front. It all becomes a little too l’art pour l’art for my taste, but I do recognise the function of having dry knitting as the backdrop of the entire mental state that such a Trockel exhibition constitutes. The knitted works obviously helped make her famous, but the truly masterful aspect of this artist is the fact that she has no clear-cut signature.
The Malmö show presents a slice of a combined body of work that points in so many different directions that you would probably never identify ‘the similarities in the dissimilar’ outside of this context, nor indeed recognise individual works as being by Rosemarie Trockel. That’s quite a fascinating way to be an international star.