The idea-driven, object-oriented work of Germany’s Rosemarie Trockel is famously polymorphous. Although best known for creating “paintings” made of machine-knitted wool patterned with recognizable symbols like the Playboy logo or the hammer and sickle, Trockel, like many of her peers from the 1980s Cologne art scene, eschews a signature aesthetic identity. Over the past three decades, she’s created a wide-ranging body of work that spans mediums and deals with such themes as the human condition, the role of women in society, man’s relationship to the natural world and above all, the mystery of creativity.
This unconventional traveling exhibition, cocurated by Lynne Cooke and the artist, takes up three levels of the New Museum. It is brilliant and problematic by turns. “A Cosmos” upends all expectations of what a survey should be. It refuses to showcase Trockel’s greatest hits (the only examples of the artist’s early woolen panels have been cut up and folded neatly into a Plexiglas box), and retrospection is confined to pieces from the past ten years, plus a grouping of Trockel’s older books and booklike objects. But the show does offer contributions by 11 other artists, including outsider great Judith Scott (1943–2005) and scientific illustrator José Celestino Mutis (1732–1808), as well as the intact shell of a gigantic lobster. There are also paintings by an orangutan named Tilda.
Spread over the museum’s second floor, the first section is a mess, albeit a fabulous one at times. The centerpiece is a small white-tiled room billed as a cabinet of wonders. It contains, among other things, a plastic palm tree hung upside down from the ceiling, a white aviary filled with stuffed birds and a sculpture composed of a hotel reception bell under a glass dome. It suggests that at least some of the antecedents for this exhibit are the surrealistic displays produced by the likes of Marcel Broodthaers, Joseph Cornell and Salvador Dalí.
Beyond this inner sanctum is a heterogeneous, mostly nature-themed aggregation of objects and art. Exquisite 19th-century glass models of marine invertebrates by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka mix it up with Tilda’s abstractions. Trockel herself presents a variety of extraordinary works, such as a photocollage of a tattered book opening like a flower against a background of puddled ink, a big dish-shaped ceramic sculpture in red, and a wonderful slide show, featuring leaves, seedpods, roots and grasses arranged into cartoonish figures.
Nearby is the work of several outsider artists, and while it is clearly Trockel’s intent to dispense with, rather than solidify, conventional categories, a clumsy presentation seems only to further marginalize them. Her pieces are squashed into one awful freestanding vitrine, together with the uncanny work of Morton Bartlett (1901–1992), who made naturalistic models of children, then photographed them in lifelike situations. Another case harbors a flock of cardboard birds by James Castle (1899–1977), a deaf mute who made extraordinary soot-and-spit drawings of daily life. These arrangements do little justice to anyone.
The situation improves on the third floor, where Trockel pairs her own more recent wool paintings with a grouping of fiber-art sculptures by Judith Scott, an artist who had Down syndrome. A real dialogue develops between Scott’s flattish, crimson-and-green wrapped-wool piece, resembling an exotic sea creature, and Trockel’s lengths of black wool on canvas, arrayed in vertical lines that simultaneously conjure Richard Serra’s oil-stick drawings and Agnes Martin’s penciled grids.
Taking up half of the museum’s fourth floor are Trockel’s terrific new clay creations. This part of the exhibition is dominated by an elongated sofa (made from two identical casts of a real, if rather battered, modernist original) covered with a sheet of black-painted plastic and accented with an oversize felt throw. Its overblown domesticity finds an echo in a wall piece resembling a Cubist fireplace and another evoking an attenuated set of stairs. The domestic gives way to the untamed in exuberant, heavily glazed reliefs, as well as lumpy, pedestal-shaped sculptures whose surface textures recall lichen growths or volcanic rock formations.
In the other half of the gallery, a career’s worth of Trockel’s ideas in the form of her “book drafts” attest to her talents as a collagist and draftsperson. They’re well worth spending time with. Essentially notes for future projects, these intimate sketches are, in Trockel’s universe, as important as any of her finished works. And this, rather than simply celebrating the artist, seems to be the real point of “A Cosmos,” for all its flaws: to subvert hierarchies and prick the viewer’s imagination.—Anne Doran