PRINT March 2003

’80s THEN

Rosemarie Trockel

ISABELLE GRAW: In the late ’70s you applied to the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf but were rejected and ended up at the lesser-known Fachhochschule für Kunst und Design in Cologne. What kinds of artistic or social possibilities did you see developing at that time? That is, how was what Bourdieu called the “space of possibilities” taking shape?

ROSEMARIE TROCKEL: Well, I had little “space” at my disposal: I suffered from a case of agoraphobia that more or less defined my life. For a long time I could leave my apartment only with great effort. My teacher Werner Schriefers, the former director of the school, always had to come to my house. In Cologne at that time there was a euphoric feeling that something new was just beginning, but because of my condition I found myself in an artistic vacuum. Such a phobia could be seen as a reaction to those spaces I felt drawn to but that seemed inaccessible to me.

Rosemarie Trockel, 1989. Photo: Benjamin Katz.

IG: Were you able to go out at night? Did the phobia apply only to very crowded spaces?

RT: I could sometimes leave the house if someone accompanied me, and I would visit friends when not too many people were over. But the agoraphobia kept me from developing an artistic vision. I spent my time drawing, which I was “good” at. Also, I had no idea what it might mean for me to be an artist, since there were no female role models. My first contact with the art scene was in 1980, when I got to know several members of the newly formed group Mülheimer Freiheit. A little while later I met Monika Sprüth. I had noticed her at a concert at school and started talking to her, and from then on we saw each other a lot. She was working as an urban planner in the Ruhr region. When she told me that she wanted to become an artist, I suggested that we rent a room together and work there.

IG: Were you two making collaborative works?

RT: No, we were far too different for that. But we spent time together working as artists, which turned out to be extraordinarily helpful to me. Monika was a perfect companion. I visited my first galleries and exhibition spaces with her.

IG: What seemed promising about the Mülheimer Freiheit?

RT: They didn’t take the art world seriously—particularly Jirí Georg Dokoupil, who had studied with Hans Haacke. They turned the myth of the artist on its head, doing things like making paintings together and promoting them as the work of one artist. They practically fetishized group creativity. That attracted a lot of artists, myself included. When Paul Maenz opened his first show with Walter Dahn, Dokoupil, and Peter Bömmels, the gallery was totally packed—it was a real social event. But not exactly my world.

IG: In what way?

RT: At school we had tended to focus on ourselves, and now all of a sudden we were invited to participate in the Malaktionen, the group painting sessions. I profited from the situation, but the force of the group was too much for me. When I realized that their style had become my style too, I withdrew. I felt as if I were too weak, and yet at the same time too strong. I preferred to work alone or with Monika, where we each stayed centered, on our own.

IG: Nevertheless, it sounds as though the group dynamic was enormously important for you, because it was at once supportive and motivating. Finally there were people around who struggled with similar problems and with whom you could exchange ideas.

RT: Certainly. Conversations about art had become popular in the truest sense of the word. They were taking place everywhere, especially in bars.

IG: What was your work like at that time?

RT: Primarily I drew, but I was also painting and producing my first sculptures. Other than that, I made short Super-8 films, with which I’d been having a lot of fun since studying with filmmaker Robert van Ackeren.

IG: Around 1983 or ’84, another group of artists came to Cologne, led by Martin Kippenberger. This created a competitive situation: on the one side the adherents of Mülheimer Freiheit, and on the other side Kippenberger’s group. Monika Sprüth and her newly opened gallery formed a kind of third pole.

RT: Yes, Monika had given up making art after she decided that she wasn’t good enough. Shortly thereafter she curated her first exhibition in our studio rooms, with the work of several Mülheimer Freiheit artists.

IG: Wasn’t Paul Maenz already representing many of them?

RT: That’s right, but we had become very good friends with Maenz, so there was no competition with him, at least when it came to a group exhibition. The show was a huge success, and it prompted Monika to think about opening her own gallery. It was fun for her, and it was the beginning of a restructuring. I moved to the attic, and she opened her gallery. A little while later, I had my first exhibition there.

IG: Jutta Koether once described in a catalogue essay how Monika dedicated herself to the promotion of your work.

RT: You could see it like that. Monika took on a lot of my obligations for me because I was so confined by my agoraphobia. There were even times when she made appearances as Rosemarie Trockel.

Rosemarie Trockel, Untitled, 1987, wool, 23 3/4 x 23 3/4".

IG: And how did you develop your interest in New York art—in appropriation and other non-painterly processes that were more conceptual?

RT: Monika and I had taken a trip to New York and met a lot of people there. As in Cologne, there was the feeling that something was really beginning. We met Cindy Sherman and Jenny Holzer, whose work we had always wanted to show, and got along so well right from the start that the friendships have lasted to this day. In 1987 Pat Hearn put me in an exhibition with Eva Hesse, Mary Heilmann, Annette Lemieux, and Louise Bourgeois. Those were exciting, formative times.

IG: It’s remarkable that you are mentioning only women. At that time in Cologne, of course, men played the main roles.

RT: That’s true. But we didn’t resent them. Our contact with Mülheimer Freiheit even had a personal side; Monika, for example, had a relationship with Walter Dahn. We regularly went to the openings at Maenz—he had become a kind of cult star—and when Max Hetzler arrived the group expanded. You could say that Mülheimer Freiheit had opened the door to a space that led immediately into other spaces. In spite of all that, I felt drawn more to what was happening in New York. In Cologne a lot of energy was wasted in power struggles, while in New York the equal status of women artists seemed much less contested.

IG: Was it a conscious goal of yours and Monika’s to keep an eye out in New York for women artists in particular?

RT: Yes, but we weren’t looking to make a women’s gallery. From the beginning, we showed many male artists, like Andreas Schulze, George Condo, and Fischli & Weiss. Again, it was always friendship that started it. What in retrospect looks like a cleverly conceived strategy was in reality often the product of friendly liaisons, which of course tend to involve agreement in matters of content. But it’s true, we were definitely interested in showing women artists, which was rather unusual for Cologne at the time.

IG: How was your relationship to the artists at Max Hetzler? You were a close friend of Kippenberger’s—

RT: I met him in 1982. We worked together at times. He designed my first exhibition poster for Philomene Magers; I brought him images for his serial paintings. Still, I would describe our relationship as problematic. We each had our own peculiarities, and our artistic views were difficult to reconcile.

IG: What drew you to Kippenberger and his circle?

RT: For me it was instructive to witness the sparring between the Mülheimer Freiheit and the Hetzler group. The artistic strategies at issue were not so different from each other, as is often assumed. The mutual slaughter was also not entirely meant to be taken seriously. In the end, it was just about being on top. Kippenberger was a magnificent strategist. His precision and mercilessness fascinated me, even if they were often directed at me.

Rosemarie Trockel, Untitled, 1985, wool, 23 3/4 x 21 3/8".

IG: Kippenberger intuitively knew one’s weak spots and talked about things that were usually repressed. But his system did not permit equality for women—one was always reminded of one’s woman-ness and mercilessly confined to it.

RT: Kippenberger’s system was indeed purely masculine, and naturally at some point I’d had enough of it.

IG: Was there a place reserved for you as a respected female artist in his hierarchy ?

RT: I would hardly say there was a place reserved for me. But if there had been a place reserved, it would have been there. His system played with the machismo of the art world. Kippenberger knew all about this problem, but he was subject to it himself. That was also the case for several members of the Mülheimer Freiheit, though they were less self-conscious than Kippenberger.

IG: Thinking back to the Cologne art bars and openings, I remember artists cultivating a rather raw, brusque attitude even into the late ’80s, adopting an exaggerated authoritarian manner and going around with an air of conviction. You were much more reserved.

RT: Even if I’d wanted to be like them, it wouldn’t have worked. I only put up with Kippenberger’s system because I knew that something would come out of it for me. I was like a sponge slowly soaking it all up.

IG: You can see that attitude in your sculptures from the ’80s. At the time, when Beuys was nearly fetishized in the art world, you were playing ironically on his anthropological aesthetic.

RT: I was captivated by Beuys, but his authoritarian behavior rather repulsed me. My relationship to him was characterized by ambivalence.

IG: How did the knitted pictures come to you?

RT: In the ’70s there were a lot of questionable women’s exhibitions, mostly on the theme of house and home. I tried to take wool, which was viewed as a woman’s material, out of this context and to rework it in a neutral process of production. That simple experiment grew into my trademark, which I really didn’t want.

IG: You respond to the critical reception of your work in a variety of ways, picking apart the stereotyped remark or exaggerating the critic’s cliché, as with the knitted pictures and the Herdplatten-Objekte, your many stove pieces.

RT: The minute something works, it ceases to be interesting. As soon as you have spelled something out, you should set it aside.

IG: Since the ’80s you have been considered the only female German artist who has achieved institutional recognition comparable to that of canonized artists like Polke and Richter. One could propose that in Germany, at least in the ’80s, there was room for only one successful “exceptional woman artist.” On the other hand, you were always involved in collaborations, such as with Carsten Höller. It was as if you wanted to say to the world, “I am not the subject you’d like to make me into.”

RT: It doesn’t really bother me to be the object of misunderstandings or misapprehensions of the art machine. Think of the lists in the magazines Kapital and Focus, which use a system of points to measure artists’ success for the benefit of art investors; you can see right away that they have nothing to do with an artist’s quality. Such representation in the media never interested me anyway. I was glad to be able to just let these things happen. In my opinion, you should never try to control or direct your own career. Control is possible only with respect to one’s self, and then only to a certain extent. You should try to stay centered, which of course is difficult, because you exist in the public sphere. The machinations of museums and galleries alone are enough to make you feel out of control. Resisting this is not always a sensible use of your energy. In the end, it’s an existential decision: To what do I devote my energy, and when do I decide to just let go?

Isabelle Graw is a Berlin-based art critic and founding editor of Texte zur Kunst.

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.