New York

Katharina Fritsch

Dia Center for the Arts

Nobody, it seems, likes rats. Mice are cute; rats, just dirty. Stuart Little is a mouse; Templeton, a rat. In the urban cesspool, rats surpass cockroaches as pestilential, borderline-scary nuisances. (Roaches, after all, are easy to kill.) When a rat scurries past me on the detritus-strewn lanes of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I have to steel myself not to jump.

Maybe Katharina Fritsch, alone, really likes rats. She’s a rodentiaphile teuton. Given the scale and freak glamour of her DIA installation, Rattenkönig (Rat king, 1993), she tries hard to make the most of them as icons. We are told that in lore and various anecdotal accounts, the rat-king is a group of rats inextricably and inexplicably bound together through the knotting of their tails. Sightings of the rat-king in Northern Europe since the Renaissance have been taken as evil portents.

Fritsch continues to exploit serialism and tamper with scale. Issues of kitsch and mass-production, which prevailed in her yellow Lourdes Madonna souvenirs and cutesy, arched-backed kitty cats recede in Rattenkönig. Minimalist, Conceptual, and Pop strategies remain her formal and presentational referents. Ignoring the rat as “theme,” Fritsch’s installation perspicuously foregrounds the interpenetration of these ’60s-derived tendencies. One rat, even a very big one, might prompt a mere “So what?”—unless, of course, rendered in flowering topiary, like Jeff Koons’s Puppy, 1992. Sixteen of them, radiating centrifugally from their knotted tails, have the loaded “presence” of hulking Minimalist monoliths, the kind that excited Tony Smith on the Jersey Turnpike and bugged Michael Fried like all get out. But from another angle, Rattenkönig, figural, representational aspect clarifies the obvious but unhappy kinship of Pop and Minimalism (unhappy, at least, for the likes of Donald Judd and Carl Andre; doubt that Andy would have cared). Both rely for their most dramatic effects on serialism: one thing after another, be it a steel box or the face of Marilyn.

Fritsch returns repeatedly in her work to the symbolically charged icon, milking it for its spooky, intrinsic powers. Serial presentation heightens the effect, then defuses it. This may not be the artist’s intent. The most influential strain of Pop art—Warhol’s—demonstrates the insufficiency of the singly iconic image. Why one Marilyn, Jackie, Ethel Scull (ha-ha); why not a hundred? Bigger is better and more is more. This, and not some quasi-mythical tripe about tail-twined rodents, is the real import of Fritsch’s very nice installation.

David Rimanelli