Rosemarie Trockel

IN A TYPICALLY WRY, feminist twist on the trauma of a midcareer retrospective, Rosemarie Trockel named her current exhibition at the Ludwig Museum “Post-Menopause.” Or rather, so she renamed it: Advance publicity referred to the show simply as “Menopause” and so do the accompanying catalogue texts, suggesting an eleventh-hour switch as the book’s cover and exhibition poster went to press. Retrospectives, of course, merely exaggerate the post hoc condition of all exhibitions—a morbid state refused by Ed Ruscha, who had the words “I Don’t Want No Retro Spective” embossed on the catalogue of his 1982 survey. Yet Trockel neatly hexes the curse, “posting” an alternative periodization of her oeuvre and calling for both a metaphysical and embodied reading of her presumably aging body—of work. Named after her wool picture Menopause (completed in 2005, the year of the exhibition’s opening) and marked by Trockel’s signature, knowingly “dumb” optimism, the show’s title says it all: There will be wool works after Menopause; there will be art from me after this retrospective; there will be life after my death; there will be pleasure, potential, and production even after (maybe even especially after) “the change,” as it used to be called.

How brave and how funny to choose this title, inviting us to haul the body of the fifty-three-year-old artist from the distaff side of the still-quite-sexist German art world and to read it back into the cramped display of three decades’ worth of production, including “moving walls,” mechanical sculptures, studies for books, and, above all, wool pictures. Ariadne, Penelope, Rumpelstiltskin’s moll, as well as the nameless and numberless females “manning” textile looms, mills, and fiber-wielding machines around the world are all called forcefully back into the picture (for me, at any rate) by Trockel’s titular gesture. But this could certainly be a minority view. No one really wants to talk about her “knitting” anymore (that’s old news). In the catalogue, the young scholars Brigid Doherty and Gregory Williams offer often-brilliant interpretations but largely ignore Trockel’s “issues” with gender, leaving curator Barbara Engelbach to bring the topic occasionally into view. “Post-Menopause,” equipped with the dramatically canonizing apparatus of a catalogue raisonné of “wool works and works related to wool,” at once nods to and refuses the gendered discourse of the (female) weaver, knitter, and manipulator of hair. Its title literally acknowledges female body history, while its cheeky prefix declares, “I’m so over that!”

And in many ways Trockel has always been “so over” feminism—at least the yearning, angry type that must have motivated Faith Wilding, for example, in her crocheted installation piece Womb Room, 1972. But Trockel is also generationally over Minimalism and post-Minimalism, reducing Robert Morris’s canonical Threadwaste with Mirrors, 1968, to just so much raw material—an informe tangle that refuses to posit the body in relation to its own industrial state.

No doubt some will be annoyed by my insistence on Trockel’s feminism—aren’t we so over that, too? But I would argue that the installation in Cologne begs for precisely such a reading, opening as it does with an enormous new wall work, Yes, but, 2005, that consists of hanging white wool yarn, dipped to varying degrees in bloodred paint. On adjacent walls hilarious labels reinforce the abject comedy of the piece, warning visitors (in German and English): “Touch at your own risk! Color of wool rubs off!” (I tested it, but it didn’t.) Lest the whole thing seem just too maudlin, with its ebbing and flowing “graph” of red that finally trickles to pure white, Trockel gives us a final punch line: Ceramic dishes push their way through the wall of now-white fiber to collect a few red-flecked strands into piles, like so much cooked spaghetti. Introducing the show’s generally rollicking tone, Yes, but melds Vienna Actionism with The Dinner Party catered by a Raggedy Ann Chef Boyardee.

Never monolithic, the feminism I’m bringing to this work came of age when Trockel did (in the ’70s and ’80s), offering a loose and evolving set of frameworks that treated gender, in Joan Scott’s formulation, as a “useful category of analysis,” with embodied experience written into it as both culturally determined and negotiable. It’s a particularly powerful tool for analyzing Trockel’s hometown installation, where we see her tackling all the male icons on view elsewhere in the Ludwig—icons she must have memorized as the chocolate king’s holdings became public over the years. My favorite of these dialectical pairings is Trockel’s engagement with Donald Judd’s elegant, eight-unit channeled-steel-floor piece (on view upstairs) in her wall work, Phobia, 2002. Here, Judd’s hard-hat posture is styled as a form of heterosexual panic, induced by gleaming panels of anodized aluminum that are canted off the wall, crisscrossed, and fringed like a belly dancer’s halter top.

The connection runs deeper than the visual pun implied between Phobia’s “stack” and Judd’s classic use of that form, since the treasure trove of funky Buchentwürfe (Drafts for Books), 1985–95/2002, contains a 1988 volume also titled Phobia, which Trockel described as “a commentary on the psychological classification of Judd’s attitude toward the female sex.” The cover features an early photograph of the ur-male artist contemplating his work, an image Trockel fiendishly altered by airbrushing out the fly of Judd’s jeans, giving his shirt a pointedly curvaceous contour, and styling his long hair into a Breck girl flip. I’m not claiming, of course, that Trockel’s wall piece is “better” than Judd’s floor units upstairs (or James Rosenquist’s equally related crisscross hanging picture made of “fringed” Mylar downstairs). Rather, her work puts into question the whole system of valuation and determination itself (who gets put where), making Judd’s work more interesting in the process (and, as we know from the Man himself, “a work needs only to be interesting”). Trockel cooks up her responses and moves on, letting us munch on the results. It’s tremendous fun seeing her rethink Jasper Johns and Bruce Nauman (with partially clad or bewigged body casts), Andy Warhol (his products become her logotypes), Sigmar Polke (from dots to plaids), Chuck Close (fingerprints disaggregated from figuration and made into Rorschachs), Richard Serra (whose rusting vertical plates get outfitted with stove-top burners), et al. All these sources come out gleaming with glamor and fuzzy with feminist wit.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the German-born sculptor Eva Hesse emerges as the most sympathetic mentor for an understanding of Trockel’s work: Witness the humor, subtle feminist commentary, and generative grammars, as well as the sustained fascination with fiber. What marks Trockel’s generational position, though, is her capacity to process the burden of art history through both the organic and machinic phyla. Those dual modes, hybrid in Trockel’s practice, made her work seem absolutely contemporary when it burst onto the scene in the mid- to late ’80s, poised like that of other sophisticates (Peter Halley, for example) between Minimalist abstraction and Pop mediation.

If feminism of the type I have been referencing sometimes privileged the organic, its reinvention by Trockel is crucially engaged with the machinic. (Quite literally, since there is even an automated sculpture here in which a mechanized, bewigged male manikin repetitively plies his sponge between a wall-mounted mirror and the gallery floor.) The edge of cruelty (malice is his term) Gregory Williams notes in his essay on Trockel’s animal houses is the calling card of the machinic phylum. For example, in It’s a Tough Job But Somebody Has to Do It, 1991 (with its Kruger-like English title), the connections between four plastic tubes and the teats of an actual cow’s udder are experienced as simultaneously funny, pathetic, and painful—not unlike Trockel’s hanging stove tops, comic in their verticality and drooping electrical plugs but threatening to singe the unwary all the same.

Trockel thus interrogates the two sides of our anthropocentric epistemologies—animal and machine—both of which constitute sustained threads in what I am calling her feminist ethics. The foundational wool pictures, after all, depend on the hair of lowly ungulates, but this animal substance must be spun by machines into strands, further twined into yarn, and fed into other machines with a low tolerance for variation, before Trockel’s programs can drive the fiber into discernable knitted patterns. This animal/machine continuum was harder to notice at the time the wool pictures first appeared. The wool seemed “dead,” processed into comical repeating patterns: Francesco Saroglia’s Woolmark logo from 1964, Communism’s hammer and sickle, the Playboy bunny, or the export phrase MADE IN WESTERN GERMANY reiterated elegantly in gray on black.

But the new work Menopause takes us to a different place. Perhaps we might call it the post-Dolly present, in which the sweater made from the cloned sheep’s fleece drew the largest crowd ever registered at the London Science Museum when it was exhibited there in 1998. Nothing in Menopause says anything explicit about Dolly, or cloning, or the increasingly prevalent view of animal bodies as “resources” to be “mined” for biomimetic genomics. But it is the product of our contemporary moment, which begs us to interrogate the organic and machinic phyla anew—revealing that the body of the hybrid is mortal, and sags, and faces an end more like humus than rust.

Something must be made, after all, of the hand knitting in Menopause and two other related large-scale works. The only precedent occurs in a single hand-knitted piece from 1986, Eisberg, in which the knitted white wool is stretched over a blue-painted canvas. Rightly celebrated by Doherty in her catalogue essay as an indication of Derridean “re-marking” of genre, the “iceberg,” at thirty centimeters square, is unprepossessing—salient in the show only for being a near pendant (and reversal) of Für die, die keine Strickbilder mögen, aber trotzdem Kommunisten sind (For Those Who Do Not Like Wool Pictures, But Are Communists Nevertheless), 1988, another work of exactly the same size but this time with primed canvas stretched over the now-invisible wool. Eisberg would have remained as unique as the “Commie” picture, except for the audacious monumentalizing of its premise in Menopause, which is nearly ten times as large. Clearly conceived as summae, reversals, and renewals of her life in stitches, Menopause and its two sibling works transpose hand for machine, framed for merely stretched, and monochrome for pattern or figuration.

Each of these departures has important ramifications to be worked out over time by Trockel and her audience. The one I’d like to emphasize here is the artist’s crucial shift from machine to hand—neither nostalgic nor Luddite, since Trockel is not necessarily the one doing the labor. The handmade quality here is emphasized by the artist’s reversal of the knit to its “wrong,” or purled, side, revealing divagations in fiber tension that would be much less visible on the smooth, or “right,” side of the knit. Since the hand knittter can never feed the wool into the crux of the needles with exactly the same tension each time, there is an unavoidable rhythm in the purl stitches, an index of the yarn slowly becoming tight and relaxing as a new length of fiber is pulled from the hank. The body rhythms of the knitters, themselves disciplined models for the regular shuttling of the knitting machine, become visible in the surface. With Menopause and its companion works, Trockel has shifted from pattern to process, taking us from the logos of our subjectification—whether Woolmarks or Playboy bunnies—to its embodied, internalized, and regimented modes.

Caroline A. Jones is associate professor of the history of art at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Rosemarie Trockel: Post-Menopause” remains on view at the Ludwig Museum, Cologne, through Feb. 12; travels to MAXXI, Museo Nationale della Arti del XXI Secolo, Rome, May 19–Sept. 10.