Rosemarie Trockel, Study for R. W., 2012, digital print, acrylic, pencil, 28 3/4 x 28".

Rosemarie Trockel, Study for R. W., 2012, digital print, acrylic, pencil, 28 3/4 x 28".

“In the Spirit of Walser: Rosemarie Trockel”

Donald Young Gallery

Rosemarie Trockel, Study for R. W., 2012, digital print, acrylic, pencil, 28 3/4 x 28".

At the time of his death this past April, the UK-born dealer and influential Chicago gallerist Donald Young left us with perhaps the most inspired and absorbing exhibition of his roughly fifty years working in the arts: a string of six projects—by Peter Fischli and David Weiss (who died shortly after this review was first written), Moyra Davey, Thomas Schütte, Rosemarie Trockel, Tacita Dean and Mark Wallinger, and Rodney Graham and Josiah McElheny—created in response to the oeuvre and character of the enigmatic Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878–1956). For each mini show, seven framed photo portraits of the writer and a display case hosting a collection of his first-edition microscripts were juxtaposed with new works by the chosen artist or artist pair. “I became more and more interested in the connection between [Walser’s] writings and certain contemporary artists,” Young wrote in his curatorial statement for the show, “[and] out of this has come a series of exhibitions, ‘In the Spirit of Walser.’ This is a purely subjective choice and avoids any attempt at an inclusive exhibition or homage to the writer.”

As Young goes on to note, “Hundreds of artists have made work in homage to Walser, many of a highly personal and sometimes romantic and sentimental nature.” Susan Sontag considered the Swiss modernist among her heroes. Frances Stark heralds him as one of her favorite authors. Helen Mirra has made work based on his 1925–26 novel Der Rauber (The Robber). John Kelsey is a professed fan. In 2009, Billy Childish painted a series of works based on Walser’s life and death. Walter Benjamin once wrote, “Walser begins where the fairy tales stop.” And yet Young demurs: “This is not an area that interests me personally.”

Perhaps, then, Rosemarie Trockel’s pointedly unsentimental contribution to this multipart series most closely reflected the gallerist’s own relationship to the author’s work. Responding to Walser’s 1928–29 microscript “Der Schnee” (The Snow), Trockel’s Wintercoat, 2012, stood in the center of Young’s Michigan Avenue gallery as a large block of unglazed clay, channeling the gravity of Walser’s oeuvre. Shrouding this hand-hewn mass was a piece of transparent plastic that had been dressed with a thin coat of white paint. Repelled by the nonabsorbent covering, the paint stippled as it dried, producing a filigreed or even calligraphic pattern evocative of the impossibly small markings of Walser’s manuscripts.

The sculpture, which also spoke to Walser’s meditation on snow—a repetitive, particulate form whose accumulation is analogous to obstruction and fading memory, and whose mode of arrival the Swiss writer mirrored with “falling” words—was joined by three digital prints, each titled (in English) The Weight of Snow, 2010. As dense clots of homogenous computer-generated black lines covered over with loose strokes of white, the images registered foremost as formal abstractions, paralleling the pleasure Walser sought to bestow on the reader through the sheer grace precipitated in his writing.

However, Trockel, like Walser, habitually tempers beauty with irony and irreverent critique, both of which are present in Study for R.W., 2012, two additional black digital prints likewise sullied with a sweeping gesture of white paint. But these digitally drawn abstractions also feature text: ROBERT WALSER LOVE U MISS U, one reads, though the “miss u” has been reversed, implying an inverse perspective that requires the mind’s eye to travel to the other side of the page to read it properly. Such idiomatic language strikes one as suspect. Is it Trockel’s clichéd lament or is she gently parodying the many devotees who have idealized the writer for his outsider status, craftsmanship, and beauty? In any event, this very ambiguity is precisely what makes Trockel’s contribution feel so truly “in the spirit” of Walser’s project. And in addressing the man and his work alongside our cultural stereotypes of genius and influence, Trockel also appeared to act in the spirit of Donald Young—a figure whose respect for and support of cultural producers reflected his dedication to the long view of contemporary art, keenly embracing its historical lineage while nurturing its future.

Michelle Grabner