An Old-Fashioned Orangutan

John Haber
in New York City

Rosemarie Trockel and Mark Flood

I know, you are sick of artists who never set a brush to canvas. They just churn things out, through workshops, assistants, and factories—the bigger, brasher, and emptier the better. I can only imagine what you will think of Rosemarie Trockel. For her three paintings, she turns to a orangutan.

With a younger, hipper artist pulling that one, you could almost hear the laughter—at, of course, the art world's expense. As Trockel writes in one of the small sketches, posters, and drafts for artist books that greet visitors, "My films just make me laugh." For her, though, laughter does not come easily and, often as not, comes at her expense. Maybe Germans are like that, but she is less a comedian than a visionary, only her vision at the New Museum is fixed on the past. It revives old media and old natural histories, only sometimes with the shock of the new. As for the emptiness, she calls her nearly full-museum retrospective "A Cosmos." Rosemarie Trockel's A Cosmos (photo by Benoit Pailley, New Museum, 2012)

Could Mark Flood be that younger, hipper artist? In Chelsea, Flood sets the scene right at the front desk, with half a dozen copies of Life from August 8, 1949. Yes, Jackson Pollock fans, that issue. It is no accident that Flood's third New York solo show in barely a year coincides with the torrent of 2012 fall openings, when galleries like to lead with a star turn. And I do not mean Pollock's. Somehow, even in his absence, Flood always plays the star—and yet he, too, mixes all too obvious disdain with paintings in fabric.

Knit and collaborators

Trockel, born in 1952, has has long worked in ceramics like Arlene Shechet and on her better known "knit paintings." She knows that they are craft and "lesser" media. She knows that they are traditionally "women's work." Each gets a full floor of the museum, although one must first cross that long alcove for books. Descending to the second floor, one comes upon an entire museum of natural history in miniature, filled with drawings, models, and display cases. From ballerinas to exotic birds, flowers, and a nearly thirty-pound lobster ("cooked on May 13, 1964"), they seem to belong to a lost world.

The books, too, must seem old-fashioned, in ordinary typewriting and colored pencil. They are no more systematic than her science, even with its display case for a whole stack of fabric. They also share an awareness of her private self and her gender. One shows a gaunt, turbaned sage with one arm raised high—to support another gaunt, turbaned sage. She labels it "old men's dreams," and here those dreams have long since crumpled into logical, self-referential oblivion. In a short video, a young woman lies down for a nap, and she could be escaping their dreams or finding her own.

The recovery in Post-Minimalism of decorative arts and the everyday has often gone hand in hand not with feminism, but with commercialism. Conversely, it has struck a blow against the myth of pure genius. Wars are fought over all these, especially by painters, agonizing over bloated installations, art institutions, and the handmade. Andrea Zittel, for one, has devoted more and more of her utopian dwellings and trailer parks to tapestry, in designs sent out to others for weaving. I am not sure how much to describe Trockel's politics. I am not sure how much to describe her as political at all.

She does, though, keep things personal, much like Noa Eshkol with her "wall carpets," Al Loving in "torn canvas," or the British collective dubbed Banners of Persuasion. She may or may not have made all the knits herself, but she easily could have. Rather than weaving, she stretches loose parallel strands that one can almost touch. They add up to thick bright stripes or to larger monochromes in black or sky blue, with an obvious parallel in geometric abstraction of the 1970s, when she began. When a work has a white edge, a part of the composition for many painters, she has simply placed unpainted wood on top. She also may not complete the framing border or the symmetry.

The knits may seem to have more life as furnishings, as with Atheism, a simple armchair beheaded—or a life of their own. Those themes become all the more evident in ceramic, with a hard bed, a table topped by Landscapian Shroud of My Mother, or those metal doors that one sees on pulleys outside Bushwick studios and industry. Others, in brighter colors and titles like Magma, look like an unhealthy growth. She combines the themes with a thicker surface partly covering a flatter and shinier oval, like a late Baroque ornamental mirror that got way out of hand. She aspires to growth in the final floor, too, stuffing paper, fabric, and whatever else into a display. A small room comes together with white bathroom tiling, presided over by bird calls, motorized birds, and an artificial tree.

And then come her collaborators. She does, after all, want to include "A Cosmos." The ones in the natural history range from eighteenth-century science to twentieth-century outsider art—like James Castle's flat birds of found paper, Morton Bartlett with his dolls and photographs of his dolls, and Ruth Francken's seeming warhead or bomb. They begin earlier, though, as one notices the yarn tied madly around lumpy outlines, like mangled corpses or blunt tools. Judith Scott made them twenty years ago. And then there is Tilda, the orangutan.

Retrospective influence

The curator, Lynne Cook of the Reina Sofía in collaboration with the artist, is plainly making a statement. Warhol's influence, on view at the Met, does not supply the only shared retrospective in town. (A orangutan was practically the only thing missing from Warhol's Factory.) For once, the New Museum has something of the equal parts vital and annoying vision of its founder, Marcia Tucker. It devotes almost the whole house to largely recent work by a single artist, neither all that familiar, all that hip, or all that easy. When a Trockel video showed in Chelsea's early days, I had trouble following it.

More than influence, though, this is about resonance. After all, it starts a couple of centuries before the artist's birth, much as a retrospective deserves a hint of her early work, and the influences run in every direction at once. The alcove opening the show already announces a few, with an ink stain titled after a film by Robert Bresson (A Man Escaped) and the words "I am Dan Graham." One can imagines the others all solely as context, but she necessarily alters the context and meaning for others as well. One can see her, with her stuffed birds and crumpled paper, as supplying the specimens, they the scientific models. That extends to the outsider artists, too, who may never have dreamed of science.

The stuffing does not lead to more cuddly, ironic animals out of Jeff Koons, any more than the stripes are Damien Hirst mass-produced dot paintings. The knits seem so handmade that they are in danger of unraveling—and indeed strands of red, yellow, and blue from 1986 lead to three balls of acrylic on the floor. As another bit of retrospective influence, a group show on the theme of "September 11" included it among fears of the unraveling of America. Still, Trockel trumpets neither her warmth nor her detachment, not even in a grainy photograph of a woman crotch topped by a large spider. One may look at Tilda's work and wonder: is that art?

Critics after Robert Hughes may still be asking—or at least whether it is good art. Theorists of Modernism and Postmodernism, like Arthur C. Danto, have long kept those two questions separate. They argue that one of two indiscernible objects can be art, according to institutions, history, tradition, an artist's mere act, or agreement. Tilda's faint colored stains are pretty bad, they do not look anything like Trockel's, and I am not sure that they are art. Still, she labels these as hers, with the creature named only along with the medium, and one may even mistake them for hers. One can then think of them as art, if only bad art, but what matters is the question—whether one can or must see them as art.

More important, they bear on her, for she wants to see them and her alike as part of a process, a cosmos, although a rather small one. They are, in the end, not painting, because an ape cannot think in terms of painting, but textiles as revelation. Another short video focuses on a moth as it rests on her wool. A video in the alcove stairs looks to insects and looks back as well, with tinted film and a silent-film score, as Mrs. Beetle and Mr. Grasshopper aspire to love and art. Like them all, Trockel aspires to be part of art, part of nature, and part of a natural history. She just wants to take a few outsiders in with her, paper dolls and all.

They all belong within her nexus of naive media, simple gestures, and abstraction. She calls Tilda's masterpieces Less Sauvage than Others, maybe a loan from the French title of Claude Levi-Strauss's The Savage Mind. She then adopts the same title for a platinum-glazed ceramic. Art about science often looks back to the older, less systematic science of natural history. Trockel could stand a few more systems and more savagery. One will just have to settle for some poignant outsiders and colorful strands of wool.

The absent star

You might not know it right off, from the wholesome young woman on the closed cover of Life, but Hans Namuth posed Jackson Pollock in front of his paintings, in images that still haunt art. Inside, the magazine also asked a famous question: was this the most important living American artist? For the record, the press release for "ARTSTAR" identifies Mark Flood as perhaps the least important artist of the last century, and he always has the last laugh, you puny art-world mortals. He starts with an entire wall of press from past shows, on plain sheets of paper. More often than not, the coverage dwells on Flood and not the work, like his habit of sending others in his place to openings—to take photos, in case you were wondering what you missed.

Flood manages his absence carefully. It can pass for a celebrity's difficult access, postmodern mind games, an assault on authenticity, or simply modesty. It is above all a performance and an exercise in image control. But when it comes to Flood's cool and knowing art, absence does not make the heart grow fonder. Uptown shortly before, he displayed cheap consumer goods with the logos effaced and magazine clippings indistinguishable from the ads. Past shows have had text art like Take Drugs, based on an Exxon sign, and Another Painting—where I spare you the block capitals.

With Flood it is all over but the shouting. For a towering Chelsea centerpiece, four panels rise almost to the ceiling, like a single column with a blunt message from, once again, an absent sender. It looks as if it were cut right through aluminum slabs, with a blowtorch, in an equally blunt sans serif. Pardon me if I again suppress the capital letters: Whore Museums / Gutless Collectors / Blind Dealers / Alleged Artists. Did he forget gullible critics and opening crowds in search of a free beer?

I doubt it, for he knows his public well. Flood flatters their cynicism about the art scene, while letting them know that he cares, honest. Born in 1957 and based in Houston, he worked there for the Menil Foundation and has exhibited in Marfa, Texas—home to a temple of Minimalism, the Chinati Foundation, and to Donald Judd. Minimalism enters, too, that apparent aluminum, actually stencil and collage on silvery paint. It also influences a long-term series, the Lace Paintings. There he paints over loose fabric before ripping it away, leaving a twisted weave around a gaping black rectangle.

Critics want to believe in the abstraction, but then they can into them what they like. Those black rectangles practically shout, your message here. Fans want to see more than just another glib young conceptual artist, the guy who has rendered Michael Jackson, ET, and cartoon warriors. They want to believe that they have found the real Flood, maybe the same modest fellow who describes himself as just a musician. He started Culturecide, a "countercultural rock band," a good twenty years ago—and maybe, just maybe, he keeps his distance from openings because he would rather be in his garage or out touring.

Did irony peak in the 1990s, as the "Pictures generation" veered to self-glorification, along with Matthew Barney and the Young British Artists? Maybe, but Flood is still committing culturecide, as with a painted invitation to Discuss Banksy Here (that Here styled like a Web link). Lets Start Your Clit, the S twisted to the point of erasure, wants feminist critique to comport with a male leer worthy of Richard Prince. As it happens, Flood began the Lace Paintings only after his text art—art closer to Ed Ruscha, Lawrence Weiner, Jenny Holzer, or Barbara Kruger—as the frame took on a life of its own. In the end, text and abstractions alike turn on a studied absence, and who am I to say what I missed?

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"Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos" ran at the New Museum through January 20, 2013. Mark Flood ran at Zach Feuer through October 13, 2012, and at Luxembourg & Dayan through September 29.


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