Rosemarie Trockel

Schwerte Germany 1952, lives and works in Cologne

‘I think, therefore I am.’  With these words Descartes expressed the modern conviction that man, as a rational being, justifies his own existence. This famous phrase, Cogito, ergo sum, can be read on Rosemarie Trockel’s knitted ‘painting’ (1988) of the same name. The Cartesian ‘I’, however, is implicitly masculine: until the twentieth century it was assumed that the weaker sex was not only physically, but also intellectually inferior to the male.

By appropriating the words of Descartes, Trockel claims the right to think independently. But she seems also to question the presumed supremacy of reason. The irregular handwriting in which the words have been written alludes to the interrelation of body and mind, and to the fragility of their collaboration. Furthermore, the black square in the lower right corner can be seen as a kind of antithesis to the rationalism that is represented by Descartes. Here Trockel makes a reference to Kasimir Malevich, who introduced suprematism in 1915 with his Black Square. Malevich believed that man’s ability to think rationally and in terms of practical use has, in fact, set him apart from the rest of creation. He aspired to an intuitive experience of reality and attempted to restore man’s oneness with the cosmos in the abstraction of suprematism.

Also in the visual arts women were long considered unworthy. Trockel’s Strickbilder (Knit Pictures) seem to be a deliberate statement in that respect. They have been carried out in a technique that is traditionally associated with women, definitely not with ‘great art’. Sophie Täuber-Arp and her husband Hans Arp were the first to produce ‘paintings’ of wool during the early twentieth century; these were promptly dismissed by some as decorative art. But that danger does not exist with Trockel. Cogito, ergo sum is too odd and too intriguing to be categorized as applied art. Moreover, the painting has been knitted by a computer-controlled machine, thus giving rise to a conflict between the connotations of ‘handiwork’ (the feminine) and ‘industrial production’ (the masculine). Trockel takes evident pleasure in undermining such rigid opposites.

Animals play a noticeable role in Trockel’s work. Untitled (Gewohnheitstier i) from 1990 is an endearing bronze sculpture of a small dog wearing a party hat and evidently sleeping off some degree of intoxication. The expression Gewohnheitstier (creature of habit) refers to someone with unshakable habits, to a lack of flexibility that is sooner associated with animals than with human beings. With his party hat, however, Creature of Habit also evokes our tendency to humanize animals, to attribute all sorts of feelings and intentions to them.

In the Haarzeichnungen (Hair Drawings) (1990), with their tangle of photocopied hair, Trockel parodies the drippings of Jackson Pollock, the prime example of a wild painter. Trockel’s conceptual approach brings about a reversal of the traditional sex roles: it is the woman who thinks, while the man follows his urges. Trockel does not believe, though, that everything can be subjected to pure reason: her work voices an ironic intelligence that knows its limits.