Although Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof was forced to postpone the retrospective of Katharina Grosse “It Wasn’t Us” due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is hard to resist looking at and wondering about her immersive installations of saturated colors which we will hopefully experience in person in the near future.
At the intersection of two streets in Berlin’s Mitte there is a hefty cube of light gray concrete. The minimalistic building draws passersby’s attention despite its raw and seemingly unattractive simplicity. It’s hard to believe that inside this ascetic block the art of bewildering colors comes into being. In fact, massive walls conceal the studio of German painter, Katharina Grosse, whose generosity of using saturated hues has become her signature. The order prevailing inside the white and sterile space is disturbed by dozens of bottles filled with pigments. The floor is stained by not yet dried up paint. Grosse’s atelier – a building without rooms – also serves as her home. A space of artistic métier interweaves here with the painter’s everyday life. This lack of clear boundaries and divisions finds its reflection in the artist’s body of work that moves far beyond canvases and framed paintings taking over exhibitions and public spaces.
Using an industrial spray gun Grosse covers huge sheets of loose canvas, mounds of earth, structures made of fiberglass, aluminum or styrofoam with streams of colorful paint. She creates abstract configurations of chromatic fields and smudges. “She uses the same painting techniques in different contexts, superimposes and combines spray painting and brushstrokes in the same picture, and intentionally suspends the distinction between picture-oriented and installative painting” – writes Reiner Fuchs, the chief curator at the Museum Moderner Kunst in Vienna.
Since 1998 Grosse – clothed in overalls, wearing a safety mask and goggles – paints directly on walls, ceilings and floors. The painting gun is her weapon of choice. Nebulae of intense yellows, violets, blues and oranges that evolved in this process trace the path of the artist at work. Vibrant hues indicate three-dimensionality and movement. As curator Sabine Russ points out: “These painting installations had a way of filling the space like sound, spreading their often dissonant vibrations beyond the borders of the works and resonating in every part of the room.” Grosse admits that her paintings are free, not permanently bound to a place. They might appear on a fallen tree, building facades, a stone or even in the middle of a street. The infinitude and boundlessness of an image manifest themselves mainly in forms of monumental environments that Grosse creates inside a museum or gallery space. Mounds of sand and gravel take color as a result of polychromatic mist sprayed with an aerograph.
Katharina Grosse, Wunderbild, 2018, National Gallery in Prague, Tschechien, Acryl auf Stoff, 1,450 x 5,620 x 670 cm und 1,450 x 5,490 x 690 cm , © Katharina Grosse and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2019 / Commissioned by National Gallery in Prague; Courtesy Galerie nächst St. Stephan/Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Gagosian und König Gallery / Foto: Jens Ziehe
Katharina Grosse, The Horse Trotted Another Couple of Metres, Then It Stopped, 2018, Carriageworks, Sydney, acrylic on fabric, 1.000 x 4.600 x 1.500 cm; Soil, wood, acrylic, styrofoam, clothing, acrylic on glass-fibre, reinforced plastic, © Katharina Grosse and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2019 / Commissioned by Carriageworks, Sydney Courtesy Gagosian / Foto: Zan Wimberley
Although the “transpainterly” works of Katharina Grosse are preceded by a thought through action plan, her actual act of painting in situ seems spontaneous and expressive. Color fields, paint dripping, large scale and format bring to mind the practice of Abstract Expressionists as well as the artists associated with Post-Painterly Abstraction of the 1960s. An analogy to the body of work of Jackson Pollock, Morris Louis or Jules Olitski may seem slightly superficial, because it comes down to technical issues. Using a spray gun that guarantees a distance between the painter and the painted surface, Grosse sets against a Modernist myth of an image as a sign of an artist’s hand and his/her emotional state. Furthermore, Grosse paints on architectural elements, everyday objects or organic matter. She does not limit herself to a traditional canvas – a plane surface, an ineluctable flatness that Clement Greenberg considered a “unique and exclusive to pictorial art” and “the only condition painting shared with no other art.”
Even if Katharina Grosse teeters on the edge of different artistic disciplines, she is faithful to the domain of painting. In that respect her transboundary, cross-genre art has common features with the experiments of the Supports/Surfaces artists (Claude Villat, Vincent Bioulès, Daniel Dezeuze among others), especially with their concept of “toile libre”. The „liberated canvas”, celebrated by French painters, was not only free of stretcher bars and constricting frames but also compliant to manual modifications and able to penetrate the real, three-dimensional space.
Over the last several years Grosse’s painterly installations have been presented in many prestigious art institutions, i.a. at the Kunsthaus Graz, at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, at Danish Arken and at the National Gallery in Prague. In every case the forms of these monumental, site-specific works were determined by architectural surroundings. Despite their large scale and intricacy a viewer, who is wandering around these installations, does not feel overpowered. The environments made of earth bathed in saturated colors seem to be infinite, immense, majestic like those from the landscape paintings of Romanticism. Above all, the power of Grosse’s installations lies in the realm of color that embraces the viewers and takes them into abstract vistas. Her colorful sceneries may connote fairylands as well as the post-apocalyptic ruins or scenes of natural disaster. Rock debris, discarded draperies, dilapidated furniture and walls covered in damp patches of paint resemble uninhabited households or abandoned post-industrial zones while the vibrant colors evoke the atmosphere of rave ecstasies in sordid squats.
Katharina Grosse suggests that her works possess narrative dimensions. She rarely defines them though. The immersive installations tell different stories by themselves – through their scale, forms, matter, textures and colors. However, those stories would not be fully told without viewers. Their presence is of great importance, because it continously helps to activate perception and, therefore, to make the installation concrete and specify what it is. An ever-changing and ephemeral phenomenon of color – inside which Grosse invites us – awakes our dormant senses, arouses imagination and encourages to discover various stories and experiences hidden under the layers of paint.
Katharina Grosse, I Think This Is a Pine Tree, 2013, Ausstellungsansicht „Wall Works“, Hamburger Bahnhof, 2013, © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Thomas Bruns, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019
Katharina Grosse, psycholustro – The Warehouse, 2014, Philadelphia, acrylic on wall and various objects, 2,100 x 14,500 cm, © 2019 Katharina Grosse and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn; Commisioned by the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, Courtesy König Galerie, Berlin / Foto: Steve Weinik