The subject of Art in America magazine’s September cover story, “Chromatic Theater,” the work of German painter and installation artist Katherina Grosse, is currently on view in a major exhibition at Mass MoCA, North Adams, Mass., through Oct. 31. To further explore the aims and endeavors of an artist in the midst of expanding the very definition of painting, the author recently proposed some discerning questions for her in person in New York, and via email from her Berlin studio.
EBONY Your painting is not exactly gestural, yet the action of its making is apparent. At times there is a level of violence in the execution, especially in the installations. One imagines you wielding the spray gun in a fierce attack on everything around you as you move through the space. Certain passages even convey a sense of vandalism-as in covering windows, walls, floors and furniture. Unlike acts of vandalism, however, the results of your efforts are coherent and often strikingly beautiful. What is the role of violence in your art?
GROSSE The painting process is a curious coincidence of thinking and acting. Let’s say you start out with one paradigm and while doing the first steps in the painting exactly that paradigm gets extinguished by the newly materialized situation. That triggers off another set of paradigms that will be dropped as a consequence of the work process, and so on and on. It is the continuous flux of visual intelligence constituting reality in every moment. Aggression is the energy that enables you to bear the loss of what has to go. It feeds and sustains that process.
EBONY When we spoke in New York, you said that your work has little or nothing to do with graffiti, that it is not related to tagging or directly associated with vernacular urban language. Yet your endeavor seems related to street art, not only in the use of spray paint and neon colors, but also in the sense that it takes painting out of the confines of art’s traditional space, its conventional realm. What is the relationship of your work to street art?
GROSSE My work is rooted in the tradition of wall painting dating back to the Lascaux caves. It could be inspired, for instance, by the positioning of a last supper scene in relationship to the dining hall or the tag on my garage door. But I do not place my work in the street without a link to an art context. Besides, street art is usually derived from graphic forms, typography and handwriting. It demarcates territories in public space. It marks individual presence. I am opposed to all these things in my work. I deliberately exclude sign systems, just as I exclude photography or pop culture.
EBONY Unique to the Mass MOCA installation, “One Floor Up More Highly,” and unlike anything I have seen in your work, are the towering unpainted carved white Styrofoam pieces in the main gallery. They recall stalagmites or icebergs. For me, they evoke the great 1823–24 painting by Caspar David Friedrich of the North Pole, Sea of Ice, in the Kunsthalle Hamburg. Was this a deliberate reference on your part? Your best work, for me, does have an epic quality that approaches the sublime in a way not unlike the German Romantics. What is the relationship between your work and 19th-century Romanticism?
GROSSE I am more interested in the phenomenon of Romanticism in German literature. For me, the literary movement was much more influential than the painting. Especially useful to me was Hölderlin’s effort to free language of academic stigma and to let occur all sorts of different writing genres on the same page. He even gave the different pockets of writing various sizes, fonts and spaces on the same page. I am also very intrigued by what is called Romantic Irony, the theatricality of emotions. You create an emotional setting using anger, love, anxiety, fear or aggression while you watch yourself doing it.
Rather than a direct reference to Friedrich’s painting, the large polyurethane or Styrofoam shapes came about through a response to the Mass MOCA space. I wanted to bring the white walls into the volume of the space. My intention was to avoid the white walls becoming merely a kind of frame or backdrop for the show. An enormous amount of daylight passes through the windows from the outside, permeating the space. I needed the forms to crystallize the light and manifest it in the work.
EBONY Based on the two large-scale installations of your work I have seen (de Appel in Amsterdam in 2005, and Mass MOCA), you guide the viewer through space in a consistent but often unpredictable way, with materials and color that flow from one space into another. You do not insist upon a specific system of circulation or one direction for viewers to follow. There is an overall sense of freedom in that respect in the work. How carefully do you anticipate the viewers’ circulation through the space when you are in the process of creating the installation? Is that important to you?
GROSSE I don’t try to influence the viewer´s circulation or reading of the show in any way. Nevertheless, de Appel has a very different spatial set up than the Mass MOCA show. Located on two floors, the show filled six rooms-some with natural light, others without. They led into one another. I let items and thoughts reappear throughout the show, so I could shift the viewer´s focus from room to room.
At Mass MOCA I rather worked around a plot. It is important to me that there is no singular point of view, so there cannot be an overall image. There is not a fixed centerpoint. I am interested in the varying relationships of the objects I use and the multiple layers of meaning they can convey through my painting. Let’s look at the bundles of clothing that occur here and there in the show. They could be debris; they could be loaded symbols of loss; they could indicate the human body or they could be just painted clothes. My painting opens up all these possible readings.
EBONY Both the Amsterdam and the Massachusetts exhibitions featured a room with four or more large vertical rectangular shapes rising from the floor. They suggest doorways or tall windows created by masking out an area of the wall that was subsequently sprayed, and then removing the stencil. Do you use these illusionistic devices to suggest another space beyond the gallery or do they refer to the tradition of conventional easel painting?
GROSSE The gaps are indications of illusions. They take up the rhythm of the windows at Mass MOCA, and suggest a light source or space behind the painting, yes.
EBONY On the second level at Mass MOCA, you feature all three types of paintings you do—a wall-hung work in a rectangular painting-on-canvas format, another more sculptural work on the floor, and the spray-painted installation. You have only one canvas wall-hung painting in the entire show. I began to think of this work as the starting point to the entire exhibition, the key element. As an iconic image, albeit abstract, the painting could be seen as the centerpiece of One Floor Up More Highly, or perhaps the “seed” from which the vast installation below grew. What do you see as the primary relationship among the three painting formats you employ—rectangular two-dimensional painting, shaped surfaces, and the elaborate installations? And do your three main formats constitute a hierarchy of image, object and environment?
GROSSE There is no hierarchical order of object and environment, no. It is very difficult to separate the object from the space, they are so intertwined. I use these three formats to explore painting under different conditions. The in-situ work allows me to expand the painting, to slow it down and magnify aspects of the movement. In my studio practice I compress the space of activity. I allow a lot of different layers on top of one another even on a small canvas.
EBONY For me, One Floor Up More Highly makes a powerful statement about humanity and the state of the world. It has an apocalyptic mood, yet it also invites reverie. The crumbling structures, the articles of clothing suggesting crushed bodies, and the piles of colored dirt could all be the residue of war or some futuristic catastrophe. Perhaps contradictorily, in one area, you provide a bench for viewers to rest, as if one is visiting an otherworldly nature park. The brilliant colors offer a dazzling visual experience that on one level is all about pure pleasure. Which is it? Are we witnessing the end? Or a new beginning? Apocalypse or rebirth? Pleasure or suffering? In other words, are you an optimist or a pessimist?
GROSSE The coexistence of contradictory elements in my work is not a dialectical juxtaposition. Therefore, I do not experience qualities such as good, bad, wrong or right as excluding one another. An artwork opens up the possibility of being engaged by all of those feelings at the same time. That is the thrill that is intensified by giving the work a stage without using traditional means of framing or pedestals. It is rather the extra spotlight of theatrical pathos I use to create a kind of multifaceted space for these kinds of contradictory feelings to converge.
EBONY One Floor Up More Highly is clearly an ambitious work meant for a large audience. But what about this work is totally personal to you?
GROSSE My work has nothing to do with my singular authentic experience or the personal.
EBONY What is most often misunderstood about your work?
GROSSE There seems to be a constant attempt to pin the work down to either a paticular mode of working (such as graffiti, or violence) or a specific history (Ab Ex or German Expressionism) or a specific practice (painting as opposed to sculpture) or a political motivation (anarchy), and so on-whereas my motivation is to keep the field as open as possible. But yes, I do have roots in the history of painting, and I do use aggressive decision making that is sometimes politically motivated. My curiousity involves uninhibited thinking in a public space.