Degree Critical, Spring 2017

Tuesday 03/14/2017

Katharina Grosse. Untitled (2016); acrylic on canvas; 114 3/16 x 76 inches. Courtesy of Katharina Grosse und VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2017. Photo: Jens Ziehe.

Color and Dimension Unbound

by Jessica Holmes (Class of 2013)

German painter Katharina Grosse has become renowned for her physical painting techniques. Using an industrial spray paint gun (and occasionally a hydraulic lift), she confronts all manner of objects with sizzling color. In her 2015 site-specific installation at the Venice Bienniale, Untitled Trumpet, undulating swaths of fabric were draped up and down walls and across the floor on which were heaped mounds of dirt and gravel, along with abstract Styrofoam resembling large hunks of driftwood. All of this—cloth, rocks, Polystyrene—was then spray-painted a dazzling rainbow of colors. Rockaway! (2016), her project in a condemned aquatics building at Fort Tilden Beach, transformed the abandoned shack into a spray-painted phantasmagoria suggesting the colors of sunset, and was a hit with Brooklyn beachgoers last summer.
Katharina Grosse. Untitled Trumpet (2015); installation view, Venice Biennale. Photo: Sophie Kitching for Art Observed.
Though she might be better known for her architectural undertakings, painting on canvas has always been part of her practice, and Grosse has returned her attention to it in her New York debut at Gagosian. In a series of grand, untitled works completed in 2016 (all but the two largest measure six by ten feet), Grosse unleashes her sweeping palette, the colors sometimes shocking, sometimes soothing, sometimes sensual. In a recent interview with The Brooklyn Rail, the artist noted that she is continually trying to achieve “this quality of the painting coming towards you, instead of withdrawing or retreating into the space.” Despite the shift in dimension in this show from the third (architectural) to the second, her paintings remain sculptural, offering a bodily experience to the viewer.  
Katharina Grosse. Katharina Grosse (2017); installation view, Gagosian Gallery, NYC. © Katharina Grosse und VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2017. Photo: Rob McKeever.
Initial contact with her riotous paintings can provide an almost-hallucinatory experience, so vivid and diverse are the colors with which the viewer is presented. From a distance, an abstracted shape is visible at roughly the center of each, the result of Grosse’s use of stencils made from cardboard or cut rubber foam. Approaching an individual canvas, the forms seem almost to disappear, a mirage absorbed into a lush landscape of hedonistic color. The canvases are thickly primed, so little color is absorbed into the material. This, combined with the abstractions and also the splatters and misty droplets of paint that dot each work, the natural result of a spraying paint, contribute to a graphic effect. It often feels as if the viewer is looking at an exceptional piece of graffiti.
In one work, hung near the entrance to the gallery, a large hemispherical form, dark and mysterious like the mouth of a cave, dominates the canvas, surrounded by an azure blue. One may feel this painting in the body as if standing on the threshold of an unknown space. A closer inspection reveals the many hues that make up this dark space—mustard, eggplant, ochre, and moss. Elsewhere, I found myself lost for some time in a streak of cerulean that shot up another canvas, bisecting it at an irregular and off-center angle. Flanked on either side by pungent shades of orange, the blue seemed to burst from the plane like a rocket’s trail.  
Katharina Grosse. Katharina Grosse (2017); installation view, Gagosian Gallery, NYC. © Katharina Grosse und VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2017. Photo: Rob McKeever.
An immense painting hung towards the end of the show provides a distinct thrill. The only canvas to be hung in landscape, it conjures a tropical rainforest. The dense flora of lush greens, broken up by the reds and blues of a parrot’s tail, allows only for intermittent peeks of crystalline sunlight. A multicolored dagger of swirling paint, so visceral it seems as if it is in mid-flight, streaks across the painting, breaking up the nebulous, wavy form that holds court at its center and confers an element of danger. From far away the canvas appears matte and smooth, but a careful investigation again reveals the many discrete tribulations of the paint palette. Coming across dozens upon dozens of small drips of yellow, red, and green paint in a lower corner—the natural result of gravity—feels like uncovering a secret, as if one is spying on someone else’s illicit affair.
Anchoring these electric paintings is one large sculpture of twisted metal, placed alone in a smaller anteroom of the gallery. Its amorphous shape echoes many of those present in the paintings, and re-roots the viewer in the more obviously architectural physicality that is so intrinsic to Grosse’s work. The object, like the paintings, is spray-painted with sweeps of alternately soothing and violent color, jarring and settling the body that moves around it. For Grosse, a true painter’s painter who moves seamlessly between the 3-D and the flat plane, the two dimensions are really in the end just different sides of the same coin.

Katharina Grosse was on view at Gagosian Gallery January 19–March 11, 2017.