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Celebrated for her painterly projects in major museums and international biennials, Katharina Grosse is primarily known in New York for her public artworks, including last year’s vibrantly painted house at Rockaway Beach and her wildly sprayed abstract forms at Brooklyn’s Metrotech in 2013. With a recent show at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, however, our knowledge of Grosse’s colorful body of work has greatly improved. Conceptual Fine Arts spoke with the German artist at her studio in Berlin to hear about the large-scale paintings and sculptures in her New York gallery solo debut, as well as her other recent projects in the city.
Are you a painter, a sculptor or an installation artist?
I’m a painter. The painted image is the thing that really excites me. I’m interested in the space that can be generated in the painted image and how it can appear everywhere—how it can appear in any kind of existing field, be it architectural or urban or coming from mundane situations of urban life. For me, a painted image has no prescribed location.
Although this is your first solo show in a New York gallery, you’ve done several big public projects in the United States, including two in New York. How does your studio practice differ from your public art projects?
I can always come back to the paintings and rework them in the studio, but when I work in a public context I only have a certain amount of time and a certain amount of space. I have my team, and I have a lot of things already prepared, but then I work for 10 or 14 days, or however long it takes until the project is finished. There is a certain coherence of action and time and location. Whereas when I work on canvases I can interrupt the work; I can come back after a month; and I can also work in a very independent way.
Your most recent public artwork for New York was “Rockaway! at Fort Tilden,” which ended November 30 but still may be viewable. What was the biggest challenge of creating an artwork on a building on a beach?
The biggest challenge was the relationship between the different scales—the scale of my painting in relationship to the surface of the beach and the space that the sky would give to the whole piece and understanding how I had to move and what my gesture had to be made in order to be visible in that environment.
Why did you extend it past the building and into the environment, as well?
I wanted to have all sorts of surface interfere with the situation. The different surfaces reacted to light in different ways, and I wanted to show, which is was really important to me, that the painting moved over all sorts of different objects and kind of dilutes the boundaries between them. Everything—including the beach, the pavement, the building and the roof—has a different function but the painting unifies or destroys the unity of each of these functions.
While some people saw its orange and magenta coloring relating to the sunsets at the site you spoke of the colors being artificial and thus glowing more prominently on the white under-painting. Can you explain this concept?
I think it is interesting that neither of those two versions is right or wrong. You can associate that magenta with sunset, but if you compare it to something that the setting sun does you will ultimately see that this is not a rendering of a sunset. At the same time you could say that this magenta is a very artificial color, especially in that context with the sand color of the beach, the blue of the sky or the dark of the night sky. Ultimately it is not abstract because it does fit a situation that gives you all of these associations. Actually, the painting is coinciding with a given story, which is the sun setting on the beach, and at the same time that given story is being disrupted by a very artificial painting, which is also referencing the history of abstract painting.
Color seems to be one of your most important elements. What role does it play in your work?
It’s not only color, of course, but I think color has many amazing abilities. One is that it affects your ability to feel. It gets very close to your senses, like the voice does to a singer, for example, though maybe the voice of a singer can give you more information than the text of the song. Color has the same ability to get very close to you. I also use color to trace the different layers of my movement—it’s a means to show where I’ve been with my painting tools.
Because of Rockaway!’s immersive, abstract nature and it being sited on Long Island it brought to mind the work of the American Abstract Expressionists. Are there American artists that you admire, ones that inspire you?
I’ve just been to London to see a show on Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy and I saw the Jackson Pollock painting called Blue Poles, which is normally in Canberra, Australia. It was the first time I had seen it in the flesh and I was really amazed, but I wouldn’t want to say this is the only artist to inspire me. In general I think all of the Abstract Expressionist painters are important to me, sometimes one more than the other for different reasons. But the fresco painting of the Renaissance is also super interesting to me. There is no one single work that I find really important. I also find the way that soccer players divide the space on a field while playing of interest. I don’t make a difference between all of these things.
Your 2013 installation “Just Two of Us” for the Public Art Fund at Metrotech Commons in Brooklyn presented 18 painted sculptures nestled by trees. What were you trying to convey in this cosmic landscape?
I wanted to have a painting that was sitting on a variety of large particles and for it to be situated in between the trees, so that you couldn’t tell what came first. Were the torn, painted and sculptural surfaces there first or were the trees piercing through the parts? I liked the idea that people could walk through it. I didn’t want it to be an object sitting on a pedestal. I wanted it to seem like it was torn apart, as if it had just been dropped in that little park.
This concept of a cosmic landscape seems unique to your work. Where does this idea originate?
It came about naturally. I like the notion of just being able to paint over things. It’s a kind of freedom. One day I was really frustrated and thought maybe I’ll just paint my bedroom the way I left it and I did. I went home and put my whole spray system up and painted over the bed and the paintings that were in the room and the books, the clothes, everything. It’s a kind of power that you have to suddenly turn that situation into something else. I think that was the starting point of going outside and seeing what I could do.
Back to the Brooklyn project, the driftwood-like sculptures seemed gigantic in relation to the spectator but dwarfed by the surrounding buildings. What is it about scale, particularly working large, that fascinates you?
It’s exactly what you are saying—it changes as you choose your point of view, and it changes all of the time. There is no kind of guarantee. You look at it and say that’s a small little pebble that’s just painted and then you move around it and you have a very large piece in front of you. You have to constantly adapt your sensations to new experiences.
You’re showing large-scale abstract canvases at Gagosian. What kind of tools do you use in making these massive paintings?
I use industrial spray guns, mainly, and I use a lot of cut out shapes—cut out of cardboard and foam and various foils—as stencils. Sometimes they are loosely put on the surface, where I exchange the stencils really fast without the team. At other times I have assistants nail them to the surface in a very meticulous way.
How many layers are you painting?
Some paintings have maybe five to eight layers while others may have only two different stencils, but those canvases usually have more painting layers.
Like Pollock, does your body play a role when making these paintings? Do you insert yourself into the space of the canvas when making them?
The difference between Pollock and me is that Pollock was always the author. He was very clearly the one who made it; he was the one who organized the hierarchy of the tools. My work is different in that my body is on the same level as the spray machine, the colors are, the paints, the studio and the team. There’s no real separation between all of the different elements that I use.
What do you think about when you’re making these big abstract paintings?
What am I thinking? I look at what I’m doing and find the consequence in it and then I do the next work. I work on maybe 30 paintings at the same time. I’m totally involved in the process; I’m not outside it. I absolutely reflect whatever I do right in the moment and then I make the next move on the panel that’s right next to the one that I’ve just been working on.
You’re also exhibiting a massive metal sculpture at Gagosian that has the look of a big piece of painted driftwood, too. How big is it and how was it made?
It’s not so big, maybe nine or ten feet long and four or five feet high. It looks like a bone, or it could be some sort of enigmatic metal tool or a big shard. I cut it in Styrofoam and then it was cast in aluminum. I painted it over a long period of time.
What’s the relationship of nature to your work?
On one hand you could say that some of the forms seem natural, but on the other hand the things that I work with are just structures, which change all of the time. They are structures that are constantly forming new constellations. My painting on them is highly abstract in the sense that I can’t name it and I don’t. What I find interesting in nature is that the verticality of it changes. Once you’re in it you can’t really negotiate with it—you’re in it; you’re part of it; you’re reacting to it and that’s pretty much how I work.
Yeah, I read that when you were young you were into hiking. Is that something you still do?
Yeah, I do it in different ways. It’s a different space once you are outside the urban structure. The distance that you see between two things is constantly changing. When you are in a building or in a room you have a special set up around yourself—one that’s stable and not very demanding.
And you’re also a surfer, too. Does that kind of movement influence your work?
Yeah, a little bit. I think that the movement is related. There are so many components that change. The situation changes from one moment to the next when surfing or when painting. It’s necessary that we use all of the possibilities to adapt to the moment. It’s not interesting to work and live according to fixed ideas that command our abilities and talents. It’s really necessary and interesting to draw the consequences while working and acting and thinking. It all goes together and I think painting is so interesting because you act and think at the same time.
In a video about “psychylustro,” a project you did with Philadelphia Mural Arts that covered a five-mile stretch of Amtrak’s Northeast Rail corridor, you talk about your having to act and think simultaneously. Could you describe this process and explain how you employ it?
For sure, I do start out from a certain moment where I have defined my area very clearly—the tools, the color and the non-linguistic starting point of what I do. Without using references, such as photographs or referential imagery, I start and once I understand what kind of structures that I want to have going on inside I work a little bit and then the situation changes. It changes so drastically that I actually have to let go of my first thoughts and have to define new paradigms to go on with. After working a little bit again these paradigms also have to be discarded because the situation changes and maybe some new result appears that I couldn’t foresee. I find that going through this process from moment to moment and redefining what I’m actually doing quite fascinating. You constantly encounter a paradox because you are thinking something that is more or less immaterial. It’s in your head. You paint what you want to materialize and then you encounter the resistance from it. Your thinking and your catching materialization is a constant conflict, which is a paradox. It’s a very interesting condition of our life. It’s part of our social fabric.
Have you altered your process or learned anything about it by working on these big outdoor projects?
Yeah, because the outdoor project is really the flipside of the coin from what I encounter in the studio. The outdoor project is about expanding the field whereas in the studio you stack a lot of complex structures on top of one another and compress the activity. It’s a little bit like what I believe aggression does in a film, where you can shrink time by having people fight. That’s what I do with the canvas in the studio.
When did you make the change from brushwork to spraying?
I think that was in 1998.
How does spraying affect the outcome?
In many ways—one way is that spraying actually makes me bigger because the reach of the spray paint is much larger and much faster. I have an unbroken supply of paint. I don’t have to interrupt the activity. Whereas once a paintbrush is empty you have to put it back into the paint pot. You go back to the pot and then again to the canvas, but the spray goes on and on and on. The way that you mix paint is also very different because you don’t actually touch the surface with a spray gun. The pigment is being sprayed into an existing color without disturbing it. Let’s say you have a big patch of yellow and you spray green into it. It only hits the surface where the green lands and the other surfaces are being left totally undiluted—and that’s very interesting.
Could you tell us about your concept of the visible and invisible in relationship to your spray artworks and installations?
Yeah, there are many ideas and thoughts that are possible about the relation to the visible and invisible. I think that they are both components of reaction to the work. It’s not only what we see but also what we can’t see that generates a reaction to our work. There’s also the fact that I cover a surface with paint. The surface doesn’t really disappear but it gets transformed. You see that there is grass that’s painted pink but at the same time you do not see that grass because it is painted pink. That’s a paradox. It’s like if you experience warm and hot at the same time. If I would take the pink away you would see the grass but you wouldn’t see it the way that you see it with the color on top and if I would take the grass away you wouldn’t see the structure within that pink. Therefore there is a certain way that these two structures play into one another, even though they kind of destroy one another.
Yeah, what you are describing makes me think about your house project at Prospect 1 New Orleans and your bright orange paint grabbing onto both the house and the landscape at the same time.
Yeah, that’s a good one, too.
I had forgotten, even though I was there and saw it. Somehow in my mind I thought that the whole house had been painted and when I was looking back at the pictures on your website I was reminded that the paint was only on part of the surface of the house and the surrounding area. The paint was on the surface as though it had just landed there, not like it was covering the whole thing.
Yeah, I think there is a big difference. If it covered the whole thing it would just be a painted house, but if it only covers a little bit then it’s kind of eating its way into the reality, which it so fundamentally changing. It actually hits the surface and you don’t really know what you are seeing. Do I see a shadow on a house or do I see some glow or is it really there or, as you say I couldn’t remember if it was partially painted or fully painted.
How does your work differ from graffiti?
Well, I’m not writing, which is one big difference, and a lot of graffiti writers do. They also make claims—they say this is my area and that from here on you should stay away, for example. I’m really interested in not defining the area. I’m really interested in breaking up the differences between the grass, the house, the window and the roof. I’m more interested in making these relationships—these hierarchic relationships—unstable.
I understand the difference, but I wanted to hear it in your words. Graffiti is such a part of New York culture, of the urban landscape, just as it is in Philadelphia or many cities around the world.
Graffiti is a very interesting visual ingredient of our urban life and it has been for some time. It can be a very powerful weapon, but it’s become more and more like graphic design. A lot of graffiti sprayers don’t utilize the power that spray can have. I’m fortunate in that I have maybe 7,000 gallons of pink in my bag and can fire away. There’s total freedom to inflicting a surface with more and more spray. I can move with it and walk with it for yards and yards and I can easily go over a chimney and a roof and into the garden whereas a lot of the graffiti that I see is very self-contained. It’s like this big and it has to say that name and it has to say my name and it has to repeat the name again and again and again. It’s just doing something that you can do with a very fine pencil, but on a very big scale. Spray is not like a pencil—at least for me it’s not. I admire a lot of graffiti artists, but what I admire more about spray is that it can be unleashed. It’s like a natural phenomenon to me.