Don't Be Afraid!
An Interview with Katharina Grosse
Since the mid-eighties, she has been consistently exploring the possibilities of non-objective painting. Katharina Grosse, many of whose works are in the Deutsche Bank Collection, has increasingly distanced herself from painting on canvas. In her sprayed works, she transforms entire rooms into complex worlds of color. Angela Rosenberg met with Katharina Grosse to talk about her connections to American Color Field painting and her latest project for the Quadriennale in Düsseldorf.
||Katharina Grosse's large-scale works are often brought into the context of American Color Field painting. But this only covers one aspect of the work of the artist, who was born 1961 in Freiburg im Breisgau. The critic Clement Greenberg first coined the term "Color Field painting" in his 1955 essay American-Type Painting. He ascribed a quasi-ideological meaning to the overwhelming sizes of these paintings, which he saw as related to America's mythical size-in contrast with the alleged narrowness of Europe. In terms of expansion, Grosse's room-sized works also seem to know no boundaries. Her works include the painting of entire interiors, facades, and streets. Her works stand out by virtue of their anarchy and lack of respect.
Since the early 1990s, she has been working on a concept of image that goes beyond material and architectural barriers. Her works are not made for the long term, but often assume the character of interventions. Grosse integrates the public in an aesthetic event that encompasses architecture, sculpture, and panel painting. For her exhibition shadowbox (2009) in the Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin, the artist developed a body of works consisting of four convex painted ellipses of mammoth proportions swinging into the large space. During the show, Angela Rosenberg served as curatorial manager for the Kunsthalle and worked closely together with the artist. Now, she met with Katharina Grosse in her studio in Berlin for an interview.
Angela Rosenberg: Helen Frankenthaler is considered to be the originator of Color Field painting, but it was the men who became famous with it. What does it mean to be perceived as a woman following in their footsteps? Does this historical usurpation play a role for you?
Katharina Grosse: Already as a student, I was shocked by the conservative structures in the art academies, particularly in painting. (…) And although today approximately 70 percent of all art students are women, most of them disappear because they're not supported by the male-dominated society. And it's really hard to get ahead, especially in Germany. It's a bit different in England and America, where the feminist discussion took firmer root and has exerted more influence through the early development of various different successful role models. But when these aren't there for women, it becomes especially difficult to cultivate independent thinking within institutionalized power structures. And as soon as you diverge from recognized and efficient models, the successes attained are seldom recognized.
Do you see your art as "working through" art history? As in the way Color Field painting is today seen as a reaction to Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism?
These are research results that I grapple with. There is a lot in the post-war era up until 1956 or '57 that is relevant to my work, such as all-over and process as a basis for an open visual system. And I come from the Ruhr Valley, where German Informel had a strong presence. Some of the artists are slowly being rediscovered, such as Karl Otto Goetz, who was Gerhard Richter's teacher. Or K.R.H. Sonderborg, whom Michel Majerus met in Stuttgart. My work contains quite a bit of their ideas in a latent way. But the works are only rarely seen in public collections, where figurative painting tends to be presented.
In terms of Color Field painting-is your work perceived differently in America than in Germany?
Each culture finds its own possibilities to read a work and frame references to it. Despite this, however, I believe that my use of the canvas as a projection of imaginary space stems from the European painting tradition, which is quite clearly first of all illusionistic. Stated in very abbreviated terms, Greenberg's idea is based on a return of the painting process-or the understanding of painterly space-to the surface. And he claims that this represents the material, the factual. To put it differently: a painting is flat; it has two dimensions and supports the paint as a two-dimensional material. And this painting shows nothing, introduces nothing, and does not intervene. This is a reduction of the painting process to a highly material view of the world, and I don't share this view at all. I believe that we live with the friction between what can be imagined and what has been materialized, and that we can't switch off the imaginary. For this reason, my idea of the simultaneity of the imaginary and the materialized is opposed to Greenberg's.
In what sense?
I take a different view of the use of the material, as can be seen in my new project One Floor Up More Highly (December 2010) for MASS MoCA, or as we've already discussed in the time leading up to my exhibition at the Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin. At first I was planning on using huge piles of earth. When it's painted, the material becomes transformed. This shows that paint has the potential to change materials, because it brings about a shift in the imaginary world. This is in complete opposition to Greenberg.
Were there other important impulses for your work?
Yes, Land Art for instance. As a young student, Robert Smithson was very important to me; I discovered him at the age of twenty in an exhibition in Paris. It might sound absurd, but I came back from that Paris trip with two discoveries: Pierre Bonnard and Robert Smithson.
I also spent a lot of time looking at landscape painting, painted outdoors quite a bit and tried to understand what I was actually seeing. Because I didn't perceive what I saw as being ordered in terms of perspective. In reality, there is no limited crop or pre-determined field of view, as in a canvas or a photograph. The camera can reproduce the two-dimensional vision of the eye and the linearity connected to it, which we also know from Renaissance perspective. But when I look outside now, I can't understand that in this form. Most of all, I cannot optically separate the things from one another-such as this tree, this building, this car-and instead connect them into a single visual nexus.
You studied with Gerhard Richter and Gotthard Graubner. In Graubner's pillow-like "color space bodies," pictorial space is turned into matter through the application of countless glazes. Is this principle inverted in your installations, with the painted ground pushed out into the space?
That's a good observation. At the core, we are working on a similar problem-the confrontation between mass and paint. In Graubner's work, the dialectical in the color space bodies is hedged in with clauses; it's pulled inside. It's not analytical, but rather emphatic. Graubner posits that a work has to have closure within itself. And although he opens his works to the painting process, there is this very coded aspect such that each work stands on its own. It implodes, retreats; the work is hermetic.
In contrast to this, I do not follow a dialectic argumentation. In my work, I split the elements in an unembellished way: that is earth, it's large and can no longer be separated from its surroundings. In my work, there's actually another notion altogether: all elements can be interwoven with all others into an event that can be continued indefinitely.
One of the ellipses shown in the Temporäre Kunsthalle was recently installed on the Johanneskirche in Düsseldorf for the Quadriennale.
The work was attached to the church façade at a height of about 4 meters with the help of a crane. It stands out a bit from the building and occupies the space between the building and the neighboring trees. In the case of the church, I was interested in how an image form can enter into public space. I don't want to be against everything, overpaint everything. I wanted to counter the customary practice in public space of leaning something against the wall, as though it had been ordered and never picked up, with an architectonic solution. What can this ellipse be: a roof extension, or a shield? A sign that perhaps contains a message we can't completely understand? Can the sign be lifted up onto a pedestal? I tried this, but it didn't work because the pedestal doesn't fit with the church. I discussed this with the architect Arno Brandlhuber, and we came up with this solution, which wouldn't have occurred to me ad hoc.
When Barnett Newman's oil painting "Who's afraid of red, yellow and blue IV?", an icon of Color Field painting, was purchased in 1982 by the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, heated controversy ensued that culminated in an attack against the painting. In an absurd manner, the attack seemed both to respond to the question in the painting's title and to corroborate it. What role does the motif of fear play in your work?
When I'm painting, the feeling of fear is one I have the least. There are a number of different emotional states that play an important role for me: anger over social structures in which I don't feel at home and against which I defend myself. Perhaps this is why a certain aggression has become a part of the work. I can direct this aggression into the channels of color and structure, so it's not like a bullet heading towards a target. I think this is why my work seems so exposed.
Katharina Grosse: Ellipse
A project for the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf at the façade of the Johanneskirche
09/11/10 - 01/16/11
Hello Little Butterfly I Love You What's Your Name
Arken - Museum for Moderne Kunst
12/12/09 - 10/24/10