I enter Katharina Grosse’s latest installation at MASS MoCA and I am awed by the sheer dimension of the piece and by the intensity of the encounter. It feels like being on another planet and I want to explore immediately. I walk into a realm of painted soil and painted, fabricated boulders to discover painted clothes in between, a painted window, a bench partly hidden under painted dirt. I sit down and take everything in. I make out a large warped shape covered with paint, and look across this enormous psychedelic landscape on top of which tower huge, glacier-like white forms carved from Styrofoam. In the next room I cross a painted floor with more painted clothes, I gaze at painted walls, and proceed upstairs into yet another room. Here, on the wall, I find the only painting on canvas, and, on the floor, another mighty, warped shape merging into a painted dirt hill. I reach the edge of this open space, look down from the balcony onto the otherworldly landscape that I just wandered through, and contemplate. Katharina Grosse titled her exhibition One Floor Up More Highly. Her unique approach to painting has long fascinated me. As Grosse says, painting is not a closed system, it is a window, it is a mode of thought. And much more.
Katharina Grosse and I met years ago at a friend’s dinner party in New York; I was immediately captivated by her open and ever-searching mind. Thereafter we would meet whenever she came to New York, visit museum and gallery exhibitions together, and our dialogue about art began. I’ve also had the opportunity to see her impressive studio in Berlin. I always feel I am learning by just talking to her, and I was thrilled when we were asked to do this interview via email.
Ati Maier As you know, I am very inspired by your work and your mind. Have I ever mentioned that I admire your painter’s outfit? You use a spray gun and wear this white protective suit that looks a bit like an astronaut suit—as if you were working on a different planet, researching and exploring unknown space, opening up a new path with each installation you do. How far out can you go? Is the external world working its way inside or is it the other way around? What is your vision?
Katharina Grosse I do not have a vision. I am the vision. There are no limits to painting; that´s why I am involved in it. I don’t experience “limits” as limits. There is no resistance when I am painting. The inside and the outside coexist. What appears in the image field is not subordinate to existing reality, it constitutes that reality. I don’t interpret reality; I understand reality as a performative activity that generates itself newly and differently, again and again.
AM I like your answer, the artist being the live vision. I feel similarly and I’m always in search for the next dimension. Your work takes place on another level. How do you get there? Do you work in a subconscious way? Is painting in any way meditative for you?
KG I don´t understand this level or limit stuff. Painting is simply what I want to do when I open my eyes. I indulge in exuberance and aggressive energy without killing anybody.
Looking at my painting you are experiencing the absence of linear structures, the fracturing of causalities, and the equality and simultaneity of structures that normally seem to exclude one another. In my painting they can be seen at the same time. Painting is an ideal medium to put across this phenomenon of equality and concurrency. It is able to provide all visual particles on the picture plane simultaneously.
AM I relate to that. I weave multiple layers of space together in such a way that foreground, middle ground, and background, along with past, present, and future, become one dense presence on the same plane. This is all a direct result of the physical and mental space I occupy when I make the work. I put a lot of different sketches on top of one another and, through that overlapping, new, invisible, and unexpected elements of space materialize.
KG My painting overlays the surfaces with levels of imagination and projection. I understand imagination as the undirected capacity of imagining things, and projection as a directed ability to choose in terms of “what will work versus what won’t,” which are both conditions of infinite potential. The coexistence of the imaginary and the materialized is experienced by the viewer as irreconcilable, as an encounter with a paradox.
When I’m painting I show what I’m thinking about the world I live in. I don’t make up a world; everything can become anything at any minute.
AM You are showing what you think about the world you live in. How, specifically?
KG Maybe you could put it this way: I need painting to give a certain degree of clarity to what is evaporating when thinking.
AM Is that what you mean by painting as a mode of thought? Thinking by way of painting?
KG The very moment when fulfillment has yet to come through the door is what interests me. On the image surface there is no prescribed causality or a fixed hierarchy that organizes the things I see. I manifest a painting that is nothing but the residue of the thought.
That would be different if I chose to depict such a constellation intentionally. Or, and here comes another important aspect into play, if I were to depict anything at all. To depict structures they have to be put in a certain order and be distinguished from one another. In that case I would have to deal with separations. Since my core interest is how phenomena that appear at the same time seem to exclude one another, all techniques of separating or distinguishing are useless for me.
AM Is your way of painting anarchic? How much in your work is chance and how much do you control? Does chaos play a role?
KG Anarchy, chance, control, chaos—they are all illusion. Anarchy—I do not work against anything but with everything. Chance, control, chaos all suggest that there is a singular continuum organized by ideas of hierarchy and dialectic thinking. Our existence is not continuous.
AM Walking through the landscape of your MASS MoCA installation I felt so many shifts in scale and also time. One moves through real and painted space at the same moment, absorbing your painting both mentally and physically. I perceived time in different ways at different locations in your installation. What is your concept of space-time?
KG There is no singular I, or singular world or being. There is no singular existence within the piece. We put it together as we move, every second anew. We continually remake this surrounding just as we do when we perceive the world. To see the installation as a coherent unit is illusion.
AM Is everything an illusion for you? How can you see what is true for yourself? You must process the information of the world somehow. We live in a world of total information overflow and virtual reality. How do you filter this immense input?
KG You see, to me everything is illusion, not an illusion (as opposed to a reality). Everything is unstable, clicking into place again and again and making sense each second. Therefore, the concept of the overflow of information is not interesting to me.
AM When I start my paintings I often use visual elements and dynamic structures derived from scientific theories. I study NASA websites and I exploit mapping and geological models. I feel like a sampler of unlimited information in an endless universe where everything I find can be equally important. Are there specific areas or aspects of certain fields (like science, for me) that enter your work?
KG The digital world or unlimited information are concepts to be considered, but I don’t think they are more important than other sources of input. To me the world is more like an everchanging fluid, which I am part of. Therefore, I cannot react or refer to it, describe or depict it.
Now, if I would integrate into my work anything nameable—figures, things, quotes, or other references—I would introduce segments into painting that establish suborders on the picture field. My preferred working field in painting requires the unfinished, the unnameable. The concrete prematerializes the kind of weightless, mental picture zone through qualities of the everyday world. The painted picture is drawn into the material life and pushed away from the task crucial to me, which is to remain open to mental movements that are not derived from the seen or the named. That is exactly the reason why I am not an abstract painter; the concept of abstraction does not fit my thinking or my approach because I do not deduce things from what I can see.
AM When I start painting I don’t know where I’m going to end up. I just go step-by-step. The working process is like going through a dérive: you do the right thing at the right time but in a very unconscious way. It’s like psycho-geography, like the drifting type of thought that the Situationists used. Guy Debord said, “If you just wander about in a dérive in the right spirit you end up in the right place.” This is how I paint; I let myself drift. Of course, in parts of the painting I make conscious decisons, but mostly I am unconsciously following where the painting is taking me.
KG I am not very familiar with the work of the Situationists. I really come from the history of painting. Among my questions are: How can a painting appear in space? How can the specific mode of thinking that painting requires and triggers be best put forward and made use of? Painting offers the ability to fuse notions of past, present, and future into one field. In that field, contradictory systems can coexist. If we could organize fields like that in real life, I wonder what that would do to our relationships and social contexts, or to society at large? Fear, anger, hope, and love would be disconnected from activities that usually lead to eliminating contradictory systems and could be used as energy sources.
The transition from imagining to acting (in painting) mirrors or equals the experience of moving from private to public space. I wonder if this could be compared to the step from the local to the global that’s being debated everywhere.
AM Sounds kind of utopian . . .
KG You mean like imagining yourself in some other place? My work is not about projecting some ideal onto somewhere else in some other time. It is a fundamental interest in the now. Can I refer, with my work, to a global field of information? Can I refer to something else at all, for example, to another artist’s work, without giving up the interests I have been laying out before?
In the best moments I experience relationships as neither causal nor hierarchical. Nor are they representative, time linear, or abstract. And finally, they cannot be set up or forced to come about.
AM I see this continuous expansion of your work. How did you decide to leave the canvas and move onto the wall, and then onto the floor, and into the next room, and toward the window, toward the outside?
KG I simply love to see how painting can change when it appears in different spots spatially. It can be on or next to a canvas, it can be compressed or expanded, and so on. I never decided to leave the canvas and go somewhere else. All possibilities are available at the same time.
AM I recently started to animate my paintings. I repaint parts of them in a 3-D animation program to launch myself and the viewer inside the painting. I try to create a visual omnidirectional and nongravitational space sensation. It’s projected like a video, but it feels like a moving painting to me. What fascinates me is the shift in awareness—you travel inside the painting with your eyes and mind, experiencing time and space simultaneously.
KG I don’t understand how a video is still a painting. For example, today I have traveled on a plane, taken a train in Berlin, walked a little, and now I am sitting here in front of my Mac with your questions. The only thing left from this sequence of activities in the last 12 hours is my body. That is fundamentally different with painting, where all sequential activities can stay visible. It is a very specific characteristic of painting that things one has done one after another are visible at the same time in the end. In the same way that water is wet, the quality of simultaneity is intrinsic to painting and the painted image. The interrelationship of these painting activities and their relationship to their wider context is what interests me. Painting allows for pictorial space and built space to be perceived at the same time.
AM Let’s talk about exhibition space. Are you invading space in some way? Can you talk about the relativity of the dimension of things?
KG I do not invade space. I take it for granted. I often think of my works as the smallest possible version of a very large piece. Then again, size and scale are very different issues. Scale is the psychological aspect of the work, whereas size refers to its measurable appearance.
AM In your MASS MoCA installation, painted clothes are placed on the floor or hidden among the boulders and the dirt. What happened there?
KG I use the clothes for many different reasons: for their given colors, their textures, their reference to the size that we identify as the human body and to their made-ness. But they could also be trash, like leftovers in a deserted location.
AM Are there references to disaster, anxiety, or violence in your installations?
KG Disaster or anxiety are cause-effect related and therefore are not something that I consider. Violence, yes, that can also exist on its own. Violence—as aggression—is a state of being if you do not identify with it. Then it loses its social function and comes as energy independent from narrative thinking.
AM What does the color white mean to you? Is it a void of color, is it erasure?
KG The white shapes are crystallized forms of light in the space, making some of the painting invisible—like extreme sunlight can take away our ability to see.
AM We were both born and raised in Germany, a very small country compared to the US. I remember the first time I experienced the American West, riding on horseback through Wyoming. The vastness, the endless open skies, and the immense scale of the land! It propelled my mind into another dimension and deeply influenced my art and my sense of freedom. Did you have a similar experience when you had the residency at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, ten years ago? Did it influence your work?
KG Well, the first country I visited outside of Europe was the People’s Republic of China, at the age of 20. Seeing the Great Wall and the Forbidden City gave me a first sense of how human beings had once envisioned their existence big size.
The cowboy and his horse or being on a mountaintop are all clichés that are wrapped up in theatricality and staged drama. That is probably how I got to experience freedom very early on—as a form of theatricality. The possibility of thinking your way from the invisible to the visible. My father was, and still is, a total theater fanatic. I remember as a six-year-old seeing Le sacre du Printemps by Maurice Béjart (we came late and everybody had to get up as we took our seats), or Pina Bausch’s early piece The Seven Deadly Sins, or The Merchant of Venice (when I first saw naked adults ever). In my hometown, Bochum, there was a fantastic theater. Watching life on stage gets you away from identifying with your social persona. When I understood how to not identify with my work I felt very free and powerful. Maybe that’s why I always saw freedom as a mode of existence rather than the materialization of hectares. But yes, I strongly responded to Marfa and its beautiful light. I was even more impressed by the huge trains cutting right through the public garden in front of my studio. There was also a lot going on in terms of buying land, owning land, fencing in land. No-trespassing signs everywhere. Borders seemed to be an awfully important issue.
AM Is there a connection to American land artists like Robert Smithson, for instance, in terms of the materials you bring to your installations? The soil, the fake boulders, the Styrofoam peaks. There’s both nature and artifice.
KG I ran into Smithson’s work in the early 1980s on a trip to Paris, not knowing who he was. I was blown away by the generous simplicity of his works—like the spilled truckload of tar. His thoughts about site and non-site made me think about the acknowledged unity of the object and the object’s surface. I discovered how painting unsettles perceptions that are established by our common neural pathways.
AM What does it mean for you to have a show in the US and to have access to that immense space at MASS MoCA? How do you prepare yourself for a huge space like that in your Berlin studio?
KG MASS MoCA has a very interesting rhizomic structure, offering an unusual itinerary through an intricate suite of super various rooms and spaces. I also find the long-term exhibition format very appealing.
MASS MoCA curator Susan Cross and I started talking about two years ago. I came to see her twice in North Adams and she paid various visits to Berlin, or sometimes she came to see me when I was installing in the US. We went through many stages of two very different concepts for the show. For both of them we had models built to different scales, so we could envision and discuss every single element, its necessity, its cost, and its manufacturing process. It is fun to redo a show as a model in five minutes, something that would take two months in the real space.
AM In 2008 you titled an exhibition Another Man Who Has Dropped His Paintbrush. You work with a spraygun, which evokes masculinity. Is there a sexual message in your work?
KG There is not a sexual message in my work, it is pure sexuality that I live when I paint. The title was for a show in Italy: Un Altro Uomo Che ha Fatto Sgocciolare Il Suo Penello. The word paintbrush in Italian or German implies a direct reference to the penis. The title was more an ironic comment on Pollock giving up the paintbrush for the can with a hole, and me being a woman changing the brush for a spray gun.
AM What made you decide to use the spraygun? I use airbrush in my larger drawings and paintings because it gives me a different sense of speed and space.
KG Me too. It also expands my body’s reach and makes it very easy to move on rough surfaces or paint under difficult circumstances. Since I’m not touching the surface I can move much more swiftly than I would with a paintbrush. The brush can only hold so much paint and the gun runs much longer. The painting moment is longer. The endless line generates a strong sense of independence from the pictorial surface, the wall, or, in a larger sense, the architecture. It is even a little bit like scanning a field with your eyes.
AM This pure sexuality you live when you paint, it has to do with freedom too. This sounds very interesting to me. Can we talk about this more?
KG Yes, we can. It’s like when you fall in love and all your inner arguing collapses. There is no possibility of not doing something. The state of your mind is not one that you compare or judge or deliberately contemplate. So when I’m physically painting, when I link my body to the material in the act of painting, that’s the state I proceed in, which I experience as a sexual state.
AM What is your connection to Pollock, to action painting and the drip?
KG There is that urge you can detect in the presence of his work, the urge to act something out and an awareness of the sexual impact that this has on the spectator. His decision to paint on the floor and then put the painting on the wall was very inspiring to me. On the other hand, he wasn’t at all interested in color.
AM Of course we have to talk about color. Your color is psychedelic, fluorescent, and acidic. One of my works is published in the book Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art since the 1960s by the San Antonio Museum of Art. In his essay, Christopher Gunenberg characterizes the psychedelic style as “freewheeling shapes, exaggerated acid colors, and pervasive formal entropy.” People often ask me what kind of drugs I do when I paint. My answer is that my drug is my painting. I love your colors; you bombard with pure energy. Would you say you have a psychedelic sensibility?
KG My perception of colors is not increased or manipulated by drugs. It is my very conscious decision to use them this way. The raw and saturated hue of my colors enhances the theatricality I am so interested in.
AM I wasn’t suggesting you are doing drugs to make your work. For me, a psychedelic state can be activated otherwise, for instance, by creating or experiencing another realm through art. It’s a state of profound and intensified sensory perception. I actually felt this way while I was surrounded by your installation. Or is this connected to the theatricality you mentioned before?
KG Yes, very much so. I need the brilliance of color to get close to people, to stir up a sense of life experience and heighten their sense of presence. I don’t intend to make them travel into another world or expect a particular reaction. The special thing about theater is that the presence of every audience member, and the genuine perception of each, has a direct influence on what happens on stage. The audience is not within the sphere of my influence. Rather, my work is in the sphere of their influence. What appears on the image field or on the stage is not subordinate to existing reality. It constitutes that reality.
AM What you just said is very convincing and important for understanding your work. I feel this is also the point where our approach to painting differs most. For you, the image field or stage constitutes reality as a performative, inclusive activity. For me, my observing, filtering, and then subconscious painting process do not require an audience. I begin with information and then break it down into abstraction. I agree that reality generates itself anew over and over again, but I perceive it from the outside. Perhaps this has to do with being an immigrant. I have lived in Brooklyn for 10 years now and I still feel like an outsider. That might be the reason why my perspectives and sight lines are the way they are: I’m always seeing things from afar and from odd angles. I’m always surveying and remotely viewing, so to speak. When I saw your installation at MASS MoCA I felt I landed on something familiar. It felt intimate to me.
KG I see painting as the screen between the mental and the materialized zone. I walk through the screen to get in touch with the real world and I turn my back to the real world by returning via the painting. Painting my bedroom over was an extreme experience of concurrency. It became totally obvious to me that painting and its environment do not cohere. Thus, the personal was not turned into the abstract, but it added itself to it—both exist parallel to and separate from one another.
I am interested especially in the relationship of thinking and its first visual sedimentation, which I like to call the open image field. When I’m painting, the open image field has all my attention.
—Ati Maier is a German artist based in Brooklyn. Her most recent 3-D video animation was featured at the Fokus Lodz Biennale 2012 in Lodz, Poland. An exhibit of her works, Event Horizon, is on view at the University Museum in Albany through April. She is represented by Pierogi Gallery in Brooklyn and Dogenhaus Galerie in Leipzig, Germany.
2. The Other George, part of the exhibition Hello Little Butterfly I Love You What’s Your Name, Arken Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Lars Skaaning. © by Katharina Grosse and VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2011. Courtesy of the Galerie Mark Müller, Zurich, Galerie Nächst St. Stephan, Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Vienna.