Interview: Why Katharina Grosse Didn’t Paint Bomb the Nasher Sculpture Center’s Travertine Walls

When I heard that German artist Katharina Grosse would open a show at the Nasher Sculpture Center, I was surprised the Nasher would risk allowing Grosse and her paint spray gun into the hallowed halls of Renzo Piano’s travertine-walled museum. In much of Grosse’s work, paint begins on a canvas and expands into the gallery space, cover all available surfaces – walls, floor, ceilings, objects. Would Grosse do the same in the Nasher, would she be allowed to slather the travertine with her cool blues and sulfurous yellows?  After all, the Nasher required visitors to wear paper booties when climbing on Ernesto Neto’s installation, a silly, overly-precautious gesture that reminded visitors in the midst of Neto’s playful effort to dismantle notions of museum decorum that a museum is still meant to be a sterilized space.

In the end, Grosse didn’t spoil the travertine. Instead, her piece includes an elongated sculptural form that transcends from the interior of Piano’s light-filled galleries out into the garden. Downstairs in the Nasher’s more traditional, white walled exhibition space, Grosse broke out the spray gun to create one of her immersive paintings, which includes canvases, heaps of soil, and plenty of paint. Speaking with Grosse, she said her decision not to paint on the travertine wasn’t born of institutional restriction, but rather her own interest in rethinking her work in light of its presence in a museum whose collection is dominated by classical modernist sculpture. Color is “taboo” in post war sculpture, Grosse said, and so she set about creating sculptural forms that double as canvases, gently transgressing the Nasher’s architecture while exploring paint’s reliance on surface and the way objects are affected when their surfaces receive paint.

FrontRow: In some of the interviews you have done, you have been pretty insistent that your work is painting and not sculpture. And yet here we have a piece at the Nasher Sculpture Center that is an object that has been painted. Do you think of it as sculpture or painting, or does it matter?

Katharina Grosse: Well, I wouldn’t be able to say what it is. It is a coincidence of sculptural thinking and painting. It comes together. Painting doesn’t exist without the surface it can land on, and the sculpture doesn’t exist without my painting on it.

FR: Even with the form itself, there is something gestural about it, similar to how you paint. When you were conceiving and constructing this form, were you thinking about creating a kind of static object that retains a gestural sense?

KG: The forming of the surface is totally different than the painting activity. That’s what I like about the two things happening at the same time. I mean, this red [on the surface of the piece at the Nasher Sculpture Center] could be a much larger gesture of red, but we can’t see it because there is nothing for it to land on. So I like that you have this kind of thing, materialized, traveling through the space. And you have the painting which is far larger in its movement. But the common area is the result.

grosse1FR: When I was thinking of what you might do in this space in light of some of your earlier work in which the painting begins on a canvas and then expands into the gallery space, I thought you might paint directly on the Nasher’s travertine walls. But you’ve restrained your paint here to the object you’ve put in the space. Was there a hesitancy — or a restriction — to spoil Renzo Piano’s walls?

KG: I didn’t insist on doing it. We would have found ways, but I thought it would be so obvious: “Ah, a venture onto the travertine.” Also, I’ve never done this kind of carved and weird shape. I’ve never done a punctuated volume before. It was an interesting thing to explore here. In general, this is a collection that is classical modernist sculpture that are on pedestals and rarely dealing with color. Color is a taboo in post war sculpture. That’s why I find this very interesting, the confrontation with a so decidedly sculptural collection. I’ve done a lot of aggressive work, but I didn’t want to comment on the architecture here. I think this does that too, but on many other levels. So that’s why I stepped away from it.

FR: It doesn’t seem as directly institutionally critical.

KG: That’s right. That kind of layer is not so clear here, I would say that too. I didn’t do that here, whereas other pieces have had far more of that.

FrontRow: I wanted to ask you about your process and how you think about your process. In the room-sized piece in the Nasher’s downstairs gallery, you do spray paint the walls, as well as canvas and soil in the space. There is a sense that what is left in the space is a kind of remnant or an artifact of the act of painting. It makes me wonder if there is an element of performance in your work, or if you see your painting as a kind of artifact of your action.

Katherina Grosse: I think there is the idea of the artifact in it. It is not just the idea of paint applied to a surface. I do try to paint a painting. The idea is that color, and not only the paint, creates a kind of structure that is following a certain intention. As you said earlier on, there is this gestural impact that you can decipher somehow. And so I think there is a friction between that notion of artifact and the result of painting, which is more operational and more materialistic. So with this piece, I’m hoping that when people walk on it, it will wear off, so it will become kind of muddy.

GROSSE2FR: What do you bring into the space in terms of ideas and preconceived notions of what the finished piece is going to look like?

KG: I had a couple of models to scale, one-to-ten and one-to-fifty. I would use those to find out what to do and how to move the space. This is a slightly difficult space to show works in. There is the glass wall with doors. The first thing I decided when I came here on my first visit was I wanted the doors out. I thought that when [a viewer] comes downstairs, they should see a floor piece that you can see from above — and then have a different scale relationship to the piece when you are in the room experiencing it. I thought these two points of view would be interesting. And then I liked the idea of doing the soil piece in the space that is the most decidedly indoor space. I thought it was kind of like pulling a sock inside out. The garden and the nature aspect of this ambitious architecture is in the space where it is least expected. And the artifact quality of my thinking is outside.

FR: At your exhibition at MASS MOCA, the viewer had the ability to move through the pieces and even look down from another gallery at work they already passed through in a lower gallery. This offered a dramatic way to experience what you’ve talked about in terms of the temporality of the experience of your work. Once your painting leaves the canvas, you can no longer experience the work all at once. You have to come at it through an experience that is made up of successive experiences. . .

KG: And the fact that reality constitutes itself at any second again because your point of view changes. So it doesn’t make sense to stick to certain paradigms, we need an ability to constantly reconstitute what we are seeing. That’s why I think it is so interesting to walk through this and experience yourself as the center that drifts and organizes what you see. When you were saying, for example, earlier on – this kind of aggressive impact that the work has when it is sitting on a wall in an institution and therefore also being a little like institutional critique — that is one part of the work. But if you would expect that all the time in the work than it would also be like a certain preconceived idea. Even though I like that part of the work, and I think it is in here as well, at the same time, it is not a feature that has to appear all the time in the same way – to do the same to the [Renzo] Piano that I did to the [Oscar} Niemeyer building. So it changes, like you change your point of view.

When I was looking outside of the window in my studio one day I realized that I can’t really see things like benches or trash bins. I can’t see them isolated. I can’t really see named objects as if they are independent of one another. I always see a cluster, and this is also a very compact image. This cluster changes. So in the piece, if you walk around this part here, maybe you’ll feel like a giant that’s walking in the landscape. And then you see the canvas, and the canvas is quite large, so maybe you seem smaller in relation to it. And yet in relationship to the thing you are walking on, you feel quite large.

FR: Is it important to keep the canvas in here, does it have a referential or practical function to signify the work as a painting and not an installation – or do you care about those distinctions?

KG: No, I think it is all happening at the same time. So a painting is one option for having an image appear in a space. The canvas helps me to move from the soil and the floor to the wall without that kind of two dimensional flip up. So there is a gradual, multi-dimensional movement from the soil to the wall. It is even an architectural thing, maybe.

grosse4FR: You are using canvas to affect the architecture, when usually the architecture is the thing that holds the canvas.

KG: When I did my first soil piece I wanted to show a canvas, and I didn’t know how to put it in the space. I didn’t want to hang it on the wall — it was a little bit like a pancake. Then I thought, ‘Maybe I will put it on two piles of soil so it could stand up.’ Then that soil piece all of a sudden became a big pile of soil. That’s when I realized it might be cool to bury the canvas a little bit, and all of a sudden you have here a totally different space. When I was working here, I had the feeling of two stages of how a canvas could be in the space, and either it is on its way up or on its way down. So you had the feeling of something that’s in between moving, and I like that a lot.

FR: The color is probably the most striking thing about your work. There is a strange surreality to the colors you use. Some feel unnatural, and some feel like some strange diabolically natural – like sulfur. Has your palate stayed consistent, or has it evolved?

KG: There are no real thoughts behind the colors. I wouldn’t attribute certain qualities to certain colors in a sense that this is meaning this, and this is meaning that. It is not about meaning at all. As you say, there are some colors that seem to be very organic or natural, and others that are artificial. That’s something that’s become more parallel in my work. I think the artificiality at the beginning was a little stronger. The colors were raw, very artificial, and very loud — maybe sometimes even revoltingly loud and aggressive. That’s what I really use color for; it is very attractive and aggressive at the same time. It grabs your attention. I like the artificiality of it as well.

FR: Are their painters that use similar pallets, or when you were staring out, painters whose colors you drew from?

KG: Yeah, of course. There is a kind of rawness, coming back or turning away from the 19th century pallet that is a heritage that my work is probably rooted in. But at the same time, maybe there’s a difference with the Fauve, or Magritte, or the German expressionists, or color fugue painters, or monochromatic painters. They very often looked at how color works in relationship to another color, or they would look deep into what yellow does or is, whereas I’m not at all interested in examining color. I’m not researching color. I’m not looking at Albers or these people to understand what color what could is or be. I use color to differentiate the different movements that I kind of create, or go through, or stimulate in the space, and make a dynamic.

FR: In that way, is it too much to draw connections to action painting or abstract expressionism – or even street art with the use of spray paint?

KG: You can draw that connection, but I don’t. I draw from so many things. I find cave painting super interesting because of the sculptural-ness of the surface or even the underground setting. Or fresco painting, which was very important to me at some point. Also European painting tradition, the textile surfaces. Let’s look at Rembrandt and see how color is used there, and the color information relationships to the objects they represent — at how that is cut down to minimal information without being abstract. All these things are super interesting for me. I think the idea that there is street art or graffiti, it comes up a lot in questions, but only the most obvious because of the spray paint. But graffiti is actual graphic design, it is writing, and it is about making claims. It makes certain areas carry information. My work is about not having areas, but rather to go out of the area and expand. Graffiti is very often imploded, and in that way, I think I’m very different than graffiti.

grosse3FR: You bring up cave painting, and I’m not sure if you’ve seen Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but he talks about how the cave painting presents itself on the rounded cave surfaces, how that implies a temporality in the experience of looking at the cave paintings. Herzog interprets this as a kind of proto-cinema, though there seems to be a similarity to that aspect of your work as well.

KG: Yeah, and this kind of tack, tack, tack, tack – you go within frames. If you want to take that metaphor, the previous frame makes you want to look at the next frame in a different way. What you have at the beginning, you lose as you are walking along. That is maybe something I totally share, a point of view on reality.

FR: Which goes back to your thoughts on benches and not being able to see them as discrete objects in space, that they are composites made present through a succession of experiences.

KG: Or even the fact that you are standing on what you want to look at — you can only look at this, you can’t see it in the same way that you did when you were in it. So you have these multiple facets, and we have the ability to process that in our brain.

FR: This makes me think of photography, and how photographs of art become a kind of stand in for the art itself, particularly now with the internet when there are so many images available. But with your work, you can’t photograph it in a way that is analogous to how it is to look at it. It is as if the work deliberately confounds André Malraux’s notion of a “Museum without Walls.”

KG: We do a lot of documentary photography for these things, and I’m always wondering how that can be done. How did people do it in the earlier days? How did they photograph the baroque churches, for example? Where was the camera located? Was it inside was it outside the scene, and so on? You’re right. It gives you a picture, but it does not make you understand that the work provides such a tactile experience. I like to undo or rework from the homogeneous surface that is photography, rework back to our understanding of what a body takes in. It is a little like the counter program to the homogeneous surface that tends to be the image information we have right now, whether it be fine arts or the news or sports or whatever. It is this homogenic — and unified — surface that makes it easier for us to take in a lot of information But what is missing for me is the tactile, which has time notions in it.

grosse5FR: You’ve talked about painting as a ‘mode of thinking,’ which I find an interesting phrase. When you say that, is it the act of painting that is a mode of thinking, or are you thinking of the experience of the painting and the way it is provoking the viewer towards a mode of thinking?

KG: Both. I have been looking so much at all sorts of paintings, whether it is medieval or things just two years old, and I think they all have something in common. On a canvas, let’s say you start with a yellow, and then comes green, and then blue, and so on, and maybe in a medieval painting you have knights walking into a village and burning it down, and people fleeing, and then down at the bottom there are people building new houses. Nobody tells me how to look at it. I see all these different things at the same time. I don’t see that there is a beginning and an end – the yellow, the green and blue are all there at the same time whether they were painted first or last. And yet I look at it, and it fuses the before, the now, and the after. It makes me think that is a condition that painting has no matter how old or how young a painting is.

That means that there is a totally different time concept in painting. You don’t have that in photography at all because you can’t tell the before and the after. Whereas in painting, I can see that the yellow was before the green – and yet I see it at the same time. So there is a simultaneity of the past, the present, and the future. And that makes me live in a paradox. I see something at the same time that must have happened earlier or is going to happen later. So if I have the ability in my brain to make that be an image and handle those two time conceptions — the one that is continuum and the other one that is the compressed image – that makes me understand a lot of paradox situations. So I can actual live with systems that at the same time seem to exclude one another. And if that is a mode of thinking, maybe I have a totally different way to negotiate with my family, with my friends, with my job, with my life. I would maybe act totally differently. So that is an amazing ability I have. That’s why I love this medium.

FR: Well, that way of thinking about painting offers a way to answer the question, what is “painting.” And it also makes me wonder about the distinction between painting and sculpture, because the process is different and the temporality of the process and the product are different.

KG: It is something else because you can never see the sculpture from behind and front at the same time. You have to move around it. I think that painting is the only medium that so distinctly allows for that kind of thinking mode – that you fuse sequences. You don’t have it music, you don’t have it in writing.

FR: Or in any time-based performance.

KG: They try to do it in different ways, with repetition and all that. But that kind of paradox of fusing a sequence in painting is very unique. And that’s why I think it is a very important medium.

FR: So it’s not dead.

KG: Oh, no. It has been dead for 30,000 years now. I think it is the most developed use of surface we have, painting. So I don’t think the history is like a heavy backpack or anything; it is like a great box of information.