»The work makes you move, it becomes the script.«
– Katharina Grosse
»The work makes you move, it becomes the script.«
– Katharina Grosse
Katharina Grosse’s Untitled (2019) slices the exhibition space of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in two. Its surface is densely saturated with Grosse’s signature high-octane colors: tourmaline greens meet acidic yellows, vermilion and purples overlap with royal blue, while candy pinks jostle for space within layered torrents of action. Occasional glimpses of white offer a rare chance for exhalation. This swathe of fabric, almost fifteen meters wide and four meters high, abandons the walls on which paintings traditionally hang and is suspended from the ceiling instead, trailing more than one foot on the floor. It spans the room to become a surrogate architecture, viewable from both front and back, with a bold, cacophonous presence. It is only on second glance that you notice another painting hanging on the perpendicular wall, Jackson Pollock’s 1943 Mural.
Exhibition view: Mural: Jackson Pollock | Katharina Grosse at the Museum of Fine Arts, 2019, Boston; Charlotte F. and Irving W. Rabb Gallery © Image Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
At six by two and a half meters, Mural was Pollock’s largest work, but is only half the size of Grosse’s companion piece. It was commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim in 1943 to hang in the foyer of her New York town house and is considered to be a breakthrough work for Pollock. Its expanded scale enabled his move away from the easel to engage with the body in space, eventually culminating in his celebrated drip technique. As Louis Menand writes in a recent New Yorker article, “The drip paintings are records of a person in motion. […] In a way, as later artists appreciated, the dance is the work of art, the painting its residue.” Pollock’s Mural is patterned all over with a calligraphy of upright swirling gestures suggestive of the human figure, that repeat across its width in a rhythmic, looping composition, hovering tantalizingly between abstraction and representation. Having been sequestered in the University of Iowa Museum of Art for many years, it was sent to the Getty Conservation Institute in 2012, where it underwent an extensive surgical process of conservation, analysis and interpretation. In 2014, the seventy-year-old painting, finally stripped of old varnish and years of grime and reframed on a custom-made slightly curved stretcher, began a solo tour of the most prestigious art institutions in Europe and the United States.
While Pollock’s masterpiece was brought up to date with the most advanced restoration techniques, an equivalent update of its role within the art-historical canon was similarly called for. At the time of its making in 1943, women artists were marginalized to the point of near invisibility, and artists of color had little access to the art world’s structures and institutions. Artworks themselves, particularly abstract ones, were afforded a comfortable, depoliticized hermeticism. According to Hans Hofmann, painter and teacher of the New York School, an artist should be separated from the “outer world”: “The work of art is firmly established as an independent object … / Outside of it is the outer world. / Inside of it, the world of an artist.”Artworks were transcendental objects, removed from the cumbersome realities of politics, ambition, and commerce. In the intervening decades, the mainstream Western conception of an art-historical canon and its lineage of anointed masters has undergone critical reevaluation, from feminist, postcolonial and counter-institutional perspectives, amongst others – such convenient autonomy is no longer an option.
When Pollock’s Mural arrived in Boston in June of this year, curator Reto Thüring, decided to intervene in the hermetic conditions of its presentation by inviting Grosse to create a work to show alongside it. “I wanted to take a couple of steps back and see what story we want to tell,” he says. “How to offer an alternative story? Not to undermine Pollock’s position, but to create a different perspective.” The myths surrounding Pollock’s “masculine heroic attitude,” as Grosse calls it, have made it difficult to actually see his work: a sense of over familiarity can short-circuit perception and reduce the work to the status of a preordained Pollock masterpiece. The strategic insertion of her painting in the auratic realm of the Pollock – hanging perpendicular to it and thereby bisecting the room – creates an interruption that delineates a broader context within which to behold both.
Though separated by generation, gender, and cultural background, both artists’ works engage with what Grosse terms “the pool of possibilities that nonrepresentational painting has to offer” and the fundamental question of “how to make an image.” It is the differences between them, however, that make this pairing sing. Grosse sees Pollock’s painting as characterized by a “compression of activity,” its composition is “very contained,” determined not by color but by structure: “the bones,” as she puts it. Grosse, on the other hand, deals in excess. Since the late 1990s she has been using not only brushes but also industrial spray guns as a primary painting tool, through which she projects particles of diluted acrylic paint onto whatever surface she points at. In the past, this has extended beyond the boundaries of the canvas, taking in the walls, floor, and furnishings of interior spaces, as well as the exterior terrain: rocks, soil, trees, plants, and even entire buildings. The excess in Grosse’s work (of scale, of palette, of sense relations) disregards ontological differences, as well as those separating exterior and interior, man-made and natural, one surface and the next. “She takes the visible beyond the bounds of vision,” wrote Élisabeth Lebovici in a recent essay.
Studio view: Untitled, 2019, acrylic on fabric, 370 x 1.470 x 160 cm © Image Katharina Grosse
In the Boston show, each artist’s strengths provide a foil to the other: Pollock’s interiority, control, and structure are met by Grosse’s excess, mobility, and color. But while Grosse’s painting responds to Pollock’s as a contextual springboard, it relates more closely to her other recent fabric-based installations. It dwarfs in comparison to the scale of Wunderbild (2018), for instance, made for the 1920s industrial building that houses the National Gallery in Prague. There, two expanses of fabric, each more than twenty meters high and roughly fifty-five meters long, hung parallel to each other from the ceiling. Their surfaces, articulated using stencils and masking tape to overlay parts of the surface, create a complex illusionism of overlapping frames and frames within frames that disrupts spatial coherence. Then, in 2018 at Carriageworks in Sydney (another vast industrial hall, this one from the nineteenth century, now a venue for performance), Grosse created an even more immersive experience with a tent-like structure made by hoisting up swathes of fabric. Though its exterior was almost entirely white and untouched, a riot of color greeted the visitor within its elaborately draped, cavernous interior: a stage-like space that posed the spectator as performer or explorer.
In both of these site-related projects, Grosse’s activation of space through her agile painterly process involves a kind of choreography, which goes on to become a substratum of the work. When we met in August in her Berlin studio, she recalled the impression that German choreographer Pina Bausch’s Wuppertal dance studio made on her during her student days in nearby Düsseldorf. The performers would use expressionist gestures to animate the entire theatrical space, pointing diagonally across to the highest corner of the house or swinging their long hair in circles. “I realized that could be a way to make the body bigger,” she says. “They would walk across the stage and throw something up into the air, like a piece of clothing, activating this space. This became a mandatory goal for me: to be outside the reach of my own body.”
In Grosse’s excessive and generous works, the transgressive, boundary-crossing act of their making is transferred to the spectator, who is invited to navigate the exhibition space they occupy. In Boston, both her own and Pollock’s works can only be seen through an act of spatial negotiation. “The work makes you move,” says Grosse, “it becomes the script.” Menand’s words about Pollock’s drip paintings are even more apt when applied to Grosse’s:
The dance is the work of art, the painting its residue.