Louise Neri has been a director at Gagosian since 2006, working with artists and developing exhibitions, editorial projects, and communications across the global platform. A former editor of Parkett magazine, she has authored and edited many books and articles on contemporary art. Beyond the exhibitions she has organized for Gagosian, she cocurated the 1997 Whitney Biennial and the 1998 São Paulo Bienal, among numerous international projects.
Louise NeriIn his pivotal book Expanded Cinema (1970), Gene Youngblood makes a case for the evolution of video art as a viable new genre. The thrust of his title has since been applied to other genres to connote a physical and discursive space for art that is greater than before. I think of your oeuvre as “expanded painting” because you bring the discourse and practice of painting—which usually revolves around one of painting’s many cyclical “deaths”—to a new place. Can you discuss?
Katharina Grosse“Painting in the expanded field” suggests to me that one starts with something finite and exceeds it. That isn’t really how I work. For example, I don’t work from the canvas onto the wall. I am not crossing borders, or “transgressing.” Rather, I see paintings popping up everywhere; the painted image is a contribution of reality that is introduced into an existing network of other images. And this is an old tradition—I am not inventing it, but I understand how to handle it as a contemporary painter. Color is not topical; it is not linked to space. It is totally independent of site, surface, or even object. These are key points in my work: how I manage to develop painting as intricate patterns of emotional information, and that painting can appear anywhere.
LNPainting has existed in the world for as long as human beings have, from cave paintings to frescoes to numerous other instances. At this moment in this particular field, however, it is largely confined to canvas, perhaps as a function of commodification.
KGVery good point. It also has to do with the individual drifting toward such a radical subjectivity as to be completely independent of any power-inflicted network. And this is where I digress. Unlike traditional painting on canvas, my approach to painting is explicitly incongruent with the intended site. Moreover, it reveals the gap between the medium and the site; it is fragile, tenuous, temporal. Its presence in situ underscores these qualities. Cave paintings or frescoes or architectural paintings or volume-oriented paintings are always accorded space within the wider web of images, whereas I don’t really use space that is “given” to me in the hierarchical fabric.
LN“Transgressive” may not be the right term, but you certainly do overtake space. There is an almost Baroque impulse at work in your interaction with space as a painter. You penetrate it, invert it; a complete upheaval occurs. This is not a typical approach for either autonomous painting or painting in a more public context.
KG The spatial conditions coexist with the painting; it is a reciprocal relationship, an ecology. If I take the situation away, the painting disappears too. Painting imposes a contrary idea; for me it is a medium that makes us experience paradox, rather than antagonistic or dialectic situations.
LNWhat do public commissions mean for you?
KGPainting allows me the most direct transmission of thinking into action. Working in the public realm, I can develop images of direct, nonlinear, and nonlogical energy that generate clusters of compressed emotions. I see my paintings as unmediated prototypes or models of these emotions, devoid of manipulation or interface.
LNSo how do you perceive your role as an artist in society?
KGTo enact and produce images of what I would describe as the condition of radical subjectivity. My paintings are the direct physical residue of my thinking, and visual statements of my individual authority. I intend them to articulate for others the very experience of alternatives, of the abundant possibilities of life, of agency, of being able to choose.
LNTechnically speaking, you use compressed spray rather than relying on the standard hand and brush. This immediately confers a certain sense of power and freedom, because spray is a propulsive technique with which you can cover great expanses of territory quickly.
KGI use a range of tools to dramatically shift scale, so that I can propel myself out of the scale that I negotiate in everyday life. This is an open experimental field that I am part of; there is no hierarchy. I am not the author but an equal agent to color, time, volume, and so on. I am moving in and out of it all the time.
LNMany years ago, watching you paint a site, I considered the fact of your being sealed off from your own process by the protective gear that you wear.
KGThe protective clothing isn’t such an issue. I don’t notice it while I’m working. What is more important to understand is that my supply of material is very ample, so I can move around and paint for a long time without exhausting the source. I don’t have to go back to my paint pot and dip my brush and start again; there is no on-and-off, in and out. The unformed flow of material or paint or color coming out of the compressor nozzle is very interesting to experience.
LnPerhaps we could describe the experience as “oceanic.” The conditions—the clothing and the supply line—allow you to be completely immersed. Like a deep-sea diver or astronaut, you can be at once separate from and one with a field of totally other phenomena and stimuli.
KGI like this thought. It’s an interesting question, how do I connect with the field or web that is the basis for these moments of intense experience? Being neither totally immersed in the process nor an author outside of it, I have an equal role to the color, surface, time, and volume in terms of my ability to interact.
I had a really interesting interview this morning with a music critic about the music I am doing with Stefan Schneider. He questioned whether our actual authorship of the music is less foregrounded because we have a very specific way of developing the music as we play. I disagree, because I don’t think that authorship exists outside or inside or above or below. All the components that I attract or let happen within the field that I am part of and use are on the same level. That’s why I am cautious about using the word “immersed.”
LNIt actually comes back to the paradox you mentioned earlier. By virtue of its sheer scale, your working process certainly appears to be more immersive than that of the painter using brush on canvas. But at the same time, there is a heightened consciousness at work; you are immersed but not drowning. Can you describe what happens while you are working?
Painting allows me the most direct transmission of thinking into action.Katharina Grosse
KGI am very specific about the elements I start with, not only in relationship to smaller groups of paintings that eventuate during the working process but in general. I work within an area that doesn’t use language or references or mimetic images. I don’t use signwriting or photograph-based input. I am fascinated by the image in which no identity whatsoever is being offered. I am interested in an imminent state, where just enough is generated to understand that a pattern or informative structure is about to build. That’s the starting point and then there are many things I want to know about this status, which has to do with the experience of prelinguistic thinking. Everything that happens from daily life—emotions, atmosphere, notions stripped of functions or identifiable names—ultimately one could easily drift into an experience like a sunset and out of it again. It’s like sliding around a Möbius strip: the in and out, the constant shifting of perspective from one surface to another that undoes the concept of the continuum—this experience that enables us to see the flip side.
LNAnd we haven’t even mentioned abstraction.… [laughter]
KGNo, not yet!
LNBy being a self-conscious participant in this interwoven continuum of history and art history, how do you consider your own relationship to the orthodoxies of abstraction?
KGI work with the residue of painting from the beginning of time. My work has roots in all sorts of areas, some of which are repellent to abstraction, especially that modernist abstraction that has to do with some sort of sublimation of industrial production, or seriality, or generating highly universalized imagery from mimetic concepts.
KGToothpaste landing on the mirror while brushing my teeth, cave painting, Renaissance frescoes, the ever changing movement on a soccer field during a match, bird shit landing on the windshield, Hanne Darboven’s numerical fields—all this feeds into my impulse to find a totally new understanding of painting.
LNAnd what about the artistic canon?
KGThe history of abstraction tells a story of progress, which renders redundant all previous “inventions,” throwing them over and offering the new, “right” point of view, which supposedly offers a single perspective to explain the entire world. But that’s not how we look at things anymore; our embrace of uncertainty catalyzes us to generate different paradigms according to a constant and ongoing evaluation within ourselves and around us. It influences how we look at gender, race, society, politics, the need for an artistic canon. Modernist abstraction is about as distant from me as a painting by Perugino.
LNThere are stochastic approaches to abstraction, based, for example, on uncertainty and trauma, which are deliberate without being prescriptive, compartmentalized, or metered. Take Iannis Xenakis, who applied mathematical theories and principles in creating textural sound compositions inspired by experiential sonic phenomena such as demonstration rallies during World War II, or the song of cicadas in a summer field.
Being neither totally immersed in the process nor an author outside of it, I have an equal role to the color, surface, time, volume in terms of my ability to interact.Katharina Grosse
KGI share with Xenakis an analytical perspective, but unlike him, I am always in the field, not outside it. I would rather invoke Jimi Hendrix—the music and the person. Listening to his music is like putting my finger in an electrical socket; there is such an acute awareness of the power of transformation as a fluid experience. As a person he was multidimensional, sexy and aware of his sexuality, and truly free. And he fought for this independence and against categorization in such interesting ways. The powerful and extraordinary intelligence that emanates from his music is based on an exact awareness of who he is, how he sounds, what he feels, and what he wants to experience. In his art there is an urgency that I can relate to—to perform, to communicate, to reach out and touch people. He was a real being in its most shimmering, beautiful, brilliant, and present incarnation. Hendrix inspires me in ways that I cannot find anywhere else, not even in art museums.
LNCan we talk a bit more about your process?
KGWe began by talking about expansion; now we should mention compression. The constant pulse of expansion and compression that makes time shifts possible is a crucial factor in my work.
LNDescribe how this pulse feeds your process in terms of the exhibition.
KGI work on a large number of canvases at the same time—as many as thirty—to generate a flow or stream of thoughts. It’s similar yet different to working on the expanded field of a site-related work. I start compressing disruptive layers together. Sometimes I take one or two paintings out of that process so as to halt them at different moments of time, while others remain in the flow. The stencils are filters that define my input; they block it or let it through.
LNCan you speak about the relationship between the canvases and the sites? The conditions are obviously so vastly different.
KGCanvases are containers that allow for different temporalities. I can work on them for a day or a year, stepping in and out of my relationship with them. When I work on a specific site with all the extenuating conditions that it entails, I can do nothing but that; I must be completely engaged in that relationship until the work is there.
LNFor the last year you have been working intensively in the studio, allowing thought forms to migrate across different phases of paintings.
KGBy choosing to focus more or less exclusively on works on canvas for the entire period, I increasingly intensified the pressure that I charged the canvas with. This often resulted in dense clusters. So, at the end of the year, it was a revelation to witness a process of inversion, where I produced works that were highly emblematic.
Artwork © Katharina Grosse und VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017. Photos by Jens Ziehe unless otherwise noted