Terry R. Myers is a writer and independent curator based in Los Angeles, and an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail. He is the author of Mary Heilmann: Save the Last Dance for Me (2007) and the editor of Painting: Documents of Contemporary Art (2011). His most recent curatorial project was the survey exhibition Candida Alvarez: Here at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2017.
According to the First Law of Thermodynamics, energy can be neither created nor destroyed, it can only be transferred from one form to another. There has been and will be no more and no less energy in the universe than there is now; it is what it is. Katharina Grosse has transferred far more of her share of the energy of painting from one form to another than most of the other artists of her generation, but I am getting way ahead of myself right off the bat. I will leave myself plenty of time to demonstrate the tremendous impact she has made with her work since the mid-1990s, work that I have had the pleasure and challenge of engaging with for nearly as long.
Time—here, now, in this text about this artist’s work—may be no more than an inconsistent construct allowing us to cling to our concepts of past, present, and future. The complexity of this idea has, well, everything to do with that First Law above. I’ve been stuck on it ever since my mind was blown by my first reading of Carlo Rovelli’s recent book The Order of Time, in which he tells us such things as “For everything that moves, time passes more slowly,” and “not only is there no single time for different places—there is not even a single time for any particular place.”1 A quantum-gravity physicist by trade but a poet/philosopher at heart, Rovelli introduces the key hypotheses of quantum gravity while demonstrating how much we still don’t know about our universe. (Much less any other possible ones, like the “mirror universe” hypothesized by physicist Julian Barbour, a universe attached to the back of ours in which what we call time runs backwards.)2 Rereading Rovelli’s book while once again taking in the multisensory, multitemporal, yet fundamentally visual expanse of Grosse’s enterprise has finally enabled me to better grasp how she has been able to do something I always thought near impossible in her chosen field of painting: to produce work both in the expanded if not exploded field of painting and, simultaneously, within the literal boundaries of its history and traditions (like, of course, the stretched canvas that merely hangs on a wall). Somehow she has been able to be a painter and an artist who uses painting all at once; usually a choice has had to be made, and there are plenty of artists out there who seem to have made the wrong one. Grosse’s work is unconventional and traditional, antiform and formal, associative and nonobjective, and even present and absent, again, all at once. And as if those seeming contradictions weren’t enough, they are often all in play in a single work.
Katharina Grosse: Is It You?, her exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, provides a prime opportunity to experience the seeming contradictions listed above in a manner that challenges their boundaries. The exhibition brings together seven paintings (made between 2009 and 2017) and a site-relational work made in the central gallery of the museum’s contemporary wing, together presenting, it could be said, the two “halves” of Grosse’s production. Even within the parameters of the first half, represented by the five paintings, the range of approaches and materials on view activates what I will call here the “quantum” aspects of Grosse’s work: discrete units of energy that come in waves, measurable in material and visual terms.
Key characteristics of a particular vertical painting, Untitled (2016), indicate an aspect of Grosse’s work that has captivated me from the beginning. Two large, white, rectangular areas—one running from top to bottom of the painting’s left edge, the other starting next to it along the bottom edge and continuing past the painting’s center point—read as absences created by the removal of something that blocked paint from those areas while the work was being made. We are given no information about how long these barriers were there, other than that it was long enough for the painting to be completed. Or maybe not? Residue and drips in these blank areas of removal suggest either that some things happened after the reveal of the entire canvas, or that the barriers weren’t secure enough to keep that paint out. It is a painting perpetually tied to the site of its making (the studio?) by those moments of tangible absence. On its own, this connection is not extraordinary; all paintings are connected to the site of their making, whether or not we are made aware of it by the work itself. I mention the studio with a question mark, however, because Grosse has also produced paintings on-site that she has moved from the position where they were made to another in the space, leaving behind the “spray” of paint that landed on the wall beyond the edges of the canvas. In those instances the work is allowed to play with its own making and its own duration, while also enabling us to visually fit it back into that place, as if it were a puzzle piece. We won’t ever know the exact amount of time that passed from one place to another, but we’re given direct evidence that it could have been measurable and recorded, if not analyzed and categorized. Time, as they say, is relative.
Rovelli takes care to make sure that we recognize that there are no things but only events. A rock, for example, is a very slow event; a painting is much faster. Some of Grosse’s paintings incorporate all manner of events fast and slow, from the propulsion of particles of pigment out of an industrial spray gun to some of those rocks themselves. Another painting in Baltimore, also titled Untitled (2009), incorporates soil into its acrylic paint while also presenting a large white void with an irregular and granular border that is almost replicating if not fractal in appearance. It also incorporates whiplash looping gestures that merge the terms of yet another contradiction, one that pretty much ended with postmodernism: the either/or of high and low. Grosse is like a renegade graffiti artist and the contemporary version of a Renaissance ceiling painter rolled into one, a hybrid artist who is able to embed her work in both the detritus of everyday life and the multiverse of a chapel interior, directly taking on the entropy that comes with both environments—just as it does with everything else under those laws of physics. Things come together, things fall apart. They all have duration, but they don’t all have the same time.
In the terms of physics, of course, there is no empty space; the phrase is an oxymoron. Moreover, everything is in motion, no matter whether we can perceive the movement or not, no matter how fast or how slowly anything has been placed somewhere, or painted, or sprayed, or replaced somewhere else. Grosse proves again and again that she is exceptionally capable of filling both the space we enter and the visual space we see. A quick recent check of her Instagram account provided a glimpse of a massive iceberglike (it’s not painted yet) work in progress that went on view at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, in late April. Its title? It Wasn’t Us, an answer to the question asked in the title of the Baltimore exhibition, and in the new work made on site there: Is It You? Some might read that response as an artist not taking responsibility for her actions; I take it as the exact opposite, as a potent reminder of a statement Grosse made in an interview from 2002 that has stuck with me ever since: “I feel like my work, in this sense, is narrative, without telling a story.”3 The narrative comes from what she did (what she painted, what objects she painted, what ways the painting is installed), but also from what the work itself will do once we’re left to look at it (or walk through or even on it) in order, as is said these days in social media, to see what she did there. In that same 2002 interview, Grosse says this about her use of the spray gun: “I’m looking and painting at the same time. It is very direct. That reflects my experience of painting generally, that thinking about and looking at something happens at the same time.”4 At its best—which is probably a rare occurrence on social media—saying “I see what you did there” could be an effective way to indicate that some thinking took place on the part of viewers while they were doing their looking.
The second half of Grosse’s Baltimore show—the one given the same name as the exhibition, Is It You?—is at its most basic a large cloth curtain that drapes from the ceiling of the room, cascading in ripples down the walls and across the floor. Grosse has been working with this format for a few years now, most notably with works such as yes no why later, at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, in 2015, and The Horse Trotted Another Couple of Metres, Then It Stopped, at Carriageworks, Sydney, in 2018. Many of Grosse’s environmental works have components that are part of the architectural situation they cover; the building itself may provide, for example, a supporting structure, as in Grosse’s spectacular interventions in abandoned buildings: the empty house of untitled (2008), in post-Katrina New Orleans, looking almost on fire in radioactive orange, or the disused army aquatics building of Rockaway (2016), looking sandblasted with red and white paint that spread out over a beach in Queens, New York. Those buildings are crucial to Grosse’s goal of creating narratives without stories, as were the components of what now stands as one of the crucial works of her development, Das Bett (Bed, 2004), created by spray-painting her Düsseldorf bedroom and the objects in it. In hindsight, that work could have gone all wrong and let everything down the retrograde path of a romanticized notion of memory. If Grosse’s work is successful largely because of her ability to do her thinking while she is doing her making, it has also been spared the trap of falling into the type of meaning beholden to sentiment.
That said, a curtain could be tricky territory—vulnerable to melodrama and overly reliant upon effect, if not affect. Those qualities could suck the energy out of a room, the laws of physics notwithstanding. In Grosse’s hands they warp two- and three-dimensional space while enabling an association with the hypothetical phenomena of folds in spacetime, which should, according to the science, be able to bend space and time to open up the wormholes of quantum-gravity physics, as they do in blockbuster superhero movies.5 Grosse may not be a superhero (or is she?) but her work just might be that and then some.
1Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time (New York: Riverhead Books, 2018), pp. 38, 40.
2See Tim De Chant, “Big Bang May Have Created a Mirror Universe Where Time Runs Backwards,” Nova, December 8, 2014. Available online at www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/big-bang-may-created-mirror-universe-time-runs-backwards/ (accessed March 6, 2020).
3Katharina Grosse, in Grosse and Jonathan Watkins, “How to Start and Stop Painting,” 2002, quoted here from extracts in Terry R. Myers, ed., Painting, Documents of Contemporary Art (London: Whitechapel Gallery, and Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011), p. 162.
5Some day I hope to write a text about how much my immersion in Marvel Comics has impacted my relationship to contemporary art.
Artwork © Katharina Grosse and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2020; photos: Mitro Hood, courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art