Katharina Grosse’s riot of colour

By Quentin Sprague

The German artist transforms Carriageworks

Katharina Grosse, The Horse Trotted Another Couple of Metres, Then It Stopped, 2017, commissioned by Carriageworks, Sydney. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian © Katharina Grosse and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, image: Zan Wimberley

“The smallest space we build for ourselves is our clothes,” the German artist Katharina Grosse says. She pulls at her blouse for emphasis. “Our clothes are an added-on space that give us a very interesting sense of where the body ends. They help define the distance to another person.”

Grosse is sitting in the cavernous atrium of Sydney’s Carriageworks, where her new work, the intriguingly titled The Horse Trotted Another Couple of Metres, Then It Stopped (until April 8, 2018), hangs from the building’s huge steel girders and spills out across the worn concrete floor. It consists of material that cocoons the internal space of the former rail yards in near entirety: “clothing” that veils an unseen painted interior like the drapery of an oversized dress, or curtains closed hastily before a vast stage.

The work calls forth a network of lateral connections – along with the clothing analogy, Grosse mentions tent-building, the drive to construct a habitat or take shelter in enclosed spaces. But regardless of the work’s carefully illustrative title, the artist hastens to clarify that The Horse Trotted Another Couple of Metres, Then It Stopped was not about anything, at least not in a conventional sense. “It’s the difference between when you have an object and you look at it, and when you’re directly confronted with its being,” she says.

It is the first morning that the work has been open to the public, and small groups are trickling past, headed towards one of three carefully concealed vertical slits in the drapery, which serve as entry points. Inside people mill about, phone cameras at hand, surrounded by Grosse’s signature riot of acid-toned colour. She recently spent almost 10 days wielding an industrial spray gun to roughly layer one hue over another: two tones of yellow mix against green and orange; fuchsia is sketched through by signal blue. Although the debt to American colour-field painting is clear, Grosse’s palette is discordant and garish rather than meditative. Why use one or two carefully selected tones, as in a Rothko painting, when 20 or more will do?

Grosse is an internationally renowned proponent of what is best termed “painting in the expanded field”. In similar fashion to fellow German Anselm Reyle, or the American Jessica Stockholder, she works with painting’s core principles – colour, form, tone, ground – but draws them beyond the limits of its well-trodden conventions. (Last year’s Superposition of Three Types, at Sydney’s Artspace, surveyed a number of Australian practitioners loosely working in the same register.) Although she makes more straightforward paintings on canvas, and always has, she owes much of her reputation to the kind of large-scale site-specific projects that contemporary museums adore. Early works were sprayed roughly onto museum walls, but the surfaces to which she applied her colour soon expanded to include non-architectural elements that carried, for Grosse at least, a kind of elemental meaning. For Picture Park, at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art in 2007, it was a jumble of oversize latex balloons, tilted canvases and a large pile of nondescript soil; Sticks in a Shop, her 2013 project in Curitiba, Brazil, saw her signature spray applied to fully grown uprooted trees arranged horizontally between a museum’s marble pillars. The bolts of hanging material first appeared soon after. Where viewers could once stand and look at a Grosse work on the wall in front of them, they were now surrounded, as if a garishly painted abstract canvas had folded around them, and drawn them in.

It’s this sense of bodily immediacy that Grosse embraces. “Painting has a different time structure than music or a book, or film,” she says. Those forms, she continues, are often driven by a “causal structure”, a narrative that unfolds piece by piece. “In painting, everything is there at the same time, even the things that happened first: you can see those at the end as well.”

Grosse attended art school in the early 1980s in Düsseldorf, where her teachers included Gerhard Richter and Nam June Paik, but when pressed for influences she reaches further back. She grew up in the declining industrial city of Bochum and became visually attuned to the blunt iconicity of its fading urban landscape. “There was a lot of old factories, leftover places that weren’t cared for anymore,” she recalls. “I’d find maybe a concrete block with weeds growing around it, and the sun was shining on it in summer.” Although she was drawn to abstraction, images like that stuck with her as if they were possessed with some kind of essential truth.

Avant-garde dance had a similar effect. Her parents would take her to neighbouring Wuppertal, where the renowned contemporary choreographer Pina Bausch was based: Grosse suspects that until her early 20s she may have seen everything the famously experimental Bausch produced. Even then, a shock of water thrown across a black stage would excite her creative energy. She would wonder about the space between bodies, about how the choreographer’s invisible directions dictated the performer’s every move. Later, she would use stage directions as titles for her own pieces, a tendency echoed in the clipped narrative suggested by The Horse Trotted Another Couple of Metres, Then It Stopped.

More recently, her mind has turned to soccer, which she watches with keen interest. She barracks for no team, but the game nonetheless fascinates her: she sees the ball as a random element around which a coach must shape the movements of an entire side, predicting endless variations that could each derail even the most carefully plotted strategy. It’s an apt analogy for her own practice, of course. Not only does she similarly corral a team of assistants around a common purpose, but there are also intricate preparations. For the Carriageworks project, her team in Germany created three separate models of ascending scale. Then came the challenge of sewing together the industrial-scale bolts of fabric, followed by complex questions of suspension. Finally, the unpredictable act of painting played out as a process of finely sustained risk.

“The painting is totally developed on-site,” she explains. “The light and the situation are so particular that it doesn’t make sense to have a plan that restricts you.” She intended the resulting piece to open a small rift in the everyday, a space into which might slip a new possibility.

She continues: “If a gap opens for a split second, you can see something totally different. And that’s what I look for in my work. As an artist I see myself as the one that has to bring that quality, a little bit, to society. To show perhaps where another vision is possible … I think that’s what any artist does.”

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer, and author of The Stranger Artist.

Katharina Grosse, The Horse Trotted Another Couple of Metres, Then It Stopped, 2017, commissioned by Carriageworks, Sydney. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian © Katharina Grosse and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, image: Zan Wimberley

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