A Grand Gesture in Paints

“It Wasn’t Us” is a large-scale, multi-dimensional, colour-burst painting by Katharina Grosse, and the first work shown at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for the Contemporary after the lockdown imposed in the spring. The work, sweeping across 180 metres from the museum’s interior to the space outside, is on view until 10 January.

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Katharina Grosse’s exuberant painting is a blaze of colour, pouring out from the hall of the former station, now art museum, Hamburger Bahnhof and mesmerizing the viewer. The waves of colour start low on the ground, like tidal flats, and build up to a majestically towering surge that seems to have frozen just before crashing against the shore of the rear glass wall. Dynamic streaks in sulphuric yellow, purple, orange and cobalt blue, emerald green and glowing red are layered kaleidoscopically across the space.

Blue, yellow and red dashes of colour chase across the surfaces; dark green oozes from a scored ridge into a pool of bright turquoise and from the sculpture on to the floor.

The artist not only conceived this expansive, out-sized painting but also created, constructed and painted it. Despite its undeniable gigantism, the walk-on artwork draws the viewer in with its exploration of affect and effectiveness. It is a response to the question of how to show a painting so that it has an impact on society today. Katharina Grosse looks for the answer by confronting the public with a primal form of painting, by letting them walk over it, enter into the wild blends of colour, to even surf across it, and to approach the sculpture with a sense of movement.

Grosse used the shutdown period to make the artwork. Day by day she worked with her spray gun, as if armed with a harpoon, in the polystyrene landscape. But despite its monumental height, this sculptural painting seems surprisingly fragile. The tip of the sculpture almost reaches the top of the 11-metre-high ceiling. Now in its colourful state, it seems so featherlight and delicate it could almost be made of paper. Katharina Grosse describes this ambivalent state, which her works often inhabit, as one of “oscillating materiality and substance, which means the work stays open to any potentiality you may find.”

Not only in terms of aesthetics, the scene resembles a large stage set. The process by which it was made also paralleled set construction for the stage. “First the trucks arrived with the polystyrene supports,” says Gabriele Knapstein, director of the Hamburger Bahnhof museum and co-curator of the exhibition with Udo Kittelmann, departing director of Berlin’s Nationalgalerie.

The central sculpture was made up of around a dozen giant polystyrene components. Working in close cooperation with the artist, staff at the German company Accentform, based in Nienstädt near Hanover, assumed the manufacture and assembly of the basic structure. To start, Grosse built a 1:50 scale polystyrene model, which was scanned and translated into 3D data. Accentform used these as a guide to 3D milling the total of five polystyrene objects. First, they made a 1:10 scale test model, based on the 3D data, with the company’s own 5-axis milling machine. “The artist then used this model in her studio as a scale prototype, for working out the colours and making various adjustments, which we then translated into a refined 1:5 scale model,” an Accentform spokesperson explained.

Once the artist had also made final adjustments to this 1:5 scale model and was satisfied with the results, the five rock-like objects were milled into shape. Due to their gigantic size – up to 21 metres long and 7 metres high – they initially needed to be divided into workable portions. “The mere fact that it took 1400 hours to complete the milling, and used 1050m³ of polystyrene, says a lot about the enormity of this project.” Once the parts had been provisionally assembled, Grosse and her assistant added finishing touches with hot wire according to their artistic concepts.”

The final stages, in late April, involved delivering the finished segments to Berlin and putting the sculpture together. The assembly alone took nine days. Here, again, the artist made several adjustments, “adding definition”, as she calls it, by cutting the material with the glow wire. Attaching equal importance to cutting and painting, she took several days to add grooves, notches and the slightest of ridges. “And then the paint was added. That was an awe-inspiring moment,” Knapstein recalls. Grosse started every morning, adding yet another layer of paint to the multi-dimensional work, “painting over” – as Grosse stresses, not “colouring” – both the fragile white objects and the floor with layer after layer of her spray paints.

“I am painting my way out of the building,” is how the artist describes her work. The painting, the colour, emanates out of the old station hall and into the outdoor space, extending across the expansive grounds behind the museum, sweeping up the aluminium facades of the Rieckhallen building, flowing further until it reaches the edges of the grounds, where it ebbs away into the newly built residential blocks.

Grosse was a guest of Hamburger Bahnhof once before, 20 years ago, when she was nominated for the Nationalgalerie Prize. Since then she has rigorously revived the basic, political principle of abstraction: boundless freedom. It makes no difference to her whether she uses a brush or a spray gun: “It’s all painting.” While she starts with a plan, she later works spontaneously. Models and ground plans are only the starting point of her work process, during which she makes further decisions intuitively and has no time for predictions of the outcome.

Her expansive works are always multi-dimensional picture worlds, in which she covers walls, ceilings, objects and entire buildings and landscapes in brilliant colours. A crucial factor in her work is the choice of location and the conditions it provides; incalculable factors, occurrences or blind spots and the changing perspectives that impact on the process by which her paintings are created. Seen in this light, “It Wasn’t Us” can be regarded as an allusion to the intrinsic complexity and unpredictability of any situation. And to the individual’s responsibility for what happens next.

Speaking of which, many visitors will ask: What will happen to all that material when the exhibition is over? As the installation is for a limited period only, it will be completely dissembled: The layers of acrylic paint will be scraped off and correctly disposed of and the foil on the floor and the polystyrene elements will be recycled. Katharina Grosse has even had a flyer printed to inform the interested public.

BTR Ausgabe 5 2020
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 116
von Irmgard Berner