Katharina Grosse

Katharina Grosse talks about her work at MASS MoCA

Katharina Grosse, One Floor Up More Highly (detail), 2010, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view. Photo: Christopher Grimes Gallery.

The Berlin-based artist Katharina Grosse is known for her immense installations that examine how painting functions in an expanded field. Here, she discusses one of her most ambitious projects to date: One Floor Up More Highly, which opened at MASS MoCA on December 22. Grosse’s concurrent exhibitions of new paintings at Christopher Grimes Gallery in Santa Monica and Galería Helga de Alvear in Madrid are on view until January 8.

THE BIG SPACE AT MASS MOCA IS VERY UNUSUAL. It’s very long and very wide. It also has windows on each side, so a lot of light passes through it. I’ve made a work that fills the whole volume of the space but that also travels through it to the mezzanine gallery, from where you can look down on it again. So you can look at the whole thing while you’re walking through it, and also from above.

I’m using huge Styrofoam blocks that have been cut with a hot wire. They look a bit like sharpened pencils. I’ve always been fascinated by what happens to Styrofoam when you cut it with hot wire. You get very interesting, pseudomathematical forms that are difficult to produce with CAD systems. You also get holes, voids, and turns in the material that are difficult to create unless you cut the foam by hand. Normally, I paint on Styrofoam objects and then laminate them with epoxy and fiberglass so they can sit outside; they become very hard and durable. But when you laminate them, you lose all of the fine cuts and streamlining. And the white of the Styrofoam is especially beautiful. So I’ve left the blocks unpainted in this installation. They’re very glary, like crystallized light, which connects with the white walls of the building.

The blocks are piled up and surrounded by huge heaps of painted soil, which are about sixty-five feet by sixty-five feet, and twenty-three feet high. We’ve also mixed larger “fake” grains of soil into the heaps––we’ve fabricated boulders that are six feet by six feet, for example, then painted them. This has a lot to do with how changes in scale and color can transform the material into something ambiguous––in this installation, the soil looks a bit like raw pigment, or like it could be contaminated, or like colored light is hitting it. There are also two warped shapes that sit in the middle of this artificial landscape, one small painting on canvas, and a floor painting in a smaller space. So there are lots of different understandings of space, and vast scale changes among the different areas of thought and image crystallization.

The relationship between my installations and my studio practice has become more important to me in the past few years, especially since 2008. I’ve always worked on both strands at the same time, but I usually spent more time on the installations. My knowledge of how my installations function is very precise; they’re about expanding small experience. By making something small really large, you slow the information, and time, down, like slow motion. I’ve started to understand that my canvas works do the opposite––they’re compressions of time and activity that make things very fast. Also, the painted area in my new canvases is relatively small. The white space I leave seems to somehow correlate to the Styrofoam in the MASS MoCA installation: Both create areas in the image field that either mark something as invisible or that cut into the vision and erase information.

Rather than seeing the MASS MoCA installation as a site-specific project, I would say it’s more like my systems are running alongside the systems of the space. It’s as though something has moved inside the building from outside. I find the relationship of this idea to those held by certain American artists, like Robert Smithson for example, fascinating. The work also creates a very interesting situation for me in relation to Abstract Expressionism, and the gesture, the drip. AbEx opened up different ways to look at painting, but it also hindered, to a certain extent, painting’s development. Negating painting’s illusionism narrowed it down to applying paint to a flat surface. I have a totally different approach. I don’t think that a painting is a coherent, closed system that only takes place within its borders. And rather than choosing between painting being a window and painting being flat, I view everything as a window: You’re a window, the window is a window, the car is a window. For me, everything is an illusionistic surface, and painting is a mode of thought––a way to link these illusionistic elements together. That linking process constantly changes. I don’t create a set of rules through which the thinking has to happen. Neither a predetermined outcome nor the rules to realize it exist.