St. Louis

Katharina Grosse, Untitled, 1991, oil on canvas, 23 3⁄4 × 31 5⁄8".

Katharina Grosse, Untitled, 1991, oil on canvas, 23 3⁄4 × 31 5⁄8".

Katharina Grosse

The exhibition here, “Katharina Grosse Studio Paintings, 1988–2022: Returns, Revisions, Inventions”—concisely curated by Sabine Eckmann—displayed thirty-seven works Grosse made over the past thirty-four years. The eponymous catalogue supplemented the show with 160 photographs of her “studio paintings,” which were meticulously reproduced in lush color. The artist is best known for her large-scale, site-specific interventions that consist of expansive bursts of pure color made with an industrial spray gun. Until now, the pieces here had never been exhibited in such scale and number. This show, which amounted to a small midcareer survey, focused on process, technique, and pictorial invention, demonstrating Grosse’s devotion to painting as a way of being in the world.

We were asked to consider these works—with few biographical or historical markers to guide us—on their own terms. And for the most part we did, as we immersed ourselves in vibrant fields of overlapping color and a variety of painterly and nonpainterly procedures. The earliest piece on view, Untitled, 1991, featured a shallow field of gestural brushstrokes. A horizonal passage in salmon hangs like a veil across the canvas, covering a host of blue, yellow, and orange marks, whose trajectories are impossible to discern. If we had been looking for signposts, we might have noted that Grosse made this work the year she left art school in Düsseldorf for France and then Italy, a period during which she could, in her own words “start over,” leaving the baggage of Germany’s predominantly male and Expressionist art scene behind. The new path she forged for herself was quite evident in Untitled, 1998, a work that signals the moment Grosse exchanged her paintbrush and oils for the industrial force of a compressor-operated spray gun and acrylics. Although somewhat subtle in comparison to the dazzling later works in the show, this piece still exudes directness and power, created with a straight-on blast from the artist’s new instrument.

Grosse’s art is a veritable catalogue of process and material experimentation, most of which severs the traditional subjective relationship of artist to form (notwithstanding the spray-gun technique, which appears in many of the paintings here). In a number of pieces, we saw the artist using stencils or heaping onto the canvas mounds of dirt, which are sometimes painted upon or scraped off; in others, she slashes her ground, or walks over the work’s surface in rubber-plated shoes. More recently, she’s been adhering natural items such as branches or seaweed, then coloring over or removing them, the latter gesture leaving ghostly traces. A tondo, Untitled, 2006, showed the strange marks the artist produced via the aforementioned footwear, while Untitled, 2008, which was originally part of an indoor installation, was an entropic record of deterioration from the elements.

Renaissance artist Leon Battista Alberti saw painting as a window onto the world; Grosse does, too, in her own way. Although a dyed-in-the-wool abstractionist, she is acutely aware of the history of representation, particularly its tricks and illusions. The “reality” she presents to us on the canvas forces us to be cognizant of the world beyond its confines. Her most recent work, seemingly more personal, gives us a glimpse into her new environs: coastal New Zealand, where she built a second studio. Untitled, 2021, for instance, offered a pictorial space that seems distinctly more inward and dreamy: It combines wide sprayed loops that extend vertically across the composition and thinner organic-looking tendrils created from pieces of seaweed that Grosse stuck to and then peeled off the canvas. In works such as this one, we might have detected a nod to the geopolitical and ecological challenges of our world. Ultimately, however, the art is mute. Grosse is elusive, resisting tidy interpretation.