When I first saw Katharina Grosse’s paintings at Gagosian, my reaction was that they were too big, and that the surfaces were too flat–that they looked better on the computer screen than they did at the gallery. Berlin-based Grosse (b. 1961, Germany) is mainly known for large-scale three-dimensional work that features bright, unmixed, sprayed-on color that evokes abstract painters like Sam Francis and Helen Frankenthaler. Readers may remember that this past summer Grosse completed “Rockaway!,” a controversial project commissioned by Klaus Biesenbach at MoMAPS1 in which she covered a Fort Tilden beach building (and some of the beach surrounding it) with bright red paint that looked as if it had been poured from the sky.
In the press release for the Fort Tilden show, MoMAPS1 suggested that Grosse’s ambition was to “extend the scope of her painting beyond the borders of the canvas” and declared that her installation projects “evoke the physicality of action painting and earthworks through their gestures and monumentality.”
The statement for the Gagosian show also intimates that the paintings, made with unmixed acrylic color and various stencils, aim to engulf the viewer:
Embracing the events and incidents that arise as she paints, Grosse opens up surfaces and spaces to the countless perceptual possibilities of the medium. While she is widely known for her temporary and permanent in situ work, which she paints directly onto architecture, interiors, and landscapes, her approach begins in the studio. With calculated focus, she allows new patterns and procedures in her paintings to emerge from action, further multiplying this potential with stencils cut from cardboard and thick foam rubber—tools with which to develop further cuts, layers, and perspectival depths. Grosse’s gestures unfold all at the same time in unmixed acrylic colors, engulfing the viewer in a toxic sublime.
The strength of Grosse’s past work rested in the clever, audacious way she combined paint and physical structure. These new paintings on canvas, though ambitious and slick in terms of energy and scale, lack the improvisational element that working on an object or building provides. As a result, they seem essentially formulaic. Certainly they aren’t as compelling as the public art projects (or, for that matter, the three-dimensional sculptures that she paints). For color fanatics, I can see the attraction, but those less interested in color pyrotechnics than in structure, line, and surface may not be impressed. From an art market and museum placement standpoint, of course, these new paintings are obviously more practical than public projects. Furthermore, this is Grosses’s first show at Gagosian, and, let’s face it, almost everyone digs bright colors to some degree.
“Katarina Grosse,” Gagosian, Chelsea, New York, NY. Through March 11, 2017.