Katharina Grosse 'It Wasn’t Us' at Hamburger Bahnhof Museum

Katharina-Grosse-10-Photo-Jens-Ziehe
"Katharina Grosse. It Wasn't Us." Photo: Jens Ziehe

A vivid return for the Hamburger Bahnhof —Museum for the present— in Berlin, with the site-specific three-dimensional painting It Wasn’t Us by the artist Katharina Grosse, which extends to the outside area at the back of the building. The show will be prolonged to welcome the new year, until the first of January  2021.

„Katharina Grosse. It Wasn’t Us“, Exhibition view Hamburger Bahnhof, 2020 / Courtesy KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, London, Tokyo / Gagosian / Galerie nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Wien © Katharina Grosse / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020 / Photo: Jens Ziehe

Site-specific painting at Hamburger Bahnhof

Widely known for her site-specific paintings, in which explosive color is sprayed directly onto architecture, interiors, and landscapes, Katharina Grosse embraces the events and incidents that arise as she works, opening up surfaces and spaces to the countless possibilities of the medium.

For the exhibition It Wasn’t Us, the artist has transformed into an enormous, colorfoul, expansive piece of art the historic hall of Hamburger Bahnhof –Museum für Gegenwart–, the extensive grounds behind the museum, and the façade of the Rieckhallen (Rieck hall) —inaugurated as a part of the museum complex in 2004 which will be soon taken from the museum and probably demolish to be part of the so-called complex Europacity.

„Katharina Grosse. It Wasn’t Us“, Exhibition view Hamburger Bahnhof, 2020 / Courtesy KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, London, Tokyo / Gagosian / Galerie nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Wien © Katharina Grosse / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020 / Photo: Jens Ziehe

In an attempt to blur the distinction between inside and out, all the architecture has been converted into an expansive three-dimensional painting that radically destabilises the existing order of the building. Using an industrial spray gun, the artist’s in situ painting in Hamburger Bahnhof disregards the boundaries of the museum space in a large scale colourful gesture: “I painted my way out of the building”, said Grosse.

Grosse’s painting brings together pigments and forms, natural or man-made surroundings, and the spectators as participants in the artwork as integrants of the place volume. As the boundaries between objects and constructed space, and between horizontal and vertical orientations begin to melt away, new spaces emerge, absolutely real and completely abstract at the same time, forcing the viewer to recapitulate in our ways of seeing and perceiving the world around us.

„Katharina Grosse. It Wasn’t Us“, Exhibition view Hamburger Bahnhof, 2020 / Courtesy KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, London, Tokyo / Gagosian / Galerie nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Wien © Katharina Grosse / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020 / Photo: Jens Ziehe

It Wasn’t Us

The work’s title, “It Wasn’t Us,” can be understood as a reference to the inherent complexity and unpredictability of a given situation, whether it be the conditions under which an artist creates her work or the conditions under which it is later viewed. The results of our actions are always influenced by unexpected moments and experiences as well as blind spots that later serve to define a situation. Not every consequence of each action, every aspect of the resultant situation can be predicted in advance, yet it is our task to assume responsibility for the complete picture.

With regard to the current coronavirus crisis, which gripped the entire world during preparations for the exhibition, the artist said: “Of course, I did not think about a pandemic as I was considering the exhibition’s title. But now more than ever we recognise that we cannot shy away from responsibility. For every action, there is a reaction, and everything is mutually dependent. An entire system can slip out of control at the slightest change. This applies to an image, and it also applies to the real world.”

The exhibition was prepared over the course of two years and it is the largest to date by the artist in Europe (7 x 6,5 x 18,3 metres). In the interior space, the painting’s support consists of the floor of the hall and a group of towering forms crafted from polystyrene. Grosse transposed these sculptural elements into their final size via a multi-stage production process involving incremental changes of scale. The objects were created using digital cutting technologies, with the shape of each element refined by hand before being processed into data via a 3D scanning system.

„Katharina Grosse. It Wasn’t Us“, Exhibition view Hamburger Bahnhof, 2020 / Courtesy KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, London, Tokyo / Gagosian / Galerie nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Wien © Katharina Grosse / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020 / Photo: Jens Ziehe

In a final step, the fullscale parts of the sculptures were moved into the hall of the museum and assembled by a team of workers. Over several days, the artist used a hot wire to create dents and fine corrugations in the objects before covering them and the floor with dynamic strips of colour applied layer by layer with the already mentioned spray gun.

„Katharina Grosse. It Wasn’t Us“, Exhibition view Hamburger Bahnhof, 2020 / Courtesy KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, London, Tokyo / Gagosian / Galerie nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Wien © Katharina Grosse / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020 / Photo: Jens Ziehe

„Katharina Grosse. It Wasn’t Us“, Exhibition view Hamburger Bahnhof, 2020 / Courtesy KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, London, Tokyo / Gagosian / Galerie nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Wien © Katharina Grosse / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020 / Photo: Jens Ziehe

The colours react differently depending on the surfaces they encounter and how densely they are sprayed. This painting process was continued outside. While the section of the painting located indoors is influenced by the architectural elements and the ever-changing light conditions throughout the day and the different seasons, the outdoor sections interact with the trees and greenery, the weather conditions, and the day-to-day life of the square. Elements such as street lamps, bollards, and kerbstone also enter the image.

„Katharina Grosse. It Wasn’t Us“, Exhibition view Hamburger Bahnhof, 2020 / Courtesy KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, London, Tokyo / Gagosian / Galerie nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Wien © Katharina Grosse / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020 / Photo: Jens Ziehe

Rieckhallen to be construction surface for the new urban project Europacity

The out setting is framed by the neighbouring buildings also known as Europacity, the extension, and development of which is soon to replace the Rieckhallen. On this occasion, the corrugated metal panels of the façade have become the support for an expansive painting that elevates the site (and the situation in which it finds itself) into a new realm of imagination and possibility. Surely it is not unintentional that Grosse has made part of the piece this space about to disappear swallowed by the jaws of gentrification. This unique architectural landmark in Berlin, which was repurposed from its original use as carriage of goods into a museum space, has been the venue for numerous contemporary art exhibitions since its inauguration.

„Katharina Grosse. It Wasn’t Us“, Exhibition view Hamburger Bahnhof, 2020 / Courtesy KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, London, Tokyo / Gagosian / Galerie nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Wien © Katharina Grosse / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020 / Photo: Jens Ziehe

The choice of the location, as well as the many different factors and conditions that define it, have influenced the development of the painting, just as the shifting lines of sight and unexpected encounters of the viewer affect the way the work is seen.

„Katharina Grosse. It Wasn’t Us“, Exhibition view Hamburger Bahnhof, 2020 / Courtesy KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, London, Tokyo / Gagosian / Galerie nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Wien © Katharina Grosse / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020 / Photo: Jens Ziehe

Borderless Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture

Katharina Grosse’s paintings can appear anywhere. Her large-scale works are multi-dimensional pictorial spaces in which colours sweep across walls, ceilings, objects, and even entire buildings and landscapes. Central to Grosse’s artistic practice is this notion that painting takes place not just on canvas, but that it can also permeate every facet of our surroundings.

For Grosse, there are no distinctions between painting, sculpture, and architecture. In addition to painting on canvases and over found materials like buildings and trees, she also creates large polyurethane, styrofoam, and cast-metal sculptures that act as abstract armatures for her paintings. Related to materials, in her most recent site-responsive paintings, Grosse has incorporated lengths of painted fabric, draped from the ceiling, and spilling onto the floor.

„Katharina Grosse. It Wasn’t Us“, Exhibition view Hamburger Bahnhof, 2020 / Courtesy KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, London, Tokyo / Gagosian / Galerie nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Wien © Katharina Grosse / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020 / Photo: Jens Ziehe

The hand of the artist is “distant” from the “brush”, in her case an industrial spray gun, with which the German artist makes vast, colourful installations, transforming the surfaces of the architectural sites where she works.

Katharina Grosse Biography

Born in Freiberg im Breisgau, Germany, Grosse began painting at an early age, always attuned to the ways that color and light merged with thought itself.

In her works on canvas from the 1990s, she juxtaposed colors of various densities and temperatures, repeating vertical, transparent brushstrokes. These led to related works painted directly onto the wall, where she lined hallways and staircases in sublime fields of artificial color.

Introducing the spray gun as a painting tool, she began to paint across architectural interiors and exteriors. She produced her first work, a monochrome, using this technique at the Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland, in 1998, spray painting the upper corner of a gallery in a deep green that spread partially down two adjacent walls and onto the ceiling. In 2000 Grosse became a professor at the Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weissensee; and she taught the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf from 2010–2018.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Grosse combined the intersecting streaks of previous works with the cloud-like forms and mists made possible by the spray gun. The in situ paintings expanded in scale as she explored the liquidity and vast reach of the medium. Her in situ painting Untitled Trumpet was included in central exhibition at the Biennale di Venezia, in 2015.

Portrait Katharina Grosse. Photo: Robert Schittko, Art/Beats


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