CONTEMPORARY PAINTERS : Step Right Up: The Katharina Grosse Carnival - by Gregory Volk


Function: noun
Etymology: Italian carnevale, alteration of earlier carnelevare, literally, removal of meat, from carne flesh (from Latin carn-, caro) + levare to remove, from Latin, to raise 
Date: 1549 

1: a season or festival of merrymaking before Lent 
2 a: an instance of merrymaking, feasting, or masquerading b: an instance of riotous excess <a carnival of violence> 
3 a: a traveling enterprise offering amusements b: an organized program of entertainment or exhibition : festival <a winter carnival
-- Merriam-Webster Dictionary

The Horse Trotted Another Couple of Metres, Then it Stopped
2018 at Carriageworks in Sydney, Australia 
Acrylic on fabric, 1000 x 4600 x 1500 cm
Courtesy Carriageworks, Sydney and Gagosian. Photography © Zan Wimberley

 Barry Schwabsky, esteemed art criticpoet, and Series Editor of the Lund Humphries Contemporary Painters Seriesinvited me to submit a proposal for a book on a contemporary painter, and suggested that I call on my particular familiarity with the German scene, it took me about 4.7 seconds—tops—to come up with Katharina Grosse  

Grosse is a favourite artist of mine, and has been for years, one whose aggressive and nutritive work consistently thrills me, challenges me, changes me. We first met in Brooklyn in 1995 when she was briefly subletting the apartment of a mutual friend, the excellent German artist Karin Sander, who encouraged me to visit Grosse and familiarize myself with her workThis was several years before Grosse began to exhibit widely and receive substantial acclaim 

recall being interested in Grosse’s vibrant paintings (some of them near-monochromes) and entirely wowed by her. She radiated vigour and commitment, quest and integrityShe was humorousjoyfulvery smart, and brimming with ideas, and it was easy to recognize that she was living, not just making, her work —thinking and feeling through colour and paint.  We quickly became friends and have remained so. 

While I was impressed, I hardly suspected that Grosse would shortly emerge as one of the most radical and innovative painters of the era, which happened when she surprisingly moved off the canvas into actual architectural spaces, spray-painting parts of walls, floors, ceilings, stairs and windows, and eventually copious objects tooas well as outdoor spaces. Grosse’s intensely colourful, oftentimes large-scale painting installations—and I have experienced many of them —have an air of the marvellous, with brazen colours and bold gestures coming at you from every which way, in front of you but also underfoot, behind, and around you. These installations sensitively respond to, but also thoroughly transform and disrupt, their chosen sites.   

Rockaway, 2016 at MoMA PS1’s Rockaway! Series, New York
Acrylic on wall, floor and various objects, 600 x 1500 x 3500 cm
Courtesy of MoMA PS1. Photography by Pablo Enriquez

In the book, I focus on 
these immersive and spectacular painting installationswhich you don’t just look at from a distance but instead experience fully, with your eyes and whole body, mind and emotions. Many were conceived as temporary, meaning that most of Grosse’s best works no longer exist. For Rockaway (2016), Grosse spray-painted, in red, bright white, and magenta, much of a derelict, formerly military building in coastal New York City which had been severely damaged by a punishing storm linked to global warming.  Her work conjured sunset colours, ocean spray, sweeping wind and surging tides, while it also turned this faltering shell of a building into a garish seaside attraction, in a part of the city once renowned for its many entertainment emporiums. Now not just the work, but also the building, are gone. Cool Puppen (Cool Dolls) (2002), a crucial early work at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, UK, spread across the walls of several rooms with multiple colours. It turned the experience of encountering a painting into an invigorating voyage of discovery. 

Cool Puppen, 2002 at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham
Acrylic on wall, 370 x 1200 x 700 cm
Courtesy Ikon Gallery, Birmingham. Photography by Olaf Bergmann

I suppose that my own experience, not 
just as an art writer but as a person, has primed me to be especially attuned to Grosse’s no-holds-barred painting installations with their riot of colours and palpable energy. Long before I knew a thing about contemporary art, lived and worked each summer in the modest, timewornyet still wondrous amusement park (which opened in 1921 and had a Coney Island look) that belonged to my family — I was a teenage carny.  I absorbed how the amusement park, with its abundant colours, carnival signs, hand-painted carousel horses, and towering Ferris Wheel emblazoned with lights so impacted and revamped our otherwise humble and quite poor small town in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, signalling promise, adventure, unfettered emotions, possible delight. Perhaps this is a primary reason why Katharina Grosse’s painting installations affect me so enormously. I understand them as transformation and invitation I embrace them as spectacles. I get their wild freedom. 

Two major forms of research helped shape my text.  One is my twenty-plus years involvement with Katharina Grosse as an artist and cherished friend, including the five days I spent with her in Berlin in May 2018 talking for several hours each day while recording everything. The other is my understanding of carnival, the complex, multifaceted theme coursing through my text. Katharina Grosse is, in my opinion, the most carnivalesque of major contemporary painters, for three principal reasons that intersect with different definitions of carnival.   

Grosse revels in colour and pushes it for all it is worth.  Her installations connect with free-spirited carnival celebrations in which colour is keythink of carnival costumes and colourful parades in Venice, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago and many other locations, including Grosse’s hometown of Bochum, Germany, where on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday), the first day of “Karneval”, throngs of raucous people wearing red and other bright colours fill the midwinter streets. These celebrations are communal and participatory. The same goes for Grosse’s painting installationswhich function as enticing social spaces in which people gather, converse, rejoice, and are rejuvenated.  The Horse Trotted for Another Couple of Metres Then It Stopped (2018), at Carriageworks in Sydney, Australia, was a huge, soft room made of 2,500 square meters (27,000 square feet) of spray-painted fabric. Viewers in the room were thoughtfulastounded, frankly joyful and even reverential as they opened themselves to the swirling colours around them 

The Horse Trotted Another Couple of Metres, Then it Stopped
2018 at Carriageworks in Sydney, Australia 
Acrylic on fabric, 1000 x 4600 x 1500 cm
Courtesy Carriageworks, Sydney and Gagosian. Photography © Zan Wimberley

Grosse also connects with another meaning of carnival 
that is dear to me—the tradition of traveling shows and circuses bringing their excitation and visual excess to far-flung localescreating gorgeous rifts in the routine. In museums and galleries, on building facadesin urban parks and landscapes, and on an extra-large billboard in New Zealand, among many others, Grosse’s works show up to elicit heightened perception and consciousness, but then usually vanish. The circus is in town. And then it isn’t.  

Carnival also has political and social significancehere I am indebted to Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. In Bakhtin’s terms”, as I wrote, “the ‘carnivalized moment’ or the ‘carnivalized situation’ are those times when the normal rules, values, hierarchies, and modes of apprehension are temporarily suspended in favour of a brand-new freedom, which can be at once exhilarating and ungainly, liberating and bewildering”. Grosse’s eye-popping works do something very similar. They deal in destabilizing freshness. Also, Grosse never completely transforms (via painting) the sites where she works, but instead leaves parts —oftentimes large parts— untouched. The space as it normally is and as she has radically reconfigured it, coexist.  It is for the viewer to shift between these two contexts, the one mundane and expected, the other exuberant and renewed. 


-- Gregory Volk, 2020

 All images of artworks © Katharina Grosse and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2019.
Reproduced in 'Katharina Grosse' by Gregory Volk, 2020.


Gregory Volk's monograph on Katharina Grosse - part of our Contemporary Painters Series - is available for pre-order HERE.


Hardback • 144 Pages • Size: 280 × 240 mm
100 colour illustrations
ISBN: 9781848223233 • Publication: September 03, 2020
Series: Contemporary Painters Series