In the summer of 2013, visitors to the Nasher experienced WUNDERBLOCK, an exhibition of works by Berlin-based artist Katharina Grosse. Over the past two decades, Grosse has become known for large wall paintings made in architectural spaces. Working with a spray gun, she animates walls, ceilings, and floors with a mélange of vivid colors ranging from the vibrant to the acrid. Since 2004, these immersive paintings have often included objects, such as clothes, soil, pieces of furniture, balloons, her own painted canvases, and, more recently, sculpted objects made from cut and laminated styrofoam. Taking inspiration from frescoes, plein-air painting, Abstract Expressionism, and urban graffiti, Grosse explores how painting can appear in space – in the realm of sculpture and architecture – by giving color monumental and palpable form.
Born in 1961, Grosse decided to study painting in part because it offered an immediacy of execution and effect unrivaled by sculpture, photography, and other media requiring additional tools and time to make the results of creativity visible. Spraying paint intensified this feeling of immediacy. As Grosse explains, when a painter uses a brush, “it also covers what is being painted that very moment.” Spraying liberates Grosse’s vision, enabling her to paint as fast as her eyes can move. Furthermore, spraying enlarges her scope of application, generating the possibility of creating works far beyond the immediate scale of her body.
When Grosse sprays paint on walls, ceilings, and floors, she directly engages with architectural spaces. Unlike conventional easel painting, spraying allows her to move into areas that usually frame works of art rather than becoming the site of art themselves. Likewise, filling such environments with heaps of earth or sculpted styrofoam objects that also become additional surfaces for sprayed layers of paint richly complicates our experience of her art by allowing it to physically occupy our space.
Grosse’s exhibition for the Nasher Sculpture Center drew upon several aspects of her art. In the Lower Level Gallery, mounds of dirt provided surfaces for her to paint in the days before the exhibition’s opening; after its completion, visitors were free to walk into, and on, it. Upstairs, Grosse responded to Renzo Piano’s architecture, the travertine walls and oak flooring of which could not be painted, with a special work highlighting the relation of sculpture to her painting. In her Berlin studio, Grosse carved and painted a large sculptural structure in styrofoam that filled most of Gallery 1, abutting its garden-side window and continuing on the other side of the glass onto the terrace. A small group of works from the Nasher Collection, selected in collaboration with the artist, were also on display in Gallery 1. In the garden, visitors saw two of her large painted “color-objects”—monumental volumetric forms made of glass-fiber reinforced plastic—under the trees.
Grosse named both the large, window-traversing sculpture and the Nasher’s exhibition as a whole WUNDERBLOCK. “Wunderblock” is the German term for an old-fashioned children’s toy, known in English as a mystic writing pad or magic slate, which allows users to write on its surface, then “erase” the writing by lifting its cover. In 1925, Sigmund Freud wrote an important essay called “Notes on the Wunderblock,” in which he compared the operation of memory and the nature of the unconscious to the layered construction of this toy.
Grosse has long created her art through the deployment of layers, some of which are visible, and others not. The Nasher’s WUNDERBLOCK exhibition was carried out over three spaces: one in the garden, with a work previously made in Grosse’s studio, without the Nasher in mind; the large namesake object that seemed to pass through the museum’s window and was based on floorplans and Grosse’s memories of a visit to the museum in 2011; and the painting downstairs, created onsite. Past and present, upstairs and downstairs, inside and outside, and with works from both studio and site, Grosse’s WUNDERBLOCK aimed to generate layers of perception and understanding.