Katharina Grosse, Untitled, 2016. Acrylic paint on wallboard, wood veneer, and steel, 480 x 960 x 67 inches. University purchase, Art on Campus fund, Gary M. Sumers Recreation Center, 2016. Photo by Yvette Gellis.

The soul of French painting in the 1860’s and 1870’s was indebted to Diderot who, a hundred years earlier, wrote about theatricality in painting.  He advanced the idea that a viewer’s experience of a painting should be that of a fluid, ongoing occurrence, rather than about witnessing a dramatic set up, as in the elaborate salon paintings in fashion at the time.  An anti-theatrical approach manifested in the Impressionist movement, which blew apart the solidity of objects; everything was subject to blurring and increasing formlessness. Painting was no longer a “window onto a fixed reality” but subject to the chance effects of atmospheric conditions, contributing to the sensation that the observer was no longer in a static position. A typical critique of an Impressionist exhibition would have highlighted the loose, dabbed brushwork; the way forms dissolve into light or how the fuzzy layers of paint hold forms together from a distance. Impressionism emphasized an extreme visual ocular experience. When Gustave Caillebotte, painted his “Paris Street, Rainy Day” in 1877, we see those Impressionist qualities at play in the glistening reflections on the cobblestones and the subtle shimmering light after a rainstorm. Although Caillebotte had been included in many Impressionist exhibitions, he diverged from Impressionism in his precision and attention to explicit form and compositional freedom. Perhaps this ensued from his interest in the camera’s unique ability to accurately describe form and focus on fleeting moments. This new invention propelled other methods of construction, such as prints that were “collaged” into the background of paintings and created a whole new expansive sense of space.

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street Rainy Day, 1877,  Oil on Canvas. 212.2 x 276.2 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago.
This is a photo I took of my mother sitting in front of “ Rainy Day” (as if she could stroll right into the space / street of the painting).

Rainy Day — a painting I first saw as a young girl at the Art Institute of Chicago — dramatically changed how I perceived and interpreted the painted space. Caillebotte captured the new urbanism of the bourgeoisie in Paris, where the entire city space was unrestricted, and the populace, especially women, was able to stroll without recrimination.  With the rise of the bourgeoisie there was money for urban renewal and an openness to progress. In a radical move, the cobblestones were cleaned up, the mud was gone and beautiful architecture erupted everywhere. Wider streets opened up perspectives and encouraged new spaces to be traversed. Prior to the time of Caillebotte, the city was more hostile; now people strolled the boulevards, each and everyone a flâneur. The whole city was a playground that offered freedom to move through space.

In traditional realist painting, the viewer peered like a spectator through a window onto a fixed reality. By contrast, the viewer in Caillebotte’s painting, is not simply a passive observer, but is invited into the painting space. One feels as if one is walking beside the couple on the Parisian street. Moreover, the large painting seems to imply that this particular street extends out into the museum itself, as a space for the Sunday perambulators to continue their walk. Could Caillebotte have presaged the Space and Light artworks/movement a century later, where the viewer’s body actually engages with an artwork physically – such as walking in the light or roaming through a desert artwork?

From this point forward, there was an evolving lack of distinction between stage and spectator. Michael Fried discussed this idea and the new ways of seeing that developed in the 60’s and 70’s. More recently, he elaborated further that “Absorption” takes place in a happenstance manner on the way to defining “Movement and Duration” as the noted trend of the moment.

Katharina Grosse, Untitled, 2016. Acrylic paint on wallboard, wood veneer, and steel, 480 x 960 x 67 inches. University purchase, Art on Campus fund, Gary M. Sumers Recreation Center, 2016. Photo by Yvette Gellis.

Jumping forward to today, the work of contemporary artist Katharina Grosse includes all the sights and sounds of an environment and is, in my mind, a continuation of Caillebotte’s new urbanism. In contrast to Caillebotte, however, Katharina Grosse states she is allergic to composition – in fact you could say that there is no singular point of view in her work, so there is no coherent image. In Caillebotte’s work, we see the idea of absorption at play when a fleeting moment in time is captured; if you look away the picture might change. This integration manifests further when walking through a Katherina Grosse installation.  The viewer is completely engrossed in the paint-covered surfaces and is propelled into participating in a color event. One is engulfed in the work itself – above, below, to the side and back – almost as if submerged in water. If you’ve ever gone deep sea diving, you’ve experienced the sensation of taking in a visually compelling scene in 3-D. This total immersion into the work, propels painting into a new arena beyond “Movement and Duration,” where one becomes one with the work itself and the idea of spectator is lost.

Grosse’s work has grown from the size of a small painting, to a room, to a building, to the city itself, embracing a tangible physicality.  Metaphors multiply. The artist invites a reconsideration of how art can actually exist in the world. This type of artistic engagement inspires the sense in a viewer of seeing everything, everywhere, as new and full of possibilities. Grosse reminds us that constructing reality is a performative activity that is generated differently again and again from different perspectives, from the close up and personal, to the far away and distant.

Then there is the color itself – the purity of color and the psychological effects that pure color can have, not only on the eye, but also on one’s emotional states and well-being. In Grosse’s color combinations, one thinks of countries like Nicaragua, where the façades on the front of homes are painted with bright happy colors like turquoise or lime green, tangerine orange or lemon yellow. She often goes against the grain of standard color theory, laying the most dissonant colors side by side.

As Grosse’s paintings encompass and “grow into” vast spaces, the conversation around painting grows as well. Much as Christo’s arches, draperies, and umbrellas transformed whole cities, mountains and hillsides, hers are new spaces where one has no place to hide because one is always continuously located in relation to the work. The artwork expands beyond the room, both indoors and out, uncontained by stretcher bars or confining walls.

The bursts of color and the fleeting light in Impressionist works changed the way space was experienced for the viewer. Just as Gustave Cailllebotte unexpectedly drew viewers into a hazy Parisian scene with his radical composition, line and point of view, Katherina Grosse has exponentially expanded our sense of moving and living in our global contemporary world. 

  Yvette Gellis, Liminal Space, Dark, 2018 Oil, acrylic, graphite – wood wedge with mirrored print. 112 x 82 inches

American artist Yvette Gellis lives and works in Los Angeles, California.  Ever conscious of historical precedents, she strives to expand upon the boundaries of painting by setting up structures that echo or reiterate the impermanent and mutable states depicted in her work – – most recently seen at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. www.yvettegellis.com