BERLIN — In a large room, three tree trunks lie haphazardly in a pile at a slight angle to the wall. They have been stripped of their branches and bark but their roots remain intact, awkwardly protruding into a closed doorway. The trees along with the floor and wall of the museum have been doused with an energetic — if not defiant — series of gestures of brightly colored spray paint. The piece, “I Think This Is a Pine Tree” (2013), by Katharina Grosse at the Hamburger Banhof Museum for Contemporary Art in Berlin was a jolt to my system. Like any discovery of an uprooted tree, Grosse’s piece is familiar, while taking on its own immediate dramatic presence. It contains recognizable elements — gestures evocative of Abstract Expressionism, an application reminiscent of graffiti — but the work is not merely a mix and match of previously explored territory.
“I Think This Is a Pine Tree” delivered a sensation often sought by any visitor to a contemporary art museum. Goosebumps formed on my neck and blood pumped to my limbs, causing the urge to run, skip, and jump around in a fight-or-flight response of viewership. My ego was having none of it. ‘Come on, you’re in a museum. Yeah, you came here searching for this very feeling, but play it cool. You are an educated adult, for god’s sake! Go read the description, look ponderously at the piece, and start figuring out why it made you feel this way. Spread your response out over time; mix some delayed gratification in with work. Maybe write something about it. Just do not hurdle those tree trunks!’
Traditional Abstract Expressionism is often applied (and I say this as someone who painted in an Abstract Expressionist style for some years) through pushing paint, building on blank canvas and other paint. The physical structure and texture of an Ab-Ex piece is often redefined by the medium itself. Ab-Ex artists broke the picture plane, cut through the canvas, exposed the stretcher bars, even hacked them up, but the plane almost always remained in a back-and-forth relationship with the medium, even if only referentially or antagonistically. Grosse is not painting outside the picture plane, because there is none. She is using spray paint exactly how it was designed to be used, to paint over something, to move without touching what is painted, free of friction. Spray paint evokes graffiti, but there is nothing approaching image or text in Grosse’s marks, nor is the piece framed by or directly responding to the architecture, like graffiti often does. Rather, the floor, the wall, the trees are all fair game in coloring movements. The distinction between these structures is not necessarily ignored nor accentuated by the application of the paint. As a result, “I Think This Is a Pine Tree” manages to be a series of actions, despite its form as an installation, sculpture, and painting.
The piece reminded me of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. Many people, myself included, are unable to fully grasp this distinctive East Asian art form, because much of viewing calligraphy is the reliving of a series of known movements. (Brice Marden subtracted something essential from Asian calligraphy when he free-formed in his Cold Mountain series.) Traditionally the speed and direction of the mark of a calligrapher are apparent in the specific way the ink has been absorbed by the rice paper. Those who know the pacing and nature of this absorption, and have learned how to write the characters by heart, feel the act of writing in their muscle memory. Reading good calligraphy is, among other things, a shared dance of the wrist.
Katharina Grosse made my body want to move, because it was feeling her movement; the paint conveyed her speed and momentum, hurdling tree trunks and swiping the containing walls and floor of the museum as if they hardly mattered. For a moment, she summoned a child, with a familiar scene and dance. He was filled with warm blood and an urge to flail around fallen giants. Well, just for a moment, before I put a lid on that child inside and paced around the art calmly with a quizzical expression.
“I Think This Is a Pine Tree” is on display at the Hamburger Banhof Museum of Contemporary Art in Berlin through August 2014. Grosse’s sculpture “Just Two of Us” is also on view at the MetroTech Commons in Brooklyn, NY, until September.