One of the most remarkable places accessible to the public in New York City is the ruins of the Fort Tilden military base on the Rockaway Peninsula, where huge batteries with now-empty heavy gun turrets open to the beach. Decommissioned since the 1970s and now managed by the National Park Service as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, Fort Tilden is a site of contrasts between human-made structures and the quick retaking of them by nature, between the modern city visible from the top of the batteries and the ramble of foliage that crawls over the sands below.
Those interplaying forces come together in Katharina Grosse’s Rockaway! installation presented by MoMA PS1. The German artist drenched an abandoned aquatics building with paint inspired by the sunset, with white, magenta, and red flowing over the tattered roof, down the brick walls, and submerging the surrounding cement. Grosse and her crew were careful to protect all the grass, sand, and a small tree alongside the building while they painted from outside and from above on a 60-foot lift, although some stray objects like a pair of shoes and chunk of concrete were consumed by the colors.
The 2016 Rockaway! intervention follows the more sprawling 2014 iteration, where Patti Smith installed a bed in a derelict building, Janet Cardiff’s “The Forty Part Motet” played in the old church, and work by Adrián Villar Rojas was embedded in the landscape. MoMA PS1 Director Klaus Biesenbach explained at the preview that he first encountered Grosse’s architecture-as-canvas work at the 2008 Prospect.1 in New Orleans, where she painted a house that was condemned following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“She had applied gold and yellow colors and gave this abandoned building such a temporary glowing beauty,” he said. Likewise, the Rockaway! intervention is a last hurrah for the aquatics building. After the installation closes on November 30, the structure will be demolished due to its decay and instability following Hurricane Sandy in 2012. (Only some of the military buildings are listed by the National Register of Historic Places as part of a historic district.)
Like the waves from Sandy, which cascaded over and destroyed the dunes that once blocked the building’s view of the ocean, the paint rushes over it as if it’s rising from the water, leaving the back of the structure with its graffiti tags untouched. Grosse often works with unconventional surfaces, such as a gallery filled with dirt at Dallas’s Nasher Sculpture Center in 2013, uprooted pine trees at the Hamburger Banhof Museum for Contemporary Art in Berlin in 2014, and that same year a wall space alongside the Amtrak tracks in Philadelphia.
“I want painting to be such an important part of our lives, not only in museums, but inscribed on the environment,” Grosse said, and although much of her work is ephemeral and site-specific, it’s as much about the paint as the place. Each layer is designed to play with the texture of the wood, brick, and existing tags and murals on the building, creating a dimensional depth that changes depending on your perspective, whether inside standing in the cool sand, or walking up from the beach where the façade greets you like a psychedelic mirage.
Joshua Laird, commissioner of the National Parks of New York Harbor, said that Fort Tilden shows “the power of nature to reassert itself on a site after so many years of development.” He compared Grosse’s work to early landscape painters who appreciated this unruliness of nature as something to be preserved, rather than destroyed. These are sentiments that helped found the National Park Service itself, which this year marks its 100th anniversary. “We’re using this time to think about what the future holds for us and how to be relevant to a new audience,” Laird said of the centennial, and Grosse’s installation is one of those tactics.
Although the strange, fluid vision of the Rockaway! house will be gone come winter, visitors will hopefully still have an interest in Fort Tilden sparked by their interactions with the art. Just a few feet from the building are small signs warning “Baby Birds on Beach” for the Piping Plover nesting areas, and a short walk away are the batteries and tunnels which served as a military outpost from 1917 through the Cold War. While human history is still evident, and summer recreation remains a huge draw for Fort Tilden, it’s also a significant locus of ecology. And it’s a place that’s always changing, where rising tides and unpredictable future storms compete with its protection.
Katharina Grosse: Rockaway! presented by MoMA PS1 is at Fort Tilden, the Gateway National Recreation Area, Queens from July 3 to November 30.