Layers of Painting and Painting History: Rainer Gross’s Contact Paintings
A glance at the paintings by Rainer Gross in this exhibition reveals a fascinating spectrum of color and material worlds without any reference to concrete objects. The selection encompasses work from the past 20 years, during which Gross devoted himself almost exclusively to abstract color and material compositions. A considerable number of these pieces are diptychs, or “twins,” as Gross calls them. By this, he means two-part paintings that are closely related in terms of color and composition and hence resemble twins, but which, upon further examination, prove not to be serial copies but instead complementary counterparts. In Gross's pictorial worlds, just as in “real” life, it is sometimes the case that counterparts go missing...
The production method behind these works can be best explained by analyzing these two-part pictures. Although their abstract, small-scale and diverse compositional structures appear confusing and perhaps even overwhelming at first, prolonged in-depth observation brings clarity. It becomes evident that these must be contact pictures. The picture planes of the “twins” were obviously pressed onto each other, leaving corresponding imprints and traces in the other picture —there is no other way to explain how such complicated structures and coloring could be produced. Gross, however, puts the viewer’s eye to an additional test. He does not simply place the two pictures next to each other when pressing them together, but rotates one of them (usually the right-hand one of the two) by 180 degrees, so that it does not appear as a mirror-image counterpart, but rather, at first glance, as a compositional copy, which clearly differs in the complementary coloring.
The works each operate within their own compositional and color space, which differs greatly from one pair of pictures to the next. There are works in which vertical colored stripes dominate; in others, it is a single-colored stripe amidst small patchy color structures. There are works with splashes or scatterings of color that are distributed throughout the picture without any apparent overriding system. There are works in which the colors—likewise without any obvious system—extend across the picture plane in equally balanced intensity or in which one finds compositional arrangements that can best be described in relation to the camouflage patterns we are familiar with from the military. In the case of still other pictures—for example, Lamberti-revisited or Stack-revisited – Touching the Rock (both 2002-2017)—large impasto patches or fields of color are applied to a more or less homogeneous background, creating a striking compositional accent in the otherwise unstructured pictorial space. They are almost always all-over compositions that know no center and no periphery, no specific density, but instead evenly encompass and develop the entire pictorial field, as if the picture detail had been chosen randomly and arbitrarily from a large continuum. In doing so, Gross explores a wide spectrum of possibilities of non-representational pictorial invention in an adventurous and playful manner, with an irrepressible and nearly unlimited delight in experimentation.
When we speak here of informal splashes or scatterings of paint, we use this term to describe the impact made by the paintings when viewed from a distance. A closer look reveals that it is not a matter of splashes of paint or “drips” of paint as in Jackson Pollock’s work, but of patches of paint that are obviously the result of flaking. The surface of the painting has a relief-like quality of the type we know from works of the so-called décollagists, for example, Raymond Hains, Mimmo Rotella and Jacques de la Villeglé. With Gross, it is not a matter of paper first being pasted onto a surface and then torn off, but rather a multitude of applied layers of paint, which are then ripped open and removed, revealing the underlying layers of paint.
Gross developed his own technique for this purpose, which basically operates like a monotype. To this end, he employs a pair of canvases, each of which has been prepared differently. On one canvas, he applies numerous layers of oil paint. For the other, he uses pure water-based pigments that he likewise applies in multiple layers. The surfaces are pressed onto each other, after which the artist works manually on the respective reverses. The painting’s outcome can be influenced to some extent by applying more or less pressure here or there. An almost sculptural moment, comparable to the kneading or shaping of clay, thus supplements the painting process itself.
Due to the differing properties of oil paint and water-soluble pigments, a transformation occurs: the adhesion and peeling off of layers of paint, which on the one hand takes place randomly and uncontrollably, but on the other hand can also be specifically influenced through manipulation, pressure and certain movements. Over the course of many years, Gross has gained so much experience in this regard that he is able to maintain a considerable amount of control over the process, despite the many factors that he cannot influence.
Although the production method is heavily material-driven and based primarily on a wealth of technical experience, these paintings position themselves in a broad historical painting discourse. The numerous layers of painting presented to the viewer by chance and deliberate manipulation tell the story of how the work was produced: the order and manner in which the layers were applied, their material-technical nature, etc. But in a larger sense, the exposed layers represent a striking metaphor for various phases of the artist's development as a painter and his dealings with art history since 1970, which, like the production of a concrete painting, evolved partly out of decision-making, but also in part out of unconscious factors that can hardly be controlled.
The 20-year-old Gross immersed himself in the early 1970s art scene, initially in the bustling environment of the Düsseldorf Art Academy. Joseph Beuys promised Gross that he—like everyone else—was an artist. However, Gross never had the opportunity to study in his class due to Beuys's dismissal from the academy in 1972. The discourses were nevertheless exciting and marked by fierce controversies. At Harald Szeemann's legendary 1972 documenta 5 exhibition, individual mythologies, such as those of Joseph Beuys, were confronted by the minimalist conceptual approaches of artists like Hans Haacke, Hanne Darboven and Sol Lewitt, while photorealist paintings by Chuck Close, Richard Estes, Franz Gertsch and Howard Kanovitz encountered works by Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Blinky Palermo. After Beuys’s departure from Düsseldorf Art Academy, Gross gravitated to Cologne's extremely fertile and contentious artistic environment, and to Howard Kanovitz, who was a guest there for a year.
In 1973, Gross followed Kanovitz to New York as his assistant and found himself in the midst of the heyday of conceptual art, which sought a new artistic approach as a counter-reaction to Pop Art. Working with Kanovitz brought him to the heart of an art scene that was still small and intimate at that time, and Gross met Robert Motherwell, Robert Longo, the young Julian Schnabel, Blinky Palermo, Malcolm Morley and many others. He soon moved to the studio of Larry Rivers, with whom he stayed until 1979. The art discourse was then dominated by the need for concept and theory as well as for social action. While Jörg Immendorff had already called on artists to Stop painting! in 1966, he uttered his demand in the medium of panel painting. Despite the many theoretical debates that shaped the contemporary art scene, from the outset Gross had an insatiable fascination for the physicality and materiality of the act of painting, for the mixing of paint, for working by hand, for the smell of oil paint. The sensuality and the childlike desire for colors and forms were always the motors behind his artistic work.
Accordingly, the 1970s was a decade of orientation and experimentation in which Gross explored and defined his own artistic position. The influence of Gerhard Richter's conceptual painting is unmistakable—Richter’s Tiger from 1965, for example, has a counterpart in Gross’s own oeuvre, namely Lion from 1971. As references for painting, his motifs can be drawn from black-and-white photographs (Street Action, with Joseph Beuys, 1971) and newspaper articles (Something in the Dress Itself, 1971/72) as well as the world of media (Idi likes it, 1972). Especially under the influence of Larry Rivers, Gross occupied himself with the history of painting, incorporating and translating it into his own pictorial language. His Portrait of a Brushstroke (1974) is a free adaptation of Roy Lichtenstein’s style and he references typical works by Edward Hopper for his equally ironic and humorous staging of Cologne’s skyline with the cathedral in the background (Hopper’s Cologne, 1977). Gross’s approach to history became increasingly good-humored and free in the 1980s with high and low, past and present merging in the postmodernist spirit. The entire history of art, from Stefan Lochner to Antoine Watteau, finds its way into Gross's pictorial world. For example, Helene Fourment as portrayed by Peter Paul Rubens advances to become Electric Baroque Pin-up (1980). For the Kaesbach Project (1985-86), originally conceived for the Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, Gross undertook an excursion into German Expressionism and German history by bringing new painterly life to Walter Kaesbach's once-famed collection of Expressionist art, which had been confiscated as “degenerate” by the Nazis and now survives only in black-and-white photographs.
Gross learned the loose, often multiply overlapping integration of historical figures in a postmodern Pop manner from Larry Rivers. With his contemporaries David Salle, Philip Taaffe and Christopher Wool, Gross shaped a style that effortlessly and with great relish combined the past and the present, ornament, abstraction and figuration, content and pure aesthetics. Gross’s lustful sarcasm led him into political realms, as in The Party Member from 1984 or The Sock Thinkers from 1986, which shows socks in the shape of a swastika and is reminiscent of Martin Kippenberger’s contemporaneous 1984 painting For the Life of Me I Can't See the Swastika in This.
After these and a number of other confrontations with various painting discourses, Gross returned in the late 1990s to his own beginnings and his original interest in painting with the Contact Paintings. For him, this meant the pure pleasure he took in working with his hands, with the paint as a material, with brush and canvas. As in conceptual art, he concentrated entirely on the painterly process itself, removing all narrative elements, all direct references to art history and current theoretical discourses in the field of painting. For more than twenty years, this painterly process has held enough questions, adventures, sheer inexhaustible variations and possibilities for him to create ever-new pictures.
And yet, despite the painterly purism, all the experiences and experiments from his tour through the history of painting are contained in each picture. The artistic process developed from the monotype tells of the theme of media history that was so important for Pop Art; it poses questions about the relationship between original and reproduction, between invention and variation. The pictures tell the story of their own production; they expose what was hidden and conceal what was once visible; they tell of exchange and processes of change, of chance and controlled creation. In the multitude of their overlays and layers, they tell of a complex artistic development—and, in the end, write art history themselves.