The Paintings of Rainer Gross
By David Moos
In the discourse on originality and creativity that coils through modern painting, Robert Rauschenberg's pair of paintings Factum I and Factum II, painted in 1957, are considered to be watershed works. Supplying ingenious and witty commentary on the immediately preceding generation of Abstract Expressionist artists, Rauschenberg's twin paintings deconstruct the myth of the urgent, existentially authentic gesture. Factum I is a composition where Rauschenberg's impulsive painterly brush collides with structured elements such as pages from a calendar, Presidential photographs, a large red letter T, among other legible signs. Factum II, a canvas of exactly the same size, reproduces all of the same gestural glyphs and collage elements of the first painting. As one regards the Factum pair, scanning comparatively, the eye jumping back and forth, the copy informs the original, as both works become contingent upon each other.
Rainer Gross has pursued the idea of twinship throughout the late 1990s, playing with issues of origin and undermining notions of primacy. Unlike Rauschenberg who labored to produce a likeness of Factum I, Gross has delegated the task of replication to an almost automatic process of painting that he has devised. Elaborating upon his experience of making monoprints, Gross applies paint to his canvas surfaces in layers. He begins with two separate canvases that are intended to be fused. On the first canvas successive layers of water-based pigment are applied, each layer being allowed to dry before another is added. On a second canvas of the same size, sequences of oil paint are applied. When the oil laden canvas is brought face-to-face with the water-based canvas, the two media are pressed together, forced into an uneasy union. Now the pressure of Gross's hands takes over the action of his brushes. The still-wet oil seeps into and through the water-based layers. The two media are resistant and never properly merge. After years of working with this transfer method, Gross has learned to manipulate his process to obtain his desired effects. The more weight applied, the deeper into the paintings' strata each impression will register.
When the canvases are peeled apart Gross is left with two works that appear so similar it often becomes difficult for the viewer to discern which is the water-based and which is the oil-based canvas. Indeed, the top-most layer of one canvas becomes the bottom layer in the other, and vice-versa. Each becomes the mirror image of the other. Gross displays his compositions in pairs, inverting the right-side canvas. Visually this flipping causes the two paintings to flow together - the shapes, patterns and designs rhyming. Gross titles his twin paintings with surnames that he randomly selects from the New York City telephone book. Despite the completely arbitrary nature of the naming process, one inevitably seeks to make connections between specific compositions and their titles, attempting to wrest possible meanings from phonetic resonances, presumed ethnic characteristics, or imbuing the names with personal significances. Cristin Twins, Gronsky Twins, Howden Twins - all names fraught with imaginary narrative potential.
The tension that exists between the two canvases is one that obscures issues of primacy. When Gross applies a layer of paint, to a region or in an assertive pattern or rhythm, he must do so with foresight, anticipating how his eventual pressing will react and respond. Each move becomes doubly significant, maintaining initial and collateral consequences. There can be no revising or amending of this strategy. In this regard his process relates to that of the Abstract Expressionists - to artists like Pollock, de Kooning, Kline and Still - who engaged the surface of the canvas with absolute commitment and total conviction. Every gesture, it was believed, connoted the metaphysical substance of the artist and was irreversible.
While the parameters of Abstract Expressionism have been dismantled through decades of post-modern dogma, it is interesting to note that at least one central Abstract Expressionist, Clyfford Still, questioned the ideology of the singular gesture and individual canvas. Despite Still's often self-aggrandizing rhetoric concerning freedom, vision and action, it is surprising to learn that he sometimes painted copies of favored compositions. "Making additional versions is an act I consider necessary when I believe the importance of the idea or breakthrough merits survival on more than one stretch of canvas," Still wrote in a 1972 letter. "Although the few replicas I make are usually close to or extensions of the original, each has its special and particular life and is not intended to be just a copy." This practice is clearly revealed through comparison of a pair of works in prominent public collections: 1951-T No. 2 (The Detroit Institute of Arts) and 1951-T No. 3 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York). Both paintings are structured around the same compositional elements and, when seen together, dramatically re-create the jagged, powerfully handled forms in near identical terms.
Suddenly Still's predilection for retracing his creative epiphanies sets him apart from his Abstract Expressionist colleagues. Rauschenberg's Factum paintings, when considered in the context of Still's practice, become less about irreverence and seem more concerned with appraising what makes a single creative object significant. In recent years Rainer Gross has further explored the parameters of the unique object within the context of an other. While his process has remained constant, the results have slightly shifted. The inner geometry and gestural patterning of his compositions has yielded to subdued, consistent surfaces that flirt with the temptation of the monochrome. The skin of the paintings still bear the facture of being pulled apart, their cracked and crevaced complexion often appearing to still be in a process of evolution or erosion. Now the titles are simply single names - Jones, Kinetz, Halson. The other canvas, the so-called twin, is no longer exhibited. It may survive to be overpainted or recycled. It may be cut down, a particularly intriguing segment forming a new, smaller composition. Or, Gross may simply discard the second painting. Whatever the fate of this other, its specter lives on through the presence of the presented painting.
When one looks upon Gross's recent single paintings, one becomes aware of the doppelganger, the counterpart or companion piece that is not readily visible to the viewer. Haunting the presence of the so-called original painting, the doppelganger is a ghostly double that has left its imprint upon the surface of each composition. It has literally created depth, for the pitted regions of paintings such as Ballentine or Belzer have resulted because the doppelganger canvas has torn away the top layers of paint. The effect of these surfaces reminds one of the heavily worked canvases by Polish émigré artist Wlodzimierz Ksiazek. But if Ksiazek's canvases have architectural and archaeological undertones, Gross's are more abstract. The pocked surfaces have an other-worldly texture, igniting cosmic associations. Gross's palette, his predilection for using bold blues, glowing greens, and hot reds, suggests the glimmer of far-off planets. This celestial quality of Gross's recent compositions harkens back to the skyscapes of Augustus Vincent Tack, or triggers reference to the paint-laden fields of the French artist Eugene LeRoy or the atmospheric encrustations of Milton Resnick.
Abstract painting elicits comparison to forebears and contemporaries because its content is so remote, at times inscrutable. Gross himself, in a recent note, circumscribed his project in characteristically broad terms: "After all, painting for me now is mostly about randomness, beauty, scale and presence." These terms seem wondrously fluid and open-ripe for further elaboration. Gross, a German artist who is based in New York, crosses the Atlantic with ease, absorbing influences, refracting his European roots and his American experience. His innovative technique, of pressing together two resistant mediums, is an apt material embodiment of his dual cultural heritage. By integrating oil- and water-based pigments, Gross is synthesizing visual resolutions to his journey. When he uses words like "randomness, beauty, scale and presence" he may be invoking Sigmar Polke, the reigning master of mercurial processes and grandiloquent painterly experimentation from Gross's native city of Cologne. Or, he may be thinking of Clyfford Still, an arch reference for painterly and conceptual reasons. Such figures indeed furnish a profile for Rainer Gross's doppelgangers-paintings that declare their presence by virtue of an other.
David Moos is
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Art Gallery of Toronto
Doppelgänger, Contact Paintings, Singles and Twins 1996 - 2003
Published by Weidle publishing, 2003, 96 pages (in full color), essay by David Moos, ISBN 3-931135-71-3
Exhibition catalog for Leopoldt Hoesch Museum Dueren, Museum Muelheim/Ruhr, Kunsthaus im Park, Viersen,