PHILADELPHIA — There are two public works on view in the Northeast right now by the Berlin-based artist Katharina Grosse. One, in Philadelphia, zips past as you ride a moving train; the other, in Brooklyn, inspires you to stand still and look closely. Both works introduce unexpected bursts of saturated color into ordinary, even dreary urban settings.
As 34,000 daily Amtrak commuters know, the vistas that animate a train ride along much of the Northeast Corridor, particularly between Washington, DC, and New York City, alternate between stretches of unremarkable greenery and pockets of urban decay that may be shocking to the uninitiated. One municipal treasure in particular, the beloved red neon “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” sign on the Lower Trenton Bridge (which connects New Jersey and Pennsylvania), boasts of a Brigadoon-like regional manufacturing hub that’s now long gone, leaving distressed infrastructure and persistent unemployment in its wake. Katharina Grosse has, almost literally, taken a handful of hot-colored highlighters to a strip of the Corridor between Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station and the city’s northern limits, creating a unique, site-specific installation titled “psychylustro” that was curated by Elizabeth Thomas for the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.
“psychylustro” is made up of seven distinct swaths of orange, pink, and green paint, which cover patches of rubble, weeds, piles of bricks and lumber, warehouse walls, and iron trestles. Grosse’s application technique ignores the existing patterns and geometry of her “canvas,” so that metal columns, greenery, and the dirt path underfoot are all painted in the same manner, rendering them oddly uniform under their new (temporary) coats. The arching gesture is reminiscent of graffiti or street art in its reach, urgency, and abandon, and each section is bounded by a cloud-like border that almost suggests a cartoon thought bubble.
“psychylustro” is designed to be viewed in motion, aboard Amtrak, SEPTA, or New Jersey Transit, the latter two Philadelphia and New Jersey’s regional rail systems, without any gallery notes or explanatory wall labels. Passengers en route from New York City to Philadelphia or Washington, DC, might catch sight of it, having no idea what it is. Grosse seems to like it that way. “It won’t last,” she said during the May 17 opening reception for the project, which took place aboard a SEPTA train bound for Chestnut Hill. The stretch of North Philadelphia that forms the canvas for “psychylustro” is also the habitual range of prolific graffiti artists. No sooner had Grosse’s work been completed than a prominent tag featuring the appropriately aggressive word “BAM” appeared on top of a billowy orange field of color on a factory wall.
Grosse is a painter who brought her practice out of the studio and into the wider world, toting an industrial spray gun and marking her path with a passion for color. She was born in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, in 1961, and began painting in the 1980s, creating abstract canvases with a raw simplicity. As a student at the art academies of Munster and Dusseldorf, she admired the work of Gerhardt Richter. It was not until 1998 that she started applying color to both canvases and gallery walls, gradually covering more disparate materials with her signature, saturated pigments. She has long been drawn to raw spaces, where her installations seem to invigorate their beleaguered settings; her 2011 exhibition One Floor Up More Highly at MASS MoCA occupied a cavernous warehouse space and filled it with what appeared to be pastoral rolling hills in improbable Technicolor hues. One of the features of Grosse’s work is that she applies paint to surfaces that are ephemeral — piles of dirt, plant life, bits of wood — and does so in a way that cheerfully ignores their forms and structures, forcing the viewer to rethink what constitutes a painting’s frame. She uses the tools and approach of a graffiti writer, but her blooms of color are entirely abstract: no text or recognizable forms are evident. Instead, she drapes her colors across surfaces like fabric.
Grosse’s practice as a public artist seems ideally suited to urban settings that are the sites of uninspired daily routines. For regular train riders with a well-established view from their seat, “psychylustro” suddenly renders that view inexplicably neon, drastically different. Before too long, when the paint washes away or becomes obscured by graffiti, it will be different once again. “psychylustro” also fluctuates in scale, according to Grosse:
The work shifts your notion of size through movement, so when you stand in front of it, it’s huge, but when you pass it by on the train it becomes small. This kind of experience — that your life is constantly in that kind of changing mode — is something I’ve always been fascinated by. And this time we have an extra tool, which is the train. In a museum you walk, and that’s the way you move. Here, you can fly.
In New York, her Public Art Fund commission “Just Two of Us” has transformed Brooklyn’s MetroTech Commons into an electric, jewel-toned rock formation that comprises 18 large pieces of plastic reinforced with fiberglass. A large sign asks that visitors refrain from climbing — a request that’s likely gone ignored, as the work forms an irresistible labyrinth of tiny spaces in which to hide, perch, and play. The forms are raw and aggressive, but smooth to the touch; with less saturated color, they could be mistaken for the backdrop of a sci-fi movie set. “Just Two of Us” is a dollop of challenging beauty in an unremarkable public space. When I visited just before Memorial Day Weekend, office workers, people walking their dogs, and moms with young children all seemed enchanted by it, stopping to admire its nooks and crannies and snap photos.
As with any complex public work, “psychylustro” is not necessarily easy to fully absorb or comprehend. Maps of the work are still forthcoming, and the method by which riders are meant to access a compelling sound installation created for the project by Philadelphia-based artist Jesse Kudler is not immediately apparent. This programmatic weakness might be a conceptual strength, though: “psychylustro” is a mysterious, puzzling, and surprising presence in a setting where established routes and timetables are the sine qua non.
The work been also been the target of some criticism based on its setting in a distressed urban landscape. Writing at Al Jazeera, Sarah Kendzior declared it an emblem of “hipster economics,” arguing that privileged Amtrak riders would breeze past it, thus impoverished North Philadelphia is used as a mere set piece to draw contrast with a beautiful installation. What Kendzior fails to mention, however, is that “psychylustro” was also designed to be viewed from the northern reaches of SEPTA, the local transportation system that shuttles tens of thousands of Philadelphians to and from work each day, from every neighborhood, as well as New Jersey Transit. These systems are not the golden chariots of the 1%; in fact, there’s hardly a better mechanism to reach a great number of Philadelphia residents from a wide range of economic backgrounds than through SEPTA. It seems quite possible that more people will see the work this way than if it were inside a major museum.
Kendzior’s misreading of the situation suggests that the phenomenon of high-profile public art in impoverished settings hits a raw nerve. And it is certainly true that Grosse is not a North Philly insider but a renowned international artist, and that “psychylustro” was created in cooperation with some very high-profile arts funders. Any attempt to reckon the value of a work of art as a measurable public good will inevitably fall short; we can’t know what impact any work will have on its immediate surroundings or passersby who chance to see it. But the suggestion that the work is only “for” certain privileged audiences denies the possibility that every resident of Philadelphia is being presented with, and deserves, the opportunity to experience a moment of joy and a provocative change to their daily routine from a piece like “psychylustro.”
Katharine Grosse’s “psychylustro” can be seen from Amtrak, SEPTA (Chestnut Hill West, Trenton lines), and NJ Transit (Atlantic City line), riding between 30th Street and North Philadelphia stations. “Just Two of Us” is on view at MetroTech Center (between Jay Street and Flatbush Avenue at Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn) through July 13.