Katharina Grosse, One Floor Up More Highly, 2010. Photo: Arthur Evans

Katharina Grosse, One Floor Up More Highly, 2010. On Display at MASS MoCa, North Adams, MA, December 2010 to October 2011. Photo: Arthur Evans

For more than a decade, Katharina Grosse, born 1961 and Berlin-based, has received sought-after commissions to produce site-specific works for acclaimed institutional and public spaces. Using a compressed-air spray gun, the tool of a housepainter, she sprays vivid colors evocative of children’s sidewalk chalk and marbles directly onto wall, floor, ceiling and window surfaces, sometimes incorporating into the composition objects like enormous balloons, hot-wire-cut Styrofoam, discarded-seeming clothing and dirt. (The latter, when overlaid with swirls of bright paint, recalls the keepsake glass containers of colored sand assembled by children at county fair booths and assiduously carried upright during the car trip home to avoid mixing the layers.) Grosse employs the tools of an architect – maquettes, CAD programs – to consider a space, but when she crawls into her painting jumpsuit and aims her spray gun, improvisations are highly likely.

Grosse (whose name in German is an adjective signifying greatness or, by introducing an umlaut over the “o,” big-ness) has said of her large-scale work, “My knowledge of how my installations function is very precise; they’re about expanding small experience. By making something small really large, you slow the information, and time, down, like slow motion” (January 3, 2011 interview, artforum.com). The artist’s painted installations are, in sheer size, arresting. To even begin to take one in, you must commit to investigating multiple vantage points, to standing still and scanning from one edge of your peripheral vision to the other.

Intentionally or not – and relative to her own statements about her process, I guess not – Grosse is producing an abstracted version of graffiti, a movement that helped permanently change notions of scale, place and technique. Her spray gun is an outsized spray paint can, and her mucking-up of the architecture (including her literal, although sanctioned, bombing of an occasional building facade) is done with a graffiti artist’s emphasis on art over the conveniently large and available building. There is something thrilling about the audacity, the knowing when looking that someone is going to have to clean, shovel, cover and otherwise work very hard to remove the painting from the installation space. (The painted-over windows are particularly cheeky.)

Prehistoric cave paintings aside, artists have been painting walls in what is now Europe since well before the Common Era. (Frescoes preserved in the ruins of Pompeii reveal an aptitude for portrait, landscape and architectural renderings equivalent to the much more renowned sculptural work of the same period.) Grosse is on the current tail end of a very long history of artists who have broken the boundaries of a tried-and-true art painting surface in order to explode their compositions onto the adjacent architecture and/or other uncommon supports. And as with each of these historical artists, she is using the visual vernacular of her time.

One Floor Up More Highly, Grosse’s 2010 installation in the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art’s main gallery, one of the largest in the world, is a series of crystalline cut-Styrofoam structures set in painted real and faux earthen mounds and immersed in colored passages of architecture. All components are notably very, very big. Notable also is the work’s proximity to Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective, an extended-term exhibition of architecture-scale wall drawings, over 100 total, showcasing LeWitt, an artist at the forefront of the mid-20th-century Conceptual and Minimalist art movements.

If LeWitt’s measured, linear work is basic math, Grosse’s is physics, the introduction of time and space. And this makes sense in the context of the artists’ not-really-overlapping career spans and their positions on the big-painting continuum. LeWitt (and his peers) explored the least one could do to create an identifiable and acceptable artwork, while Grosse pushes what she does with painting to see what extra or different elements she can successfully sneak in, what size or relationship to architecture is a lot, but not too much.