Katharina Grosse: Untitled, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 114¼ by 76 inches; at Gagosian.

Since the late 1990s, German painter Katharina Grosse has worked almost exclusively with industrial spray guns in lieu of brushes, applying vibrant fields of atomized acrylic to virtually any available surface. For her project Rockaway!, organized by MoMA PS1 and produced last summer, she transformed the exterior of a beachfront shack ruined by Hurricane Sandy, covering not only the structure itself but the surrounding sand with diffuse streams of fiery red and white; for One Floor Up More Highly, installed at Mass MOCA in 2010–11, she created a vast landscape composed of Styrofoam shards, mounds of soil, and piles of discarded clothes, painting over the lot in garish rainbow hues.  

Departing from such site-specific hybrids of painting and sculpture, Grosse turned to more conventional canvas supports for her first exhibition at Gagosian. Sixteen large-scale paintings (all untitled and dated 2016) were spread across three rooms of the gallery’s cavernous Chelsea location, arranged in loosely thematic clusters. A small side gallery visible from the street was given over to the show’s sole sculpture, a torqueing form in painted aluminum set on the floor, accurately described in the press release as hovering between “driftwood and space junk.” 

For the paintings, Grosse employed irregularly cut cardboard and foam stencils, layering areas of sprayed pigment to build up palimpsests of painterly effects, from vaporous fields to rapid, graffitilike scrawls and concentrated drips. The compositions of the paintings shown in the first two rooms are mostly organized around dominant central motifs, establishing distinctions between figure and ground only to undermine them through juxtapositions of dissonant patterns and colors. In one, a semi-oval of black streaked with acidic yellow is framed by a field of haphazardly sprayed blue; in another, a wash of pale peach has been applied over sweeping arcs of deep blue and teal, leaving only a central burst of vivid color exposed. 

Because Grosse reuses the stencils, forms often recur from one canvas to the next; however, the repetition serves to highlight the versatility of her approach, enabling her to produce strikingly distinct paintings despite their similar—in some cases, virtually identical—compositions. One painting features an undulating vertical form in purple, white, and green surrounded by exuberant jets of red-orange and turquoise. Another shows the same motif rendered in a sludgy palette of dark violet and grayish pink and set against a stark white ground, which amplifies the effect of the thin rivulets of dripping paint running down the length of the canvas.  

White backgrounds also appear in the most captivating works on view—a set of larger, and more emphatically vertical, canvases that were shown in the gallery’s third room. These works display dense pile-ups of stenciled layers, replacing the sweeping, gestural sprays of the exhibition’s other paintings with accretions of truncated marks and mottled drips. Each of the paintings has the restrained volatility of an explosion in a bottle, compressing the anarchic energy of the artist’s site-specific environments into the circumscribed space of the canvas. 

In Grosse’s installations, the diverse supports to which the paint clings produce all manner of effects. Canvas, by contrast, is relatively uniform in texture and thus serves to highlight the specific materiality of the airbrushed medium. Even as sprayed layers accumulate atop Grosse’s canvases, giving the visual impression of varied surfaces, the works remain notably flat, as if offering simulations of painted marks rather than the real thing.