Katharina Grosse’s epic psychylustro—a five-mile-long “painting” sprayed intermittently along a stretch of train tracks in northeast Philadelphia—challenges a number of assumptions about the role of both painting and public art. Interested in understanding how the project might be evaluated from different disciplinary perspectives, we invited a painter and an urbanist to share their thoughts. Here, painter Dushko Petrovich offers his perspective.
It is in the precise section of the trip where one ordinarily transitions into full-on arrival—mindlessly shutting down one’s laptop, texting a friend, and gathering one’s things—that the intermittent flash of Day-Glo boldly intervenes. The lustro, if we can call it that, leaps off the buildings, foliage, and dirt that line the route, demanding that one look at a part of the city that often remains overlooked. For passengers traveling south on Amtrak from New York or points farther north, the experience clearly announces a destination, but it does not, as you might expect, do so by celebrating the point of arrival. Instead, it directs one’s attention to the approach.
This might seem like a subtle distinction to make, but the artwork’s unconventional and intermediary location is a good way to frame the project’s relationship to painting itself. By situating itself so curiously—even precariously—in relation to various public and not-so-public painting practices, psychylustro repeatedly eschews any stable end-point, preferring to proceed through indeterminacy and conflict, growth and dissolution—provocative territory for thinking about the medium’s current and future possibilities.
As public painting, first of all, Grosse’s work takes up a very surprising position. Utterly abstract, it is quite unlike most officially sanctioned murals, which are almost uniformly narrative and representational works. Its site, along with its flamboyant looping and spraying, bring it remarkably close to the leading genre of unofficial public painting: graffiti. In fact, psychylustro gets so close that it even covers up some of the pre-existing graffiti along its route. While this may be discomfiting to some, it is precisely this kind of visual one-upmanship that most closely mimes the logic of the local, vernacular genre. It is also worth remembering that despite its official status and grand scale, psychylustro is still entering a system where it, too, will eventually be painted over—if it hasn’t been already.
We are very far from the fixed realm of canvas and stretcher bars. And even though the work does intermittently take place on a wall, it disqualifies itself as a mural. psychylustro paints over many disparate things. It’s easy to think, initially, that this is an effort to cover over blight, but in addition to abandoned industrial ruins, perfectly well-kept buildings have been painted upon as well—to say nothing of trees, plants, dirt, and stones. Just when you think you’re looking at some kind of urban beautification, “rural disfigurement” suggests itself as an equally viable term of description. Indeed, the project jumps around so much, mercurially occupying so many surfaces, you can’t even call it a painting. Perhaps simply: painting.
Each individual area of the segmented work is treated with only one pure color. Any variation in tone results from—and records—the nature of the encounter: The spray paint takes the measure of each thing, but by accepting or resisting, each thing also takes the measure of the paint. Sometimes, there is an underlying layer of white, but each section—whether bright pink, bright green, or bright orange—still feels directly descended from 20th-century monochrome. Perhaps this particular species managed to escape the zoo of modernism and has developed some very strange plumage after several generations in the wild.
psychylustro’s relationship to gesture is also complex. Realized by a team of sprayers on cranes and lifts, the painting doesn’t pertain to one person, or one hand, but rather to a group and their machines. It is as much about choreography as it is about calligraphy, bringing to mind a historical trajectory of airborne gesture from Jackson Pollock to Lynda Benglis then to Katharina Grosse: from dripping to spilling to spraying. A projection from a moving body, albeit augmented by a machine, it is still a kind of Action Painting. Is this Abstract Industrialism? Post-Industrial Expressionism?
Either way, it makes perfect sense that we experience this episodic work from a moving train. Flashing in from both sides of the cabins that shimmy and stutter through the Northeast Corridor, psychylustro knows exactly how it will be seen. Its super-saturated pigments invite you to crane your neck; its invasive glow briefly silhouettes your fellow passengers; it even paints the dirt along the tracks, forcing you to look again in disbelief as the train pulls you onwards. At one point during the arrival to 30th Street Station, with the Philadelphia Museum of Art floating by in the middle distance, you realize just how far you are from the “ideal” viewing conditions for art—how removed you are, in particular, from the pristine cubes that carefully house most abstract painting, and how, in this messy, mundane setting, you will attempt to accumulate brief glimpses of the work into an imperfect, never-quite-assembled mental collage. In that sense, the work seems uniquely suited to an era of smartphone photographs. One can imagine a huge cloud file of jpegs that would be its own kind of psyche-illustration.
If the viewer that psychylustro suggests—distractedly commuting, casually photographic—seems distinct to our time, the important fact is that the work comes to meet these viewers where they live, in the midst of their daily routine. And if this kind of quotidian encounter was part of modernism’s initial dream, we should remember that for a long time, abstract painting in particular has confined itself to much tinier spaces and more exclusive demographics. Grosse has never been comfortable with that arrangement, and psychylustro clearly underlines the idea that painting should not stay put. Both literally and figuratively, psychylustro insists on asking questions at varying speeds, on a decidedly unruly scale, in the context of the so-called outside world. So if many of the issues raised here—about painting’s civic role, its preferred surfaces, procedures, and audience—remain uncomfortably open, that seems germane to the approach.
Dushko Petrovich is a painter and writer who lives in New York. He is a co-founder of Paper Monument and teaches at Yale University.