Mark Grotjahn (b. 1968)
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Mark Grotjahn (b. 1968)

Untitled (Lavender Butterfly over Green)

Details
Mark Grotjahn (b. 1968)
Untitled (Lavender Butterfly over Green)
oil on canvas
27 5/8 x 25 in. (70.1 x 63.5 cm.)
Painted in 2004.
Provenance
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2008
Special notice

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Emily Woodward
Emily Woodward

Lot Essay

In Untitled (Lavender Butterfly over Green) the subtle pattern of Grotjahn's signature motif of the geometric butterfly emerges from the purple-on-purple monochrome. In the Butterfly compositions, a central vertical line divides the sheet in half as a number of triangular vectors or wings beam from each side. The left and right wings do not meet in the middle however; instead, the composition is always asymmetrical. Built up steadily in a sequence of opaque layers and heavy texture, Untitled (Lavender Butterfly over Green) consists of a radiating sequence of parallel lines executed in thick oil in such a way that an illusion of perspective is generated by the painting's butterfly form. Handpainted bands of purple surge from the center of the composition along radiating lines of perspective, creating an intense, hypnotic rhythm through its measured brushstrokes. The painting has an explosive starburst effect devoid of a stable center, as light and darker strokes shift throughout the surface. Untitled (Lavender Butterfly over Green) is freed from any imitative function by its fidgeting orientation made by the vibrating shimmer of finely grained brush marks. The surface of Untitled evokes rays of light and the feeling of speed. The work creates several perceptual possibilities, allowing one to experience both vertiginous spatial illusion and modernist flatness.

Grotjahn began his first perspectival paintings with a horizontal axis after being motivated by the perspectival inventions of the Renaissance, most notably by dual and multiple vanishing points. The early paintings were composed of two or three set registers, each occupied by receding orthogonal lines, with their own vanishing point. Grotjahn quickly abandoned the horizontal axis, which suggested landscape, and tilted it ninety degrees. With the vertical body affixing the center of the composition and the vectors radiating like explosive stars, Grotjahn arrived at his signature style, one that has generated a multitude of permutations for the artist. With the Butterfly series, Grotjahn found "a certain graphic form that I could stick with and see how far within that system I could push it" (M. Grotjahn in D. Fogle, "In the Center of the Infinite," Parkett, no. 80 (2007), p. 113).

Although the graphic anomalies on the surface of the work appear spontaneous, they are, in fact, carefully planned and executed by Grotjahn, suggesting that he is uninterested in attainting the purity or precision associated with formal abstraction. As Robert Storr explains: “Grotjahn is not an artist obsessed with positing a wholly unprecedented 'concept' of art, but rather is concerned with teasing nuanced experience out of existing concepts or constructs according to the opportunities presented by a specific, well-calculated conceit. Nor is he really preoccupied with Ezra Pound's mandate to “make it new”; rather he wants to make it vivid, and applies all of his impressive skill to doing just that” (R. Storr, “LA Push-Pull/Po-Mo-Stop-Go,” Mark Grotjahn, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2009, p. 6). When first encountered, the composition is deceptively straightforward, but on closer inspection the hours of meticulous focus spent constructing the surface of the canvas begin to appear and are revealed in the paint’s surface. Aside from the depth of the paint application, Grotjahn uses a complex system of multiple one-point horizon lines from which vectors and angles originate, resulting in a spellbinding effect.

The subtle, ghostly lines of Untitled (Lavender Butterfly over Green) are reminiscent of Agnes Martin’s white paintings, with both artists’ works forcing the viewer to come up close and investigate the surface more closely. The work thus becomes an intimate painting that urges the viewer to experience it face-to-face. In Grotjahn’s work, the support, or the previous layer of paint that leads one toward the support and the tangible weave of canvas, is visible from one passage of pigment to another, a subtlety that would not be noticed but upon close inspection. Reading this painting thus becomes a semi-geological pursuit, activating the viewer in its midst.

Untitled (Lavender Butterfly over Green) bridges the worlds of non-referential Minimal painting and the artist's fascination with signs and retro graphics. Grotjahn has dispensed with his usual alternating bands of color in Untitled in favor of a drastically reduced purple-on-purple palette. The purple-on-purple monochrome recalls the works of Malevich and Rodchenko, but Grotjahn’s work also pays homage to Riley's hallucinatory Op Art works and the Renaissance explorations of perspective, fusing past and present in his timeless painting. The three vertical bands of purple in the center and on either side of the painting also recall the zips in Barnett Newman’s abstractions. The way Grotjahn currently paints also grew out of Conceptual sign-making. Grotjahn would faithfully reproduce interesting graphics from local storefronts in his native Los Angeles. He would then trade these handmade copies to the storeowners in exchange for the original signage. Citing this practice, many critics jump to view Grotjahn's current work as subversive and detached in its minimalism, and the Los Angeles-based artist is no stranger to Conceptual playfulness. This amateurish aspect of the work is completely intentional with the diffusing angular patterns of the design's wings always painted slightly off-kilter so that an apprehensive but fascinating tension is established at the heart of the work. Rendered in fantastical purple, the painting evokes an artificial world of adolescent dreaming. This quality is amplified by the clear emphasis on the handmade nature of these works and by the often obvious addition to them of the artist's hand-drawn monogrammatic signature and date.

Over the past two decades Grotjahn has explored the structures of geometric formalism and perspective to become one of the leading abstract painters working today. Although Grotjahn uses hard-edged lines and clamoring angles in Untitled, one can see warmth and intimacy in the work. Untitled was created with delicate subtlety and a reduced amalgamating color field, while retaining a sense of geometric definition. The work appeases the clash between the organic and the artificial in extraordinary, singular tumultuousness. Untitled breathes in a sensual, shimmering, organic blaze.

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