Scale view of Mark Grotjahn's Untitled (Yellow Butterfly Orange Mark Grotjahn 2004)

Detail shot of Mark Grotjahn's Untitled (Yellow Butterfly Orange Mark Grotjahn 2004)

Mark Grotjahn

Untitled (Yellow Butterfly Orange Mark Grotjahn 2004), 2004
無題 (黃色 蝴蝶 橙色 馬克·格羅延 2004年), 2004年作


Oil on linen
60 x 50 inches (152.4 x 127 cm)
油彩 畫布
152.4 x 127 厘米 (60 x 50 吋)
© Mark Grotjahn

In Mark Grotjahn’s seminal Butterfly paintings and drawings, the artist reiterates and varies a set of formal rules in the service of a sustained investigation into the limits and logic of linear perspective. Though the artist’s first perspectival studies emerged in 1997, featuring three horizons stacked on a single canvas, he wouldn’t establish his signature motif—monochromatic lines emanating from a central axis—until 2001, when he rotated the horizon 90 degrees to form a vertical spine on which he set two or more vanishing points. The rays that extend in opposite directions from these points resemble the splayed wings of a butterfly. In this way, Grotjahn collapses abstraction and figuration into a conceptually purposive device. His butterflies are never symmetrical: the vanishing points that connect each wing to the central axis are offset, introducing a subtle discord to the compositions that sends the eye roaming.

A self-proclaimed appropriationist, Grotjahn borrows from the geometric precision of De Stijl, the complexity of analytic Cubism, but also the vibratory effects of Op art and the contemplative abstraction of Color Field. Moreover, his elusive motif references those trademarks that have defined the history of geometric abstraction—the stripe of Agnes Martin, the “zip” of Barnett Newman, and the target of Kenneth Noland. In so doing, he foregrounds the complexities of authorship and the nature of the artistic signature itself in historical works engaged with questions of nature, transcendence, and the sublime.

In the butter-yellow monochrome Untitled (Yellow Butterfly Orange Mark Grotjahn 2004), two vanishing points are centrally located on either side of a three-columned spine, the left vanishing point sitting just above the right. The spine widens at its base, creating yet a third suggested vanishing point somewhere above the bounds of the canvas. Thick, lustrous yellow paint is applied in rays of modulating hues. Slight ridges between each ray suggest the methodology of hard-edged abstraction, but the paint is as inconsistent as the hand applying it; the edges waver, just as the shifting texture of brushstrokes becomes evident in close observation. At each vanishing point, the rays do not neatly converge, and hints of an orange-red substrate are visible underneath the shallow relief of the radiating lines. This warm color resonates against the pale yellow, amplifying its cooler aspects by contrast.

Further complicating the compositional equilibrium is the artist’s signature and the date, which are rendered in stencil-like block letters on the right edge of the work. Grotjahn carefully painted around the contour of each letter to reveal the orange underpainting. The style of his signature corresponds with a series of sign paintings the artist produced in the mid-90s. Grotjahn copied vernacular hand- and stencil-lettered signs from the bodegas he frequented in Los Angeles and later gave his copies to the establishments in exchange for the original found signs. Drawn to the signs for their direct style of communication, he entered them into a nuanced experiment about authorship.

In the same way that Grotjahn makes his hand evident in the marks that make up his seemingly precise geometries, his engagement with questions of the author function results in a tension between contingency and control that animates his compositions optically and conceptually. The sublimity of modernist abstraction—exemplified by Newman’s “zips”—is presented as a human endeavor grounded in process, surface, economy, and subjectivity. (Indeed, this point was made in 2008 when Grotjahn completed the series after tearing a rotator cuff and breaking his shoulder in an accident. He was unable to physically produce the Butterfly works.) As critic Barry Schwabsky observed of the series in his essay for the artist’s 2012 retrospective at the Aspen Art Museum: “In this fascination the paintings exercise over you, it’s as if there is an eye watching you from somewhere, an eye unseen, or seen only flickeringly, uncertainly. The rhythm of this flickering is like an incantation. It might make you a bit dizzy—give you vertigo, a feeling of falling away from yourself.” Untitled (Yellow Butterfly Orange Mark Grotjahn 2004) is a striking example of Grotjahn’s kaleidoscopic and agile response to the tenets of modernism and postmodernism alike.

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