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  • Provenance

    Anton Kern Gallery, New York

  • Catalogue Essay

    "The ‘Face Paintings’ allow me to express myself in a way that the ‘Butterflies’ don’t. I have an idea as to what sort of face is going to happen when I do a ‘Face Painting,’ but I don’t exactly know what color it will take, or how many eyes it’s going to have, whereas the ‘Butterflies’ are fairly planned out. They’re still intuitive, but I generally know where they are going. It’s a different kind of freedom, a different kind of expressionism. It’s personal without being overtly personal."

    - Mark Grotjahn , 2007

    Colliding abstract and figurative elements, Grotjahn's paintings are conceptually grounded. The curator Douglas Fogle once pointedly remarked on the seemingly tripartite nature of Grotjahn’s oeuvre that there are, "the 'mimetic' sign paintings and drawings, the 'abstract' perspective and butterfly works, and the turgidly expressive faces, masks, and flowers that occupy the realm of 'figurative'" (D. Fogle, quoted in B. Schwabsky, “Vehicles of Fascination,” Mark Grotjahn, Aspen Museum of Art, exh. cat., 2012, p. 59). Yet, in truth all of these works are simultaneously figurative and abstract, mimetic and expressive, systematic and idiosyncratic. Grotjahn obviates a certain playfulness in his work that belies an antipathy to systems. The current painting, Untitled 'Lines on Black' of 2004, is a stunning example of his ability to manipulate only a handful of colors in a restrained yet effervescent composition, excellently manifesting the multifarious nature of his painting style and the evolution of his oeuvre.

    Dividing the picture plane in a manner reminiscent of his Butterfly paintings, with one center band bisecting the canvas, Grotjahn has repurposed his famous butterfly wings here in the service of the construction of an eerie, even deranged face, bursting with energy. As opposed to the usual double loci, this painting has four – two at the eyes and two at the nose where the painter has imbued a particular energizing force of construction. “Mr. Grotjahn has long used schematic faces as the starting point for his abstract paintings, obliterating their features as he develops the generally symmetrical butterfly-wing geometries for which he is known. Here rawness rather than finish prevails. The radiating, ricocheting lines never submit; the flaring planes never emerge. The faces hold their own, if just barely, to affirm in staunchly contemporary terms the human presence behind all art.” (R. Smith, “Mark Grotjahn: Nine Faces,” The New York Times, May 2011).

    In Untitled 'Lines on Black', 2004, there is no mistaking that human presence is not merely behind the art but rushes out at the viewer with a nearly supernatural force. The black ground upon which the artist has built up his figure is richly textured with impasto and at times the various layers of underpainting are made more apparent. From this black, dark turbulence erupts these flashes of light delineating the eye sockets and nose bridge, these whorls of energy encapsulating the eyes and nostrils. “I like the description of the eyes coming out of the jungle. I sometimes pretend the faces are baboons or monkeys. I can't say I've been influenced by African art particularly or consciously except that I've been influenced by artists who have been influenced. Picasso being the most obvious.” (M. Grotjahn in interview with Portland Art, October 2012). Visually reminiscent of his modernist predecessor, Grotjahn's "face" paintings intermingle abstract and figurative renderings while dismantling and building on the conventions of modern and contemporary painting. His exploration of powerfully worked abstraction coupled with rough representational figures echoes the Spanish master’s own conflation of figurative and representational art back when the two were not mutually exclusive. Picasso’s observation of African art heavily influenced his proto-Cubist style and thus the entire paradigmatic shift in art toward abstraction. Grotjahn’s faces reflect many of the same motifs of these African figures – in the treatment of the large almond eyes, the aggressive bursts of light like the nails of a power figure, the forceful demeanor of the face, among others.

    In addition to revisiting the forms and themes of the art historical canon, Grotjahn clearly likes to work within a series, developing and evolving it further with each new work. Similar to the conceptual exercise of copying the unappreciated work of others as in his earlier Sign series, these masks are in fact derived from the drawings of his own psychoanalyst grandfather. “I started doing the funny ‘Faces’ in the spirit of my grandfather, in the same way that when I trace his drawings, I know the sounds he made with every movement. I know what it sounds like, and I know what it looks like when he drew them…The ‘Faces’ came out in the spirit of him.” (Mark Grotjahn taken from J.Tumler, “Big Nose Baby and the Moose,” Flash Art, January - February 2007, p. 85).

    "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." (Robert Storr inLA Push-Pull/Po-Mo-Stop-Go, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery,London, 2009, p. 6). Clearly Untitled 'Lines on Black', 2004, is a testament to Grotjahn’s masterful ability to unify various sources and styles into a compositional harmony far greater than the sum of its parts and his continued contribution to the perseverance of painting in the Twenty-first Century is unparalleled in its progression.


Untitled (Lines on Black)

oil on linen
60 1/8 x 50 1/8 in. (152.7 x 127.3 cm.)
Signed, titled and dated "MARK GROTJAHN 04 UNTITLED 'LINES ON BLACK' M. Grotjahn" along the overlap.

$1,500,000 - 2,000,000 

Sold for $1,805,000

Contact Specialist
Zach Miner
Head of Evening Sale
[email protected]
+1 212 940 1256

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York 11 November 2013 7PM