Mark Grotjahn - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, March 6, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Video

    'Untitled PGD32 (Black and Blue Butterfly #689 melted)' | Mark Grotjahn

    Senior specialist Henry Highley discusses how the subtle impurities in the rich surface of Mark Grotjahn's butterfly series make his work particularly mesmerizing.

  • Provenance

    Gagosian Gallery, New York
    Private Collection, Paris

  • Catalogue Essay

    A striking, asymmetrical composition, Untitled PG 32 (Black and Blue Butterfly #689 melted), 2005, belongs to Mark Grotjahn’s important Butterfly series. Composed of mesmerising radials emanating from a pair of offset vanishing points, the work creates an intense visual illusion that dismantles our notions of space and depth. This destabilising effect is typical of Grotjahn's Butterfly drawings, examples of which are held in the notable collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

    Comprising the artist’s trademark geometric motif, Grotjahn’s Butterfly drawings emerged from an earlier series of three-tiered perspective canvases, which explored the hypnotic effects induced by the collision of multiple vanishing points on a single horizontal plane. In his Butterfly works, Grotjahn shifts the axes laterally, complicating the potential boundaries of perspective: ‘The butterfly came because I tried to make some horizontal three-tier perspectives; the majority of my work is vertically orientated, so I tried to work outside of that and make a painting with a horizontal orientation. I made the first two tiers vertical and I pointed the perspectives towards each other…It certainly became more a painting and less a representation’ (Mark Grotjahn in conversation with Marta Gynp, ‘Mark Grotjahn’, Zoo Magazine, #38, January 2013, online).

    Grotjahn’s sophisticated use of multiple vanishing points in Untitled PG 32 (Black and Blue Butterfly #689 melted) appropriates the technical innovations of Renaissance artists, who developed their theories and mathematical experimentations with one and two-point perspectives. Exploiting these traditional principles of pictorial depth to create a disorientating illusion of moving space, Grotjahn fuses his forebears’ strictly classical, analytical methodology with a distinctly modern approach. Teetering on the edge of abstraction, the present work’s tactile surface and mirrored tempests of colour reflect Georgia O’Keeffe’s rippling folds and lucid forms. The potent abstraction in the present work echoes the metaphysical shapes of O’Keeffe’s Blue and Green Music, 1919-21, both works forging an absolute formal and spatial tension through their cropping and continuation beyond the visible picture plane.

    The dominant vertical vanishing point of the present work forms the skeleton of the titular butterfly from which the wings – designated by black and blue striations – radiate. This intricate formation recalls Piet Mondrian’s geometric abstraction and the bold psychedelic configurations from Op Art protagonists such as Bridget Riley and Sol LeWitt. Mondrian’s revolutionary ordered compositions had a noticeable impact on Grotjahn, as evidenced by the regimented perfectionism projected in the present work's exact precision. As Michael Ned Holte notes, ‘the butterfly has become to Mark Grotjahn what the target is to Kenneth Noland, the zip was to Barnett Newman, and the color white is to Robert Ryman’ (Michael Ned Holte, ‘Mark Grotjahn’, Artforum, November 2005, p. 259). Similarly, the graphic – almost hallucinogenic - designs by the likes of Riley and LeWitt are also echoed in the artist’s hypnotic visual effects created by the stark, monochromatic contrast and captivating use of line: ‘they are always, always tight: they are about control … in Greek the butterfly is Psyche, the symbol of the soul, and here the soul is a formula. A pattern, an arrangement of rays, sometimes a bargain between conflicting perspectives’ (Glenn O’Brien, ‘The New Mask, Ke-Mo-Sah-Bee’, Mark Grotjahn: Masks, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2015, p. 8).

    A central band of heavily pencilled black media becomes the support for two sets of radiating bands of black and blue, offset by the unbalanced centres of perspective and thus creating a dizzying visual vortex: ‘this body of work employs a strategy of nearly compulsive repetition and reiteration of a set of formal rules and stylistic elements – variations on a theme in which painted lines emanate from a central axis – that allowed the artist to experiment within a circumscribed set of conceptual limits … Grotjahn’s butterflies playfully blur the once rigorous boundaries between representation and abstraction, between surface and depth, and between the conceptual and the concrete in artistic production’ (Douglas Fogle, ‘The Monolith and the Butterfly’, Mark Grotjahn: The Butterfly Paintings, exh. cat., Blum and Poe, New York, 2014, p. 37).

    Meticulously drawn by hand, and laboriously impressed upon the paper in pencil, the bevelled lines of this dramatic composition are rendered with immaculate precision; in fact, the making of the Butterfly series required such physicality from the artist that following a shoulder injury as a result of a skiing accident in recent years, Grotjahn was no longer able to continue making them. Thus, Untitled PG 32 (Black and Blue Butterfly #689 melted), for all its complexity and skill, serves as a lasting homage to Grotjahn’s supreme artistic vision and technical execution.


Untitled PGD32 (Black and Blue Butterfly #689 melted)

signed, titled and dated 'Untitled PGD32 (Black + Blue Butterfly #689) 2005' melted on the reverse
coloured pencil on paper
170.2 x 119.4 cm (67 x 47 in.)
Executed in 2005.

£700,000 - 900,000 

Sold for £615,000

Contact Specialist
Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4060

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 7 March 2019