Mark Grotjahn - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, June 30, 2022 | Phillips

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  • 'I think of magic carpets and magnetic fields. I spy networks of Martian canals and landscapes folding over themselves. I glimpse one of painting’s oldest purposes: the uncanny ability to conjure beings and invoke spirits.'
    —Jerry Saltz

    At once innovative and referential, American artist Mark Grotjahn is known for his thrilling experimentation with paint and his boundary pushing explorations into the very nature of the medium itself. Exploding with dynamic energy and violent vortex lines rendered in bold shocks of colour, Face (688), is an exuberant expression of the artist’s esteemed Face Paintings, which he first embarked upon in 2003. At once gestural and geometric, the present work highlights Grotjahn’s robust dialogue with 20th century art historical experiment, shifting between abstract and figurative traditions that both dismantles and builds on the conventions of modern and contemporary painting. 


    Faces and Butterflies 


    In their use of convergent one-point perspective, the Face Paintings signpost the artist’s evolution from the careful geometries and polished finish of his earlier Butterfly Paintings into the freer, more intuitive approach to mark making adopted here. As the artist has described, ‘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 colour it will take, or how many eyes it’s going to have, whereas the Butterflies are fairly planned out.’i Powerfully expressive, the gaze at the centre of the composition here draws us into its vertiginous centre, the radiating shards of bold primary tones a stunning example of the artist’s ability to create high-impact compositions through the careful manipulation of a limited range of colour, directly recalling the gestural abstraction and unbridled energy of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.


    Jackson Pollock, Watery Paths, 1947, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporena, Rome. Image: © Stefano Baldini / Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022


    Like the Butterfly Paintings, Grotjahn’s later series rapaciously absorbed the lessons of early modernism, eschewing the strict formal organisation of geometric abstraction for an innovative blend of Futurist dynamism, expressionist verve, and material experimentation. In place of the sharp precision and smooth finish of the Butterfly Paintings, Grotjahn began to explore the possibilities of generating a raw, more direct expressive language generated through ‘radiating, ricocheting lines’ and ‘flaring planes’ and supported by his selection of materials.ii Building up a complex net of textured layers and scintillating colour with a palette knife, Grotjahn then applied oil directly onto the roughly cut cardboard ground, confounding our sense of spatial depth or perspective here as the layers blend into one another. Connecting the dramatic intensity of these works to the artist’s process, curator Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson explains: ‘The application of paint appears haphazard, quick, less thoughtful. Grotjahn’s disruption in these works is the result of his carving into their cardboard structure. Physicality here includes his scrapes, cuts, peels, or inlays of these elements […] Ultimately, these acts of destruction come out of love—wanting to know something so intensely that it must in fact be destroyed to be known.’iii


    Pablo Picasso, Self Portrait, 1907, Narodni Galerie, Prague. Image: Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © Succession Picasso / DACS, London 2022


    Borrowing freely from Picasso’s early, earthy palette and his distinctive vernacular of distorted features and exaggerated, almond eyes belonging to his roughly-hewn dyads, demoiselles, and iconic self-portraits from the early 1900s, Face (688) stares back at the viewer, querying, resisting and then upturning the traditional relationships operating between looking subject and painted object. Incorporating the artist’s signature prominently within this matrix of energetic lines and fragmented facial symbols, Grotjahn dissolves the boundaries between subject and object dispersing ‘the human self into the otherness of the unhuman nature of leaves, branching boughs, dense undergrowth; or, in contrast with the organic implications of both, into the inorganic materiality of pigment’.iv  


    Tellingly, like Picasso, Grotjahn has developed his practice through careful observation and making of masks, playful experiments cut from cardboard that he has more recently started casting in bronze, a practice that we can trace here with the formal presentation of the face, and it’s communicative quality. Taut and confident, the artist’s brushstrokes energise the seeking eyes and hungry mouths at the centre of this painterly vortex, emphasised by critic Roberta Smith when she wrote of Grotjahn’s paintings as ‘harsh, elegant things that enthral the eye and splinter the mind […] [emphasising] painting as a psychic and bodily process fuelled in part by the devouring and digesting of previous art to formulate a new synthesis.’v A fantastic example of one of Grotjahn’s most desirable series, and a clear indication of the Face Paintings central role in defining American contemporary art, Face (688) was included in the 2009-10 Saatchi Gallery exhibition, Abstract America Today: New Painting and Sculpture.


    Collector’s Digest


    • Working across disciplines, Californian artist Mark Grotjahn has exhibited widely internationally, a selection of venues includes the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; and The Museum of Modern Art, New York, amongst others. 

    • Examples of Grotjahn’s work can be found in major public collections, including the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis. 


    • Examples of his Grotjahn’s Face Paintings have been exhibited in focused exhibitions with Blum & Poe, Gagosian Gallery, and Anton Kern Gallery. 

    i Mark Grotjahn in conversation with Jan Tumlir, ‘Big Nose Baby and the Moose’, Flash Art, No. 252, January-February 2007, online resource
    ii Roberta Smith, ‘Mark Grotjahn: Nine Faces’, The New York Times, May 2011, online. 
    iii Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, ‘Disruption’ in Mark Grotjahn (exh. cat.), Aspen, 2012, p. 56. 
    iv Mark Prince, ‘The Divided Self’, in: Exhibition Catalogue, Freiburg, Kunstverein Freiburg, Mark Grotjahn: Circus Circus, 2014, p. 27. 
    v Roberta Smith, ‘Mark Grotjahn: Nine Faces’, The New York Times, May 2011, online.

    • Condition Report

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    • Description

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    • Provenance

      Gagosian Gallery, London
      Saatchi Gallery, London (acquired from the above in 2007)
      Christie’s, London, 14 October 2011, lot 36
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      London, Saatchi Gallery, Abstract America: New Painting and Sculpture, 29 May 2009 – 17 January 2010, p.66 (illustrated, p. 67).

    • Literature

      Edward Booth-Clibborn, ed., The History of the Saatchi Gallery, London, 2011, p. 693 (illustrated)


Untitled (Face 688)

signed and dated ‘MARK 07’ upper left; signed and dated ‘Grotjahn 07’ lower left; signed with the artist's initials and dated ‘MPG 07’ lower right; signed, titled, inscribed and dated ‘UNTITLED (FACE 688) 60 x 51 2007 oil on cardboard on linen on panel M. Grotjahn 2007’ on the reverse
oil on cardboard laid on linen mounted on panel
152.4 x 129.5 cm (60 x 51 in.)
Painted in 2007.

Full Cataloguing

£1,500,000 - 1,800,000 

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Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Head of Evening Sale
+44 7391 402741
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Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 30 June 2022