‘The butterfly has become to Mark Grotjahn what the target is to Kenneth Noland, the zip was to Barnett Newman, and the colour white is to Robert Ryman’
MICHAEL NED HOLTE
‘One of the mad benefits of this maniacal ordering is that each person is also granted the demented, deluded position of being a god. You, the maharaja of all that you survey, are the fixed singularity that all things rush from or toward’
With its hypnotic explosion of lines fanning outwards in fluttering, kaleidoscopic motion, the present work is a mesmerizing early example of Mark Grotjahn’s celebrated Butterfly paintings. Bisected by a single vertical pole, it refracts a dazzling spectrum of white across its radial outburst, painted over a blue under-layer which glimmers in the brushwork’s interstices. Standing among his most iconic works, the Butterfly paintings oscillate between geometric abstraction and spatial illusion. Though masquerading as exercises in perspective, Grotjahn’s multiple vanishing points and rotated horizon line fundamentally disrupt the pictorial logic enshrined by the Renaissance. The centre of the composition is a moving target that continually deflects the viewer’s gaze, drawing them into a world of vertiginous optical distortion. Combined with the artist’s subtle tonal gradations, as well as lingering traces of his own hand, the canvas becomes a free-floating field that shifts and mutates before our eyes. Building on the Three-Tiered Perspective works of the 1990s, and paving the way for the landmark series of Face paintings that followed, Grotjahn’s Butterfly works – created largely between 2001 and 2008 – lie at the core of his practice. Executed in 2002, the present work’s monochrome palette and elegant square format distinguishes it within the broader series, examples of which are held in the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Broad Foundation, Santa Monica. ‘The butterfly has become to Mark Grotjahn what the target is to Kenneth Noland, the zip was to Barnett Newman, and the colour white is to Robert Ryman’, argues Michael Ned Holte (M. N. Holte, ‘Mark Grotjahn’, in Artforum, November 2005, p. 259). Invoking elements of all three, and signed with the artist’s initials like graffiti tags in the lower corners, the present work is a powerful affirmation of this statement.
A highly skilled draughtsman with a conceptual outlook, Grotjahn first made a name for himself through the Sign Exchange project that he began in California in 1993. For several years, he produced faithful copies of shopfront signs, trading them in for the originals and then exhibiting them as his own artworks. This engagement with the relationship between artifice and reality gradually spawned a fascination with art’s most time-honoured illusionistic device: perspective. ‘I started to think about why I got into art in the first place’, he explains. ‘I was always interested in line and colour. I wanted to find a motif that I could experiment with for a while. I did a group of drawings over a period of six to twelve months. The drawing that I chose was one that resembled the three-tier perspective, and that is what I went with’ (M. Grotjahn, quoted in A. Douglass, ‘Interview with Mark Grotjahn’, 6 October 2010, at http://www.portlandart. net/archives/2010/10/interview_with_11. html [accessed 27 July 2017]). Entranced by the concept but discouraged by landscape connotations of his horizontal orientation, Grotjahn eventually flipped the axis by ninety degrees, thereby inaugurating the framework for the Butterfly paintings. Though at first glance the works exude a veneer of immaculate precision, a raw dynamism lurks beneath their surfaces: a residue of the analytical intensity with which Grotjahn executes each mark. This sense of concentrated retinal interaction with the canvas would be amplified in the subsequent Face paintings, in which recognisable human features begin to emerge from the maelstrom. Even in the flickering depths of the Butterfly paintings, asserts Barry Schwabsky, we detect not just the tremor of a wing, but of an eyelid, watching and blinking in the shadows. ‘The paintings announce themselves with a powerful physical and optical presence’, he writes, ‘but still more powerful is this something else that can’t quite be seen, can’t quite be felt, though one can’t help but sense that it’s there, hovering, somewhere behind the painting’ (B. Schwabsky, ‘Vehicles of Fascination’, in Mark Grotjahn, exh. cat., Aspen Art Museum, Aspen, 2012, p. 62).