Part of Mark Grotjahn’s breakout first New York solo exhibition in 2003, Untitled (Black Butterfly Grey) is a darkly vibrant work painted in his decisively signature style. This monochromatic example is striking both for its dynamism and its optical qualities, and although a cursory glance might show us a flat, formalist composition, further inspection will be rewarded with depth and intrigue, both visually and conceptually. Untitled (Black Butterfly Grey) is part of Grotjahn’s much-lauded Butterfly series which began in 2001 and continues in various forms to this day. Its geometric wings and striated body have become the calling card of one of the foremost proponents of contemporary color field painting.
Asymmetrically pinned to the dark canvas, the radiating wings of Untitled (Black Butterfly Grey) splay open as triangular vectors. From the central shaft, two points explode outward in varying shades of gray and black. These variations create the optical illusion of expanding and receding space within the canvas, but the vertical bars of black on the right and left sides contain this optical blast, making the composition pulse with harnessed energy. At first glance, Grotjahn’s color choices all seem to hail from a spectrum of black and gray, but a careful investigation of the work reveals a shockingly bright green underpainting. More akin to the green screen color used for cinema special effects than the brooding darkness of the topcoat, this chartreuse layer influences the rest of the canvas, lending an evocative tinge to some of the lighter gray areas.
The very fact that any underpainting is visible, much less that it is at odds with the overarching color scheme, speaks to Grotjahn’s interest in the artist’s mark. Not seeking to create flat, immaculate works that dispense with any semblance of the painter’s hand, Grotjahn leaves hints toward his incursion into the canvas. A bit of exposed underpainting or a slyly impasto brushstroke belies the visual resemblance of the Butterfly works to hard-edge painting or the ocular precision of Op Art. Each Butterfly work is a conversation held between the artist and the canvas. The results of this dialogue can be seen in the layers of oil that painstakingly form these abstractly linear Lepidoptera. About the series, Grotjahn noted that he had found “a certain graphic form that [he] could stick with and see how far within that system [he] could push it” (M. Grotjahn in D. Fogle, “In the Center of the Infinite,” Parkett, no. 80 (2007), p. 113). The end product is not the most important aspect, but rather the result of this continuous visual exploration laid bare for the viewer. We are witness to an ongoing exchange between the artist and his formalist forebearers.
At its core, Grotjahn’s Butterfly series is an investigation into the history of perspective. What began as a number of exercises that made use of the two- and three-point perspectival inquiries of the Renaissance expanded into the artist’s most well-known subject. Starting in a more traditional manner, Grotjahn then rotated his canvas ninety degrees, thus ridding his early works of the horizon line’s anchor. By doing so, the artist took the focus away from merely creating an illusion of space and brought attention to the very ways in which the paint was applied to the canvas. Robert Storr remarked on this, saying, “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” (R. Storr, “LA Push-Pull/Po-Mo-Stop-Go,” Mark Grotjahn, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2009, p. 6). Grotjahn employs art historical referents as the basis for his own inquiry, and by building upon the structures already in place, can reinvigorate some of the very basic principles of painting.
Born in Pasadena, California and based in Los Angeles, Grotjahn has quickly risen to become one of the most respected painters working today. After receiving his MFA from UC Berkeley, the artist began working on a series of hand-reproduced signs based on those of local businesses. He would trade his copy for the proprietor’s and then show the original as his own. Each piece he manufactured had the inherent flaws of something which is hand drawn, but was nearly indiscernible from its referent. This interest continues in works like Untitled (Black Butterfly Grey) in the meticulous lines and attention to space that are then offset by its painterly qualities. Michael Ned Holte states, “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. Grotjahn’s abstracted geometric figure is suitably elusive. In fact, the more familiar it becomes, the more he refines its ability to surprise and, perhaps paradoxically, takes it further away from actual butterflyness” (M. Holte, “Mark Grotjahn,” Artforum, November 2005, p. 259). The form is similar, but each work is a new idea. Indeed, Newman’s zips are frequently brought up in reference to Grotjahn’s practice, and the similarities to this formalist approach are evident. Each seemingly simple stripe is carefully rendered with patience and dexterity, but the butterflies, unlike the zips, define space through the illusion of perspective. As he worked on the series, each new composition further abstracted the titular insect until we were left with an iconic treatise on Grotjahn’s own artistic evolution.