Lot 8T
  • 8T

MARK GROTJAHN | Untitled (Black over Red Orange "Mean as a Snake" Face 842)

6,000,000 - 8,000,000 USD
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  • Mark Grotjahn
  • Untitled (Black over Red Orange "Mean as a Snake" Face 842)
  • signed and dated 10; signed, titled, dated 2009-2010, and numbered #842 on the overlap
  • oil on cardboard mounted on linen
  • 101 1/2 by 72 1/2 in. 257.8 by 184.2 cm.


Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by David Teiger in March 2010


Los Angeles, Blum & Poe, Seven Faces, February - April 2010, n.p., illustrated in color

Catalogue Note

Mesmerizing in its chromatic verve and irrepressible physicality, Mark Grotjahn’s Untitled (Black over Red Orange “Mean as a Snake” Face 842) elegantly negotiates a series of dialectical opposites, seamlessly oscillating between order and chaos, figuration and abstraction, the painterly and the sculptural. The enigmatic work, produced in 2009-10, belongs to the artist’s series of Face paintings, an exemplary body of work that he began at the turn of the millennium, defined by his ongoing thematic preoccupation with faces and masks. Grotjahn created Untitled (Black over Red Orange “Mean as a Snake” Face 842) using sheets of primed cardboard mounted on linen, with the aid of a paintbrush and palette knife, to build the work’s densely textured, complexly layered surface. The large frontal painting, measuring over eight feet tall and six feet wide, immerses viewers in a two-dimensional labyrinth, directing their eyes towards an infinite webbing of multicolored lines that simultaneously reveal and undermine their making. Such enthralling visual qualities are generated by Grotjahn’s craftsman-like attention to process and self-evident mastery of the fundamental elements of painting.Grotjahn’s Face paintings developed organically out of the artist’s well-known formalist Butterfly paintings, in which planes of contrasting hues extend from varying vanishing points. However, in contrast to the iconic Butterfly paintings, Grotjahn’s Face paintings, such as the present, provide a more direct, unmediated reflection of the artist’s subjectivity, given their highly expressive nature and visceral materiality. As the artist remarked: “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...” (Mark Grotjahn in conversation with Jan Tumlir, ‘Big Nose Baby and the Moose’, Flash Art, No. 252, January-February 2007, online resource).

In Untitled (Black over Red Orange “Mean as a Snake” Face 842), a totemic, disfigured face takes central stage, abstractly composed of emboldened eyes hovering above one other, two pairs of elongated flaring nostrils converging below and a downward slanting mouth, left slightly open to expose a set of jagged teeth. In addition, these anthropomorphic features hover within an undefinable space, geometrically dissected by a multiplex of thickly painted lines. Thus, in the present work, Grotjahn’s skillful synthesis of abstraction and figuration produces a captivating visual effect whereby “the line between form and likeliness is indistinguishable.”(Barry Schwabsky, Mark Grotjahn, Aspen, 2012, p. 62) In other words, both the frontal visage and the paint itself become active subjects in Grotjahn’s tactile composition.

Grotjahn’s evocation of the mask also echoes the early modernist affinity for traditional African aesthetics, evident in the mask-like forms used by Picasso, Matisse and Brancusi. Although Grotjahn’s work adheres to the modernist lineage in its adept combination of abstraction and portraiture, the painting evolves the historically loaded iconography by imbuing the mask with a life of its own; in Untitled, the brightly painted, almond-shaped eyes draw the viewer’s attention by enacting its own gaze, thereby reciprocating the gaze of the viewer. By creating a painted subject that “stares back,” Grotjahn supplements the viewer’s experience with a sense of urgency. (Andrea K. Scott, ”Face Value”, The New Yorker, June 6, 2011) As art critic, Barry Schwabsky notes, there is something about the painting that makes it want to be seen. This is due to the mask’s indication of elusive facial expressions such as a subtle wink or suggestive grin. Schwabsky also states that "there is something else that wants to remain hidden, obscure.” (Ibid., p.63). Therefore, Untitled’s uniqueness resides in its paradoxical embodiment of visibility and opacity.

Hypnotic, raw and audacious, the present work leaves the viewer in a state of ethereal sensuality. The painting’s heavily labored surface, the product of Grotjahn’s agonizing exercise, makes Untitled (Black over Red Orange “Mean as a Snake” Face 842) an ode to process and artistic determination. Moreover, by coaxing the physiognomic imagery of traditional African imagery, the multi-layered perspectives of cubism, the gestural dynamism of Abstract Expressionism and the optical effects of Minimal art, the work stands intelligently positioned between a plethora of interrelated art historical references. The present work’s true brilliance, however, lies in its dissolution of the figure-ground distinction. As Mark Prince observes: “The facial symbols – which the context of the Face series leads us to expect – are everywhere and nowhere. Subject and object melt into each other, 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.” (Mark Prince, ‘The Divided Self’, in: Exh. Cat., Freiburg, Kunstverein Freiburg, Mark Grotjahn: Circus Circus, 2014, p. 27) Viewed in this light, the poignant beauty of Grotjahn’s Untitled (Black over Red Orange “Mean as a Snake” Face 842) originates in its articulation of painting’s ability to conjure the ambiguities of human existence.