THE HISTORY OF NOW: THE COLLECTION OF DAVID TEIGER SOLD TO BENEFIT TEIGER FOUNDATION FOR THE SUPPORT OF CONTEMPORARY ART
A kaleidoscopic vortex of line, color, and form, the ferocious intensity of Mark Grotjahn’s Face No. 1 sears through innumerable layers of pigment to encapsulate the virtuosic, riotous, and eternally enigmatic spirit of Contemporary art. With the electrifying force of a live wire, the radial skeins of color ricochet out from a central core to cascade and fracture around the blistering outlines of a face, confronting the viewer with the essential, primal physicality which distinguish the most compelling masterpieces of the artist’s celebrated oeuvre. Executed in 2004, the explosive visage of the present work marks the inauguration of Grotjahn’s acclaimed Face paintings; as one of the earliest examples from this seminal series of sensuously ridged and impastoed works, the sheer physicality of form in Face No. 1 assaults the primeval boundaries between abstraction and figuration with intoxicating graphic unruliness. Invoking the heroic gestural bravado of such Abstract Expressionists as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock in its sensuously impastoed ridges, bridled and governed through an acute mastery of spatial perspective reminiscent of Picasso’s Cubist masterworks, Face No. 1 masterfully renegotiates such disparate legacies to announce the arrival of an unprecedented painterly force in the twenty-first century. Recounting the remarkable, mystic power of the series that would follow Face No. 1, one critic describes: “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, “Making the Spirits Dance,” New York Magazine, June 5, 2011) Acquired by celebrated collector David Teiger months after its execution, Face No. 1 serves both as monument and challenge to the weighty mantle of Modernism; collapsing such monumental antecedent into a singular, shamanistic form, the blazing gaze of Face No. 1 confronts the viewer with the raw, untamed, spirit of painting itself.
Uncurling from the center of Face No. 1, dizzying tendrils of green, red, yellow and white curve and splinter around the vibrating outlines of a primal visage. From within the chaotic density of vectored lines, two golden eyes command the viewer’s singular focus with a mesmerizing intensity, drawing the gaze towards a tantalizing, unattainable core. Face No. 1 continues the investigation of pictorial and spatial traditions initiated in Grotjahn’s earlier, widely acclaimed series of Butterfly paintings; exquisitely precise and richly worked compositions, Grotjahn’s Butterfly works employ the motif of the radiant band to undermine traditional notions of pictorial space, subtly exposing the limitations of classical Renaissance perspective by exploiting its essential structure. Seemingly splayed open across the canvas like the wings of their namesake, Grotjahn’s juxtaposition of multiple vanishing points along a centering, vertical band disrupts the viewer’s perception of the Butterfly paintings, producing a gripping illusion that hovers between the sobering flatness of early Modernist painting and the hallucinogenic experience of its optical effects. Bursting forth from the fastidiously ordered chrysalis of its predecessors, Face No. 1 explodes outward from the fundamental perspectival structure of the Butterfly paintings, devouring the picture plane in its denser, braver, and wildly variegated Expressionistic surface. Instead of the meticulous, almost mechanized precision of the Butterfly paintings, Face No. 1, like the Face paintings to follow, serves as a monument to the artist’s process. In a manner reminiscent of de Kooning’s riotously rendered women or Basquiat’s warrior kings, the commanding presence of Face No. 1 comes, not only from the sumptuous physicality of its surface, but from the undeniable intensity of the gesture by which it was created. Describing the dramatic immediacy of the series, curator Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson reflects: “In the Face paintings, Grotjahn’s intentions are more frontal. 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.” (Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, "Disruption" in Exh. Cat., Aspen, Aspen Art Museum, Mark Grotjahn, 2012, p. 56) Drawing the viewer’s gaze irresistibly through the sinuous topography of vectored lines, Face No. 1 both revels in and contradicts its own three-dimensionality: while offering the illusion of perspectival depth in the thicket of sinewy impasto and clandestine face, the ever-present intimation of pure abstraction returns us to the two-dimensional reality of the picture plane, exposing the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of pictorial space with unprecedented painterly finesse.
Setting the precedent for the Face paintings that would follow, Face No. 1 operates in the fascinating interstice between abstraction and figuration, complicating the formal correlation between the churning bands of brilliant color and the searing visage contained within them. Vibrating with a thrilling vertiginous motion, the painting evades a fixed image, instead creating a pictorial realm where physiognomy merges with the material application of paint to defiantly challenge the strict formal organization of Modernist painting. Reflecting upon the impossibility of categorizing the Face paintings, scholar Mark Prince notes, “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. The ‘I’ of an eye doubles as the contour of a leaf, or merely as an arc of stippled oil paint.” (Mark Prince, "The Divided Self," in Exh. Cat., Freiburg, Kunstverein Freiburg, Mark Grotjahn: Circus Circus, 2014, p. 27) As in many of the Face paintings to follow, the artist’s name gleams from within the interwoven thicket of crosshatched lines surrounding the gaze of Face No. 1, bringing to the fore an assertion of authorship that further complicates any straightforward categorization of the painting. By labeling the gestural, vibrant being before us with his own name, Grotjahn problematizes the slipperiness of the authorial gesture in contemporary art with remarkable bravado, defiantly imbuing his gestural abstraction with a vigorously beating human pulse. As praised by Roberta Smith, the Face paintings, “emphasize painting as a psychic and bodily process fueled in part by the devouring and digesting of previous art to formulate a new synthesis…Here rawness, rather than finish, prevails. The radiating, ricocheting lines never submit; the flaring planes never emerge. The faces hold their own, if just barely, to affirm in staunchly contemporary terms the human presence behind all art.” (Roberta Smith, "Art in Review," The New York Times, May 12, 2011, n.p.)
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