It’s a different kind of freedom, a different kind of expressionism. It’s personal without being overly personal.
An exquisite specimen from Mark Grotjahn’s celebrated series of Butterfly paintings, Untitled (Lavender Butterfly Over Green) combines graphic representation, geometric abstraction and illusionistic space in a mesmerizing and enigmatic visual phenomenon. The central vertical strip delineates the butterfly’s ‘spine’, from which two spectrums of radial vectors cascade outwards to establish the dynamic trajectories of its ‘wings’. At the center, two slightly off-kilter vanishing points mark the butterfly’s ‘abdomen’, while the emanating terrains of concentrated linear brushwork launch shifting spatial illusions of infinitely subtle tonal gradations – their delicate tremors conjuring the sensation of being weightless and mid-flight. Summoning natural world phenomena, while investigating the fundamental tenets of Renaissance perspective and geometric abstraction, Grotjahn achieves a result that is as aesthetically seductive as it is rigourously analytical, creating a parallel pictorial and conceptual universe in which abstraction and representational painting collide. Iconic and instantly recognizable, Mark Grotjahn’s celebrated Butterfly paintings reside in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Mark Grotjahn has explored his esoteric butterfly motif extensively over the past decade, and his devotion to the singular concept has allowed him to deeply explore colour, form, and scale in a pure and unadulterated light. The Butterfly series evolved from an earlier body of ‘tiered perspective’ paintings that visually recalls Leon Battista Alberti’s Renaissance treatise on one-point perspective. These works comprised two-or three stacked sets of perspectival vanishing points, “each radiating a set of colourful geometric orthogonals onto their own independent horizon lines” (Douglas Fogle, ‘The Monolith and the Butterfly’, in Mark Grotjahn: Butterfly Paintings, Blum and Poe, 2014, p. 38). Grotjahn recalls: “I was always interested in line and color. 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” (Arcy Douglass in conversation with Mark Grotjahn, Portland Art, 6 October 2010, online). Later in the Butterfly paintings, Grotjahn tilted the axis ninety degrees and found a formal graphic framework of vanishing points and shifting rotated horizon lines that has since become his most sustained investigation.
Grotjahn’s Butterfly paintings today represent a short-hand for the artist’s acclaimed practice; as Michael Ned Holte observed: “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” (Michael Ned Holte, ‘Mark Grotjahn’ in Artforum, November 2005, p. 259). Taut with formal rigour yet charged with expressive bravado, Grotjahn’s Butterfly paintings interrogate traditional notions of perspective, form, geometry and symmetry – engaging with influences as diverse as the spatial illusions of Op Art, the social utopianism of Constructivism and the avant-garde radicalism of analytical Cubism whilst maintaining an allegiance to traditional representative form. Indeed, as Fogle summarises: “With contextual influences ranging widely from the history of geometric modernism – as seen in the works of artists such as Vassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian – to experiments in musical and filmic composition and typographic design, Grotjahn’s butterflies playfully blur the once rigourous boundaries between representation and abstraction, between surface and depth, and between the conceptual and the concrete in artistic production” (Fogle, 2014, p. 37). Elsewhere, Fogle observes: “Grotjahn’s butterflies hover precipitously close to the line between abstract geometry and illusionistic spatiality, displaying a kind of graphic unconscious that constitutes a paradoxically systematic disruption of a rational and orderly system” (Douglas Fogle, ‘In the Center of the Infinite’, in Parkett 80, 2007, p. 117).
As the Butterfly series progressed from 2001 to 2008, Grotjahn’s brushwork became increasingly tightly rendered. The choreographed vectors in Untitled (Lavender Butterfly Over Green) are compactly striated, as opposed to earlier works that were more graphically composed like sliced sections of a pie chart. Rendered in thickly painted strokes, the lavender striations possess a seductive inner force – a mysterious energy that draws the viewer into its kaleidoscopic hold. At the liminal edges of the painting, Grotjahn purposely reveals the underlying substrate of colour – a green base coating in the case of the present work, which also comes forward in two small stigmata at the central vanishing points, i.e. the butterfly’s ‘abdomen’. As Fogle observes, such a schema reveals “an archaeological depth (the history of their own construction) and a questioning of the work’s stability (these are not uniformly hermetic surfaces)” (Fogle, 2014, p. 38). Grotjahn’s Butterfly works paved the way for another landmark series of Face paintings, in which representational features began to emerge from the maelstrom of seemingly abstract configurations. Barry Schwabsky asserts that – just like the ensuing Face paintings, Grotjahn’s Butterfly works likewise “announce themselves with a powerful physical and optical presence […] 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).
Within its meticulously executed network of lines, Untitled (Lavender Butterfly Over Green) reveals the artist’s unique calculated approach towards abstraction. Robert Storr observes: “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). The premeditated precision of Grotjahn’s abstract lexicon is reflected in the compelling viewing experience generated by the works. As Gary Garrels explained: “The experience of looking at an abstract painting is distinct to the medium and form. It is a slow experience, apart from the relentless movement of contemporary life. It is an experience that remains remote for many because it is not like that which is more quotidian, more familiar... The recent paintings of Mark Grotjahn retain and renew the tradition and potential of abstract painting” (Gary Garrels, ‘Within Blue’, in Parkett 80, 2007, p. 127).