signed, titled and dated 2008 and numbered 783 on the reverse
London, Gagosian Gallery, Mark Grotjahn, May - July 2009, cat. no. 14, p. 14, illustrated in color and pp. 54, 59, 61 and 62, illustrated in color (as exhibited)
Mark Grotjahn has explored the esoteric butterfly motif extensively over the past decade in both drawing and painting. His devotion to a singular concept has allowed him to deeply explore color, form, and scale in a pure and unadulterated light. In Untitled (Yellow Butterfly III), the thickly applied vibrant yellow paint immediately captivates the viewer and launches us into a resplendent exploration of the artist's alluring approach to Abstraction. Grotjahn has been committed to restricting his use of color for much of his oeuvre - focusing on a series of butterfly paintings devoted to white, black, navy and later to red and yellow as in the present work. Within these singular color canvases there is distinct variation in tonality that belies any identification with monochromism. Untitled (Yellow Butterfly III), from 2008 is particularly striking, as through the gradations of yellow, the underlying layer of red paint peaks through the rays that emanate from the central stripes. There is an Op Art quality to these Butterfly paintings - a central vanishing point in the "body" of the butterfly and an energy radiating out and fluttering through the diagonal lines of the "wings". There is simultaneous concentration and decentralization.
"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." (Michael Ned Holte, "Mark Grotjahn" in: Artforum, November 2005, p. 259). The butterfly is a nearly symmetrical insect with fluttering wings that allow it to spasmodically dart in varying directions at incredibly high speeds. The life span of a butterfly can be one week to a year and they are capable of traveling up to 2000 miles. There is a mysterious beauty to the nature of a butterfly and the quick beats of its wings that is ever so present in Grotjahn's paintings and drawings. As Douglas Fogle notes, "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," Parkett 80, 2007, p. 117).
While the formative paintings of his early career were heavily dependent on text and derived much of their conceptual weight from home-made signs of the sort found in shop windows and consisting of different graphics or varying point size and font type, in the late 1990s he developed geometric paintings with multiple and independent vanishing points usually with three horizon lines in a single canvas. Shortly after the turn of the millennium he developed his aesthetic dialect further with compositions constrained by narrower, vertical format canvases, filled to bursting with the radiating orthogonals of so-called "butterfly" wings.
Untitled (Yellow Butterfly III) is an outstanding paragon of this body of works, and typifies the salient themes of method and concept of his best work. As discussed by Johanna Burton: "Language plays a significant role on and off the artist's canvases, particularly in his use of ambiguity (saying 'butterfly' and meaning 'abstraction'...). Like Ryman, Grotjahn uses his signature as verbal signifier and as formal device, leaving us to determine where one ends and the other begins." (Johanna Burton, "Mark Grotjahn: Anton Kern," ArtForum, December 2003). Grotjahn's work clearly has an indebtedness to the field of painters that came before him. Indeed, as Max Henry has pointed out, Grotjahn's paintings, as crystallized in the present work, draw on a rich seam of art historical precedent: "The paintings themselves are hard-edged spatial illusions in rich gradations of color that appear to expand and contract...Grotjahn actually riffs from the whole range of abstraction: Malevich, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella, Brice Marden et al. Unlike the constructivists who rejected decorative reference or 'subjectivity', Grotjahn is actively encoding references including pop psychedelic associations." (Max Henry in: Exh. Cat., London, The Saatchi Gallery, Abstract America: New Paintings & Sculpture at The Saatchi Gallery, 2009, p. 7).
Untitled (Yellow Butterfly III) is the largest painting of this series and its impact arguably the most powerful. Here Grotjahn creates mesmerizing depth and graceful, luxurious glamour. Like Rothko's monumental Abstract painting from the 1950s and 1960s these large scale butterfly paintings hold both the viewer and the wall captive. As Gary Garrels expounds, "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...For [him] the recent paintings of Mark Grotjahn retain and renew the tradition and potential of abstract painting." (Gary Garrels, "Within Blue," Parkett 80, 2007, p. 127). Mark Grotjahn, referred to by Robert Storr as a "light conceptualist" has the ability to bring his paintings to the viewer's present and to deposit their elusive physicality honestly and confidently to our own awareness.
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