David Salle, How To See, New York 2016, p. 215
Beaming with an irrepressible energy and complex perspectival logic, Mark Grotjahn’s Untitled Butterfly (Black + Cream-cicle) from 2007 is an exhilarating example of the artist’s highly accomplished butterfly compositions. The present work entices the viewer into its spellbinding vortex, producing a gripping perceptual experience that hovers between the sobering flatness of early Modernist painting and the expressionistic effect of its vertiginous intensity. 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, Mark Grotjahn graphically emphasizes the vitality of abstract painting today. For nearly twenty years, Grotjahn has employed his now-iconic butterfly motif with single, dual, and multiple vanishing points across a highly regarded series of paintings and works on paper. As remarked by Michael Ned Holte, “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," Artforum, November 2005, p. 259).
Vigorously worked, the riveting Untitled Butterfly (Black + Cream-cicle) stuns in its exceptional clarity and mesmeric beauty. Here, a central vanishing point marks the center of the butterfly’s ‘abdomen’, while flying rays dart outward, fluttering across the diagonal trajectories of the slightly skewed ‘wings’ – their tremoring vectors conjure the sensation of being captured mid-flight. Summoning natural world phenomena, while investigating the fundamental tenets of abstraction, the artist achieves a result that is as aesthetically seductive as it is rigorously analytical. Grotjahn’s formal evocation of one-point perspective relates to academic conventions of painting developed by Leon Battista Alberti during the 15th century in order to skillfully render depth within a flat surface. His Butterfly series operates within the tension between the ostensibly incongruous poles of abstraction and figuration, complicating the formal correlation between the winged insects and the picture's purely geometric organizations of shapes. 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). The refined precision and forthright simplicity of Untitled Butterfly (Black + Cream-cicle)’s symmetry and black-and-cream palette is punctuated by reminders of artistic process: scuffs, scratches, and stutters interrupt the otherwise even surface, thrillingly deviating from the highly controlled structure of the image.
The radial bands of binary black and cream possess an unnervingly seductive inner force, a concentrated energy that draws the viewer into its hypnotic hold and refuses to let go. In the reductive palette of the present example, Grotjahn’s composition reverberates with incredible urgency, pronounced elegance, and magnificent composure. Intricately wrought and carefully choreographed, Untitled Butterfly (Black + Cream-cicle) envelops the full force of Grotjahn’s extreme acuity for spatial relationships, endlessly engaging anyone who stands before it in a dynamic optical experience.
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