Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Evening Auction


Mark Grotjahn
B. 1968
signed with the artist's initials and dated 03
oil on linen
152.4 by 127 cm. 60 by 50 in.
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Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

Private Collection

Gladstone Gallery, New York

Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2011 

Catalogue Note

Entrancing the viewer through an expanding spatial illusion of subtle monochromatic gradations, Untitled (White Butterfly MPG 03) belongs to Mark Grotjahn’s celebrated series of Butterfly Paintings. Iconic and instantly recognisable, these paintings today represent a short-hand for the artist's acclaimed contemporary practice. In a 2005 Artforum article Michael Ned Holte explained as much: "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). With a central vanishing point in the ‘body’ of the butterfly and streams of colour radiating out through the diagonal lines of its ‘wings’, Grotjahn’s Butterfly Painting summons natural world phenomena, while investigating the fundamental tenets of abstraction. The result is as aesthetically seductive as it is rigorously analytical and engages with a broad spectrum of non-objective art, from Constructivism and Futurism through to Minimalism and Op-art.

Mark Grotjahn’s oeuvre grew out of conceptual sign making. Early in his career, he painstakingly reproduced quirky graphics and phrases from local storefronts. In turn, he would trade these handmade copies with the shop owners in exchange for the original signage, which Grotjahn then exhibited as his own. In 1998, Grotjahn displayed works from this Sign Replacement Project alongside a set of paintings inspired by Leon Battista Alberti's Renaissance treatise on one-point perspective. 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). Taking the initial concept one step further, Grotjahn tilted the axis ninety degrees, severing any ties to landscape painting that the horizontal orientation may have suggested. With the vertical body anchoring the centre of the composition and the vectors radiating like starbursts, Grotjahn discovered a graphic framework that has become his most sustained visual investigation.

Grotjahn’s Butterfly Paintings operate within a tension between the ostensibly incongruous poles of abstraction and figuration, complicating the formal correlation between winged insects and a purely geometric organisation of shapes. Approaching the cerebral, illusionistic vortexes of 1960s Op artists such as Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely, Mark Grotjahn graphically emphasises the vitality of abstract painting. As curator 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’ in: Parkett 80, 2007, p. 117).

In Untitled (White Butterfly MPG 03), Grotjahn creates a parallel pictorial universe in which geometric abstraction and traditional Western representational painting collide. The monochrome radial bands possess a seductive inner force, an energy that draws the viewer into its kaleidoscopic hold and refuses to let go. Like Rothko's monumental abstract works from the 1950s and 1960s, this monochromatic painting holds both the viewer and the wall captive. Deliberating upon the compelling effects of Grotjahn’s Butterfly works Gary Garrels, senior curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 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: ibid., p. 127). Methodically choreographed, Untitled (White Butterfly MPG 03) encapsulates the full spectrum of Grotjahn’s meticulous acuity for spatial relationships and his ardent exploration into colour, form, and scale.

Contemporary Art Evening Auction