Untitled (Face 41.05) navigates a notoriously tenuous tightrope between the pillars of abstraction and figuration by suggesting a face beneath purely geometric bands of color. Grotjahn’s Face Paintings typically depict a a glimpse of a pair of eyes, round pupils, the outline of a nose, the suggestion of nostrils, or the cavernous opening of a mouth. In Untitled (Face 41.05) three elongated almond-shaped eyes peer out from beneath the abstracted thicket, revealing the hidden vestiges of a face. Grotjahn arranges the composition of Untitled (Face 41.05) toward a pivotal equilibrium that is balanced and symmetrical, further reiterating the mirror-image motif of anatomical design. Just as we begin to discern the possibility of this guise, it disappears—lost to abstraction—and is consumed as quickly as it emerged. Untitled (Face 41.05) further distinguishes itself among the Face Paintings through its particularly heightened interplay between bands that converge and fold into one another, recalling patterns of arterial anatomy or expanding and contracting muscle groups. Grotjahn’s all-encompassing abstraction in the present work renders Untitled (Face 41.05) a highly important iteration on his Face series, one that heroically evades a standstill image as it oscillates between legible physiognomy and anthropomorphism.
In Untitled (Face 41.05), radial bands of scarlet vermillion, deep phthalo blue, cadmium yellow, and viridian green explode layer by layer through the composition, setting the picture plane into undulating motion. Grotjahn juxtaposes these strong primary colors against more muted hues that he has tinted with white, grey, and other light neutrals. Such an effect creates rich visual contrast and depth in the composition, revealing how Grotjahn thoughtfully uses the palette knife to create a thorough and interconnected network whereby no band of color is autonomous, but rather a muddled adoption and amalgamation of the chromatic range of colors used elsewhere on the canvas. It is this careful calculation of color and placement that separates Grotjahn’s work from his Abstract Expressionist antecedents. As Barry Schwabsky wrote, “With Abstract Expressionism you were meant to feel the artist’s struggle toward the discovery of the image. It was supposed to have come into existence in the process of painting and it was supposed to have been hard-won. Grotjahn’s paintings too have the immediacy and freshness of discovery about them, but they don’t evoke struggle. Yes, the paint is worked up, and from time to time, one might even be tempted to describe the paint as tormented...But if Grotjahn plagues and harasses his surface at times, he does so cooly, not with impulsive vehemence so much as with craftsmanlike determination.” (Barry Schwabsky, "Vehicles of Fascination" in Exh. Cat., Aspen Art Museum, Mark Grotjahn, 2012, p. 61)
By painting alla prima, Grotjahn constantly renegotiates the internal relationships between line, color, and depth within the canvas, always working towards an underlying one-point perspective, yet fracturing and negating its purity by peeling, scraping, carving, wiping away, and even throwing paint at the canvas. As the face strives to materialize, it is cyclically masked by Grotjahn’s brush and palette knife, agents he uses to both create and destroy. Ultimately such “acts of destruction,” claims Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, “come out of love—wanting to know something so intensely that it must in fact be destroyed to be known again.” (Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, ‘Disruption’ in Exh. Cat., Aspen, Aspen Art Museum, Mark Grotjahn, 2012, p. 56)
At its core, Grotjahn’s series of Face Paintings is about the elemental, most basic elements of painting such as line, color, texture, and perspective. What distinguishes the Face Paintings is the process by which Grotjahn intentionally complicates an easy reading of his work by infusing his paintings with effervescent motion, leaving them in a state of continual flux between disruption and reconciliation. By this formula, Untitled (Face 41.05) upholds Grotjahn’s unparalleled mastery of paint and the enduring power of abstraction, thus trumpeting a glorious affirmation of the unnerving, seductive synergy of medium and method.
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