Lot 109
  • 109

MARK GROTJAHN | Untitled (Large Black and White Butterfly #544)

270,000 - 350,000 GBP
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  • Mark Grotjahn
  • Untitled (Large Black and White Butterfly #544)
  • signed with the artist's initials and dated 05; signed twice, titled, dated 05 and variously inscribed on the reverse 
  • coloured pencil and wax crayon on card
  • 101.6 by 81.6 cm. 40 by 32 1/8 in.


Anton Kern Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2005


Philadelphia, Institute of Contemporary Art, Gone Formalism, January - March 2006


Colour: The colours in the catalogue illustration are fairly accurate although there are more blue undertones in the original. Condition: This work is in very good and original condition. The sheet is hinged verso to the backing mount in several places. Extremely close inspection reveals a minute and unobtrusive dog ear to the upper left corner tip. Further extremely close inspection reveals a few minute and unobtrusive nicks and tiny tears in places to the extreme outer edges, which are likely to be in keeping with the artist’s working process.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Beaming with an irrepressible energy and complex perspectival logic, Mark Grotjahn’s Untitled (Large Black and White Butterfly #544) from 2005 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, Grotjahn graphically emphasises the vitality of abstract painting today. Since 1997, 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). Meticulously wrought, Untitled (Large Black and White Butterfly #544) stuns in its exceptional clarity and mesmeric beauty. Here, two off kilter vanishing points mark the centre 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 Renaissance in order to skilfully render depth within a flat surface. His Butterfly works operate within the tension between the ostensibly incongruous poles of abstraction and figuration, complicating the formal correlation between the winged insects and the pictures’ purely geometric organisations 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 (Large Black and White Butterfly #544)'s symmetry and black-and-white palette is punctuated by reminders of artistic process: scuffs, scratches, and stutters interrupt the otherwise even surface, deviating from the highly controlled structure of the image.

The radial bands of binary black and white 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 (Large Black and White Butterfly #544) envelops the full force of Grotjahn’s extreme acuity for spatial relationships, endlessly engaging anyone who stands before it in a dynamic optical experience.