THE HISTORY OF NOW: THE COLLECTION OF DAVID TEIGER | SOLD TO BENEFIT TEIGER FOUNDATION FOR THE SUPPORT OF CONTEMPORARY ART
Untitled (Yellow White Butterfly) is at once intensely arresting and idyllically tranquil – an exquisite specimen from Mark Grotjahn’s celebrated series of Butterfly paintings, examples of which are held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The central vertical strip delineates the butterfly’s ‘spine’, from which two spectrums of radial vectors cascade outwards to establish the dynamic trajectories of its ‘wings’. At the center, two slightly off-kilter vanishing points mark the butterfly’s ‘abdomen’, while the emanating terrains of concentrated linear brushwork launch shifting spatial illusions of infinitely subtle tonal gradations – their delicate tremors conjuring the sensation of being weightless and mid-flight. Summoning natural world phenomena, while investigating the fundamental tenets of abstraction, Grotjahn achieves a result that is as aesthetically seductive as it is rigorously analytical, creating a parallel pictorial and conceptual universe in which geometric abstraction and traditional representational painting collide. Iconic and instantly recognizable, Grotjahn’s Butterfly paintings today represent a short-hand for the artist’s acclaimed practice; as Michael Ned Holte observed: “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” (Michael Ned Holte, ‘Mark Grotjahn’ in Artforum, November 2005, p. 259).
Grotjahn’s Butterfly paintings evolved from an earlier body of ‘tiered perspective’ paintings that visually recalls Leon Battista Alberti’s Renaissance treatise on one-point perspective. These works comprised two-or three stacked sets of perspectival vanishing points, “each radiating a set of colorful geometric orthogonals onto their own independent horizon lines” (Douglas Fogle, ‘The Monolith and the Butterfly’, in Mark Grotjahn: Butterfly Paintings, Blum and Poe, 2014, p. 38). 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). Later in the Butterfly paintings, Grotjahn tilted the axis ninety degrees and found a formal graphic framework of vanishing points and shifting rotated horizon lines that has since become his most sustained investigation.
Grotjahn engaged in his Butterfly paintings from 2001 to 2008, employing a strategy of repeated obsessive-compulsive exploration of Renaissance perspective. Taut with formal rigor yet charged with expressively elegant bravado, Grotjahn’s Butterfly paintings interrogate traditional notions of perspective, form, geometry and symmetry – 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 whilst maintaining an allegiance to traditional representative form. Indeed, as Fogle summarizes: “With contextual influences ranging widely from the history of geometric modernism – as seen in the works of artists such as Vassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian – to experiments in musical and filmic composition and typographic design, Grotjahn’s butterflies playfully blur the once rigorous boundaries between representation and abstraction, between surface and depth, and between the conceptual and the concrete in artistic production” (Fogle, 2014, p. 37). Elsewhere, Fogle observes: “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).
As the Butterfly series progressed from 2001 to 2008, Grotjahn’s brushwork became increasingly tightly rendered. The meticulously choreographed vectors in Untitled (Yellow White Butterfly) are compactly striated, as opposed to earlier works that were more graphically composed like sliced sections of a pie chart. Here, the cream-coloured striations possess a seductive inner force – a mysterious energy that draws the viewer into its kaleidoscopic hold and refuses to let go. Furthermore, framing the left and right borders are two slightly off-kilter bands – their slightly awry angles compressing the wings into a heighted destabilizing and disorienting disposition. Like Mark 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).
Within its ethereal hues of white, Untitled (Yellow White Butterfly) holds a final singular enigma. On the surface, the white hues recall the ultimate manifestation of the monochrome – the neutrality and purity of the absolutely abstract, which owes its serenity to its resistance to – and reduction of – all meaning. In this, Grotjahn nods to a wide range of artistic predecessors renowned for their strategy of the white monochrome, including Malevich, Ben Nicholson, Robert Ryman, etc. In his Butterfly paintings, however, the artist purposely reveals an underlying substrate of colour – a blue substrate in the case of the present work, which comes forward in two small stigmata at the central vanishing points, i.e. the butterfly’s ‘abdomen’, and which is also just visible at the extreme corners of the work. As Fogle observes, such a schema reveals “an archaeological depth (the history of their own construction) and a questioning of the work’s stability (these are not uniformly hermetic surfaces)” (Fogle, 2014, p. 38). Grotjahn’s Butterfly works paved the way for another landmark series of Face paintings, in which representational features began to emerge from the maelstrom of seemingly abstract configurations. Barry Schwabsky asserts that – just like the ensuing Face paintings, Grotjahn’s Butterfly works likewise “announce themselves with a powerful physical and optical presence […] but still more powerful is this something else that can’t quite be seen, can’t quite be felt, though one can’t help but sense that it’s there, hovering, somewhere behind the painting’ (B. Schwabsky, ‘Vehicles of Fascination’, in Mark Grotjahn, exh. cat., Aspen Art Museum, Aspen, 2012, p. 62).
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