Hammer Projects: Mark Grotjahn

Hammer Projects: Mark Grotjahn

Los Angeles artist Mark Grotjahn uses varying schemes of one-point perspective to create his beautiful, hypnotic, multicolored as well as monochromatic Prismacolor drawings. The elegantly formal and perceptually perplexing aspects of his radiating or converging lines, which resemble sunbursts or endless highways, are subverted by random spills and marks made by overdrawing from other works.

Hammer Projects are curated by James Elaine.

Hammer Projects: Mark Grotjahn. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. January 11-April 17, 2005.


Mark Grotjahn was born in 1968 in Pasadena, California, and currently lives in Los Angeles. He received his MFA from the University of California, Berkeley, and his BFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Recent solo exhibitions include Mark Grotjahn: El gran burrito, at Boom, Chicago, and shows at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles; Anton Kern Gallery, New York; and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. His work has been included in group exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the London Institute Gallery and is on view in the Fifty-fourth Carnegie International at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, until March 2005.

Mark Grotjahn: Drawings

By Libby Lumpkin

When considering Mark Grotjahn's distinctively expressive and mysteriously compelling uses of abstraction, standard rules do not apply. The seven drawings created for his exhibition at the Hammer Museum clearly demonstrate the artist's fluency in various dialects of the common abstract language, resonating with Constructivist and Minimalist tones and with a few refrains in less analytical abstract traditions. Searching for systematic principles with which to anchor Grotjahn's abstractions, however, is not particularly rewarding. Of the variable types of logic that underlie most abstract designs, whether traditional or trendy—aesthetic, symbol, metaphor, rhythm, presence, emotion, religion, digital generation, statistical data, and such—none quite fits.

Note the artist's densely applied pencil marks, which render the planar segments solidly opaque. Given the provocative dissonance between expressive "matter" and analytical 'mind," these marks compete with the linear configurations to be the key signifying element. One imagines the artist bearing down on the pencil with earnest, concentrated focus, as if in answer to some urgent necessity. The impasto-like "weightiness" of the marks suggest that that urgent necessity might be to establish a dialogue with the early, objectlike paintings of Jasper Johns and Frank Stella, or possibly with Richard Serra’s expressively "weighty" monochrome drawings. But the tedious, almost quixotic nature of the endeavor—forcing a dense impasto from delicate color pencils—leads one to suspect that the motivation originates not in the common culture, but in a more holistic domain that includes lived experience: as a schoolboy, Grotjahn was rewarded for achievements with poker chips meant to be 'cashed in" for prizes. The prizes he most often selected were coloring books featuring abstract, mazelike designs, the pages of which the young artist no doubt carefully burnished with a thick impasto of Crayola.

Indeed, Grotjahn's art seems more closely, and purposefully, tied to personal experience and meditative procedures than is common among the generation schooled in analytical practices. In his studio, he keeps an abstract color drawing he produced at age seven. Its highly refined, vaguely Cubo-Primitivist-style composition is impressively similar to the Cubo-Expressionist works Grotjahn produces in parallel to his fully nonfigurative paintings. Many of the Cubo-Expressionist works are exhibited in finished form, but most are completely obscured beneath the opaque surfaces of paintings featuring abstract radiant designs. The perspectival variant of the radiant motif, which is found in the Butterfly Series drawings, is one to which the artist has returned in paintings and drawings since 1997, with the same regularity and commitment with which Paul Cézanne returned to Mont Sainte-Victoire.

For Grotjahn, however, the process appears to be less about transforming the experience of nature into art, than transforming the experience of art through "natural" internalizing processes. As the pragmatist John Dewey might have it, Grotjahn makes art as a sentient "live creature," with art, rather than nature, forming the basis of the common culture. The radiant motif in the Butterfly Series drawings morphs according to internal logic, rather than by virtue of external inspiration or analytical system. Compositionally, the motifs are less tied to the rectangular support than those in previous works, and they occupy the field in greater numbers, arranged, according to the artist, purely intuitively. Aligned at slightly skewed angles and closely adjacent to one another, they achieve a newly vital dynamism, animated with an Op-like flutter.

The drawings Black Flower and Black Water, which are the first of two new series, introduce an abstract motif that appears to be an organic variant of the perspectival motif. The compositions—consisting of densely filled segments radiating from multiple points in iterative, hand-drawn patterns—are divided roughly into halves or quadrants by thin, geometrical lines. These abstractions seem so familiar, and so profoundly part of American traditions, that it is difficult to accept that nothing quite like them has been seen before. Certainly Grotjahn's iteration, the density of the pencil marks in the segments, and the faintly gray division lines recall Stella's early Black Paintings, whose geometrical lines were rendered gray by the paint's bleed. (In fact, Grotjahn renders his lines with the same black pencil used to impasto the segments. The dissimilar appearance results from the lighter touch.) Precedents for dividing compositions into halves or quadrants, and for making hand-drawn patterns, could be easily listed, but the logic of Grotjahn's synthetic compositions remains elusive, suggesting that they are powered primarily by an internal motor.

Grotjahn's freely intuitive and expressive use of abstract idioms previously associated with the denial of subjective attributes, his catholic and uncommonly reverential embrace of abstract styles, and his own earnest, uncritical creativity suggest that the artist ingests the common language of abstraction as one would a tonic elixir: for nourishment and energy. As abstraction sustains the artist, the artist revivifies abstraction, measuring it against the vicissitudes of daily life and the contingencies of professional practice, in ways unexpectedly sincere and mysteriously personal.

Grotjahn's works suggest that, in a sense, art and life can be not just decompartmentalized, but truly melded, a position as radically transgressive today as analytical abstraction was in its time. Thus, if any progenitor may be siphoned out of the boiling pot, it would be Jay DeFeo, the mystically inclined "beat generation" artist who set the bar for running the internal motor at full throttle. Indeed, DeFeo's own radiant motif first appeared in an enormous, close-up drawing of her eyes, as lines streaming down and outward from the pupils. A mandala-like version of the radiant motif constitutes the thick, crusty surface of her legendary painting The Rose, where it obscures the numerous layers of paintings, both abstract and figurative, she laid down over a period of seven years. If, then, in its broad definition, abstraction serves to reveal the unseen, for both DeFeo and Grotjahn, it perversely serves as a material diary of intense meditations whose specific revelations remain as impenetrable as their characteristically opaque surface marks.

Grotjahn, however, does not enter into the same obsessive death dance with art that led DeFeo to an early demise. In fact, the self-imposed rules of procedure that he often employs seem designed to mitigate the potential for slipping into pathological overidentification. The palette of the Butterfly Series drawings, for example, was established by a process both intuitive and externally regulated. In a procedure not unlike systems employed by Sol LeWitt and Alfred Jensen, Grotjahn set aside the required number of color pencils, choosing colors that "hold together" in value and intensity. Turning his eyes away, he selected the pencils blindly, then applied the colors systematically from left to right.

To create his abstract paintings, Grotjahn similarly systematizes application, consistently dragging the brush from edge toward center, working counterclockwise until the Cubo-Expressionist-style painting he has laid down first disappears. Likewise, in the making of Black Flower and Black Water, the artist progressed counterclockwise and from edge to center. The aberrant markings that appear in open parts of his drawings are the result of a different ritual: he works on smaller drawings placed on top of the paper, allowing his hand to stray off their edges. In this way, he adds a diaristic layer of marks, many of which are completely obscured when the larger drawing is complete.

Thus, Grotjahn's art reads as an allegory less of mystified and frightening dependency than of the kind of quotidian negotiations that take place in daily life. If his abstractions are "about" anything, they are about resuscitating a pragmatic concept of holistic experience and modifying that naturalistic idea to meet the needs of a dedicated contemporary art practice in which emotion and contingency interact with larger structures of personality, and philosophical problems interact with real production.

Libby Lumpkin is an art historian and critic living temporarily in Southern California.


Hammer Projects are made possible with support from The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, The Annenberg Foundation, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and members of the Hammer Circle.