Mark Grotahn at Whitney Museum of American Art
By: Donald Kuspit
Rendered in colored pencil, Mark Grotjahn’s large drawings approximate human scale—meeting the viewer eye-to-eye, as it were—and feature skewed versions of the perspectival triangle. As in traditional perspective, the shapes’ orthogonals meet at a vanishing point, but in Grotjahn’s work they don’t converge neatly; they’re irrationally “off.” In each image, two triangles have vanishing points that meet their vertical horizons at different places. They look like they’re trying to connect across the divide—which is sometimes large, sometimes narrow—but they don’t, and the effect is one of frustrating irreconcilability. Less noticeable at first glance, the divisions between the angles are not as mathematically regular as they should be. Tilt your head to look at the triangles from the side, and you realize that they aren’t uniformly spaced.
Grotjahn’s triangles are, then, curious things—all the more so because they’re also pyramids, oscillating optically between two and three dimensions such that their vanishing points seem to be climbing toward the same remote apex in the viewer’s perceptual space, as though they want to unite in the great beyond of an all-seeing eye. As pyramids, Grotjahn’s dual-perspective constructions—perhaps nowhere does the artist more clearly elucidate ironical twinship than in Untitled (Multi-Red 4 Wings White Background) (all works 2006)—project to infinity, while as triangles they have clear edges and limits. The background of white paper can be read as cosmic space, the triangles as peculiarly earthbound: In both cases they are at odds. Indeed, each is the mirror image of the other, suggesting that they are merged in principle. In this way, they have an odd affinity with Franz Marc’s Fighting Forms, 1914, although Marc’s violently contrasting forms are gestural and Grotjahn’s geometrical (albeit unconventionally so).
That said, there are touches of gesture—traces of process—in Grotjahn’s drawings, indicating that they are handmade, however computer-generated they may initially appear. Grotjahn calls them “butterflies,” but their wings are not aligned, making for an asymmetrical effect that runs counter to natural harmony. Is the artist, then, a kind of perverse morphologist, suggesting what biologist and mathematician D’Arcy Thompson demonstrated—the immanence of mathematical form in nature—but in mimetic terms? There’s an air of absurdity to Grotjahn’s drawings, signaling the obliqueness of the relationship between art and nature.
Yet his drawings are not exactly pure. Their strong color hints at passion and their “deviation” evokes Lucretius’s Venus, from his poem “The Passion of Love,” whose “swerve” sets matter in motion, giving it vitality. In Grotjahn that vibrant matter is color, but his drawings seem even more intense—and suggestive of suppressed desire—when they are resolutely black, as in Untitled (Solid Black Butterfly Partial Bake). Colorful or not, they convey a sense of vertigo, like abstract dervishes. They seem to move through space, wobbling but never quite losing their balance. Grotjahn thus takes us back to the mysticism of pioneering abstractionists by a new and different route. His drawings cast a spell, reminding us that abstraction was once not only enigmatic but, literally, entrancing.