Mark Grotjahn combines gesture and geometry with abstraction and figuration in visually dynamic paintings, sculptures, and works on paper. Each of his series reflects a range of art-historical influences and unfolds in almost obsessive permutations.
Sam Orlofsky is a director at Gagosian, where he works closely with artists including Dan Colen, Roe Ethridge, Mark Grotjahn, Jennifer Guidi, Alex Israel, Titus Kaphar, Shio Kusaka, Mary Weatherford, and Jonas Wood, and curates exhibitions, such as For What You Are About to Receive (2008), Ancestral Figure (2012), and Laws of Motion (2018–19). He joined Gagosian in 2001.
Sam Orlofsky I’m finding a lot of people are starting in the same place with this exhibition. The work is exciting in that it is familiar, and yet people are immediately a bit off balance in terms of knowing which previous bodies of work of yours to connect it to.
I think these Capri works are, perhaps, closer to the Face paintings than to the Butterfly series. Could you talk about how they are created technically? How is the process the same as in the previous two main bodies of work, and what is different?
Mark Grotjahn Importantly, in regard to the Free Capri works, there’s a light. They begin with cardboard that is first coated and secured. Then an oil base is rubbed on. In the case of Untitled (Free Capri 50.43), you can see on the side that the base is red. It comes through from the scraping.
SO Was that scraping technique utilized in both the Butterfly and the Face series?
MG No, as soon as the Butterflies actually get going, they start with a color base straight on linen.
SO So right off the bat, there’s one distinction.
MG Yes. And almost all of the Faces are on cardboard. In this room of Free Capris, in general, most of the vertical marks are coming last in terms of my scraping process with the palette knife. And in scraping and working with the palette knife on these as a series, I acquire the “slugs” which then get affixed atop.
It’s interesting that we’re starting with this room, because the three or four white paintings in here are the source for the “slugs” for the other paintings.
SO They were “slug” farms.
MG Yes, they were “slug” farms where we did a “slug” harvest [laughter]. That harvesting gave the work Untitled (Free Capri 50.43) a nice palette. It also tells a story of leftovers and of recycling in the same way that my sculptures recycled from boxes do. The way the “slugs” originally start is the recycling of paint from bad paintings that I have made.
So basically, the process is some verticals to get in some action, then horizontals. And then it gets to a point where it feels right enough, but it’s not completed. And then I splatter it and that takes it to the next level. And then I get to put down the “slugs.” And putting down the “slugs” is when it’s the closing of the painting. That is, in some ways, the most satisfying. And that is somewhat similar to the way that the Butterflies work. I can’t tell you that making these is always a wonderful experience. It often isn’t. The Butterflies were always kind of wonderful. I chose a place to start and I slowly brought it in, closing it down with the last few triangles, then the middle line, then the side lines, and then it was done.
SO It sounds like steps one, two, and three are essentially identical to the Faces, which are the paintings that most immediately preceded these: there is a base color on cardboard, which is mounted, and then paint starts to get applied and manipulated using a palette knife on the surface.
SO Interestingly, the oldest body of work, the Butterflies, skips to the end: that is the series that you feel is most echoed in the final step of the Free Capris, which is the application of the “slugs”—a minimal action, a repetitive process, something that you feel resolves and closes them.
SO It seems that the technical process involved was not in service of a predetermined image in your head; it was you experimenting with a different scale of gesture, a different scale of composition. I’ve been impressed by the sense that you didn’t know how these would end up, by the sense of risk. Could you talk a bit about how the psychological and the technical meet, in terms of that feeling of operating without a net and not knowing where you are with the paintings?
MG These all started when I had the chance to show at Casa Malaparte [in Capri]. I’d been wanting to stop making the Faces but wasn’t certain what would come next. With Malaparte, it was a cool enough place to show the work, and maybe because it was quiet and to be sparsely attended it felt like the right time. I wanted to work small and I wanted to say goodbye to the Faces, and this was a chance that was worth it. There was something concrete. There was a goal. There was a place that I could do it. And I could go for it. That said, it was super painful and really fucking uncomfortable.
With the first of the Capri paintings [the New Capris], they were hit and miss. I made a lot of bad ones, which is why I started scraping them. It was hard to work small. Not only did I not know how to make these new paintings, but I didn’t know where they were going. I didn’t know what they were supposed to be. Working on them, there’d be an eye or some form, you know, and I was desperately trying to find a motif. And then, at the same time, I had to say, you know, “You don’t. You don’t need to find a motif. Maybe these are things that don’t have a motif. Maybe they’re all different. Maybe you just have to go through a whole thing and just see what you have.” But the idea of making a bunch of things and seeing what I have, that’s not comfortable for me. I do not like the pain of that. I prefer to come into work and know what I have to do.
But the last thing I wanted to do was go back and do the Faces. Now it’s almost two and a half years later, and that feels like, “Wow. You took two and a half years and you got a new body of work. One hundred percent worthwhile.”
So the works in the small room [in New Capri, Capri, Free Capri] are the New Capris, which are always on a piece of cardboard framed under glass. They stopped being New Capris at some point—it was no longer new, and so I drew an arbitrary line in time and then they become the Capris. And then I slowly start bumping it up in scale, resulting in the Free Capris, eventually. I wanted to get bigger and I was able to achieve that more quickly than I thought possible. With the Free Capris, I started to realize where I was and where I was going to go. I finally reached a point where I felt like I could make the paintings I wanted to make.
SO Would you say there is more reductive scraping and subtraction in this body of work than in the previous two?
MG Yes, with the Butterfly paintings, there was no return—they were so precise. I remember seeing a video of Philip Guston painting, and he makes a really nice painting and he goes, “Ah, it’s too perfect.” And he goes back to working on it—you’re like, “Wait, could I have that one as is?”
SO “But I liked it!” [laughter]
MG Exactly. But, you know, he knew it looked too perfect—put on or faked. I encountered that with these Capris. I would do some scraping, and then that looked bad, and then I did some corrective surgery, and then I got to splatter it, which has always been weird for me, to use the language of Jackson Pollock, which is so loaded at this point, self-indulgent. And it’s just like—can you do that and still be, I don’t know—
SO But it’s funny, because to me the work succeeds at being a very honest or accurate representation of the struggle and of the uncertainty. The Butterfly works were more predetermined or premeditated, and these are more of an X-ray, a reflection of the uncertainty and the challenge that you went through. You really did take more of a leap into the unknown than you had in a long, long time.
MG Yes. The Capris, which precede the Free Capris, are colorful and you can see these eye-like shapes, you know? In those, I am still trying to find out what these will be. You can see the scrapings down below and they kind of get camouflaged. I found myself wondering, “Is this what my paintings look like?” It’s not where I ended up going with the Free Capris, but looking at them, there’s a lot to be learned. And when I think about these, and then that final step of deciding to be free, making the Free Capris, I realize that having a full rein and just being taken in and losing yourself is nice.
SO Did the leap relate to things that were going on in your career? Or how you felt like things were going, in terms of the public response or the critical response to the work?
MG No, I just knew that, for me, I wanted the risk—in the same way that if you’re going to fall on your face, you should do it in New York. That’s where it feels like you’ve got the most to lose, and I like the challenge of that. And in general, I’ve always felt like I am an abstract painter more than a figurative painter. It’s what I’m primarily drawn to. For me, personally, these and the Butterflies really feel like me.
SO Something I realized recently, and I want to see if you agree, is that you always manage to be making work at a given moment that isn’t what the predominant successful trend is. For example, the Butterflies, you’re making things that are basically monochrome abstractions in the early 2000s, at a moment when the two dominant themes are photo-based figurative painting, like Luc Tuymans and Elizabeth Peyton, and high-production Pop artists, like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. And you end up making these paintings which are totally your own.
so Then there was a shift in art-world interest toward what people started calling Zombie Formalism, influenced by people like Christopher Wool and Rudolf Stingel making super-elegant minimal abstractions.
MG And at that same time I went hyper-maximal. You’re right.
So And now, again, at a moment where we seem to see the influence of David Hockney and other figurative painters, you’ve gone back to making totally abstract paintings. Knowing how much you like to collect and look at art, I’m wondering if these changes are related to an impulse to make the art you want to look at.
MG Yes, that’s true. It does come down to what I want to see on a wall. I get a lot of pleasure when things are done and I get to look at it. But to be honest, I’m not in tune with what is going on right now. I just haven’t been . . . and not as a conscious decision. I would like to know what’s going on with people under forty. With these Capris, I just knew that I wanted to see abstract paintings again. That, I knew.
Artwork © Mark Grotjahn; New Capri, Capri, Free Capri, Gagosian, 555 West 24th Street, New York, October 30–December 22, 2018