Standing Out to Join In

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Jasper Johns, “Between the Clock and the Bed” (1982-83), encaustic on canvas. Courtesy Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York

There’s a sweetly prophetic story about Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in Calvin Tomkins’ iconic art-crowd chronicle, Off The Wall. The story, which makes the gap between innovation and belonging look extremely narrow, goes like this: it was the summer of ’55 and Johns and Rauschenberg lived symbiotically, popping in on each other at least daily and swapping ideas with so much success that they even tried making one another’s work. By this point, Johns had begun his flags—a new direction that “came to him in a dream”—and Rauschenberg found Johns’ encaustic process seductive. “It smelled so delicious, and it looked so good,” said Rauschenberg, quoted by Tomkins, “all those aromatic bubbling waxes.” After some begging, Johns let Rauschenberg add a stripe to a flag, but Rauschenberg, too infatuated by wax to pay attention to composition, dragged a heavy red stripe right across an already-painted white one. He never touched Johns’ work again.

Around the same time,  Johns tried his hand at making some Rauschenberg work. “I thought I understood,” said Johns. “But mine weren’t convincing at all.” A few years later, and the two artists barely spoke to each other.

This hexed collaboration gets at something predictably true about art-making in general—it’s not vision that pulls most into the business of making, at least not at first. It’s wanting to be part of a vision you’ve observed from the outside. But entering someone else’s vision, it turns out, can be excruciatingly difficult, maybe even impossible. Sometimes, it’s easier to find a vision of your own.

Mark Grotjahn, "Untitled (Face for Greece 843)," 2009, Oil on cardboard mounted on linen. Courtesy Blum & Poe Gallery.

Mark Grotjahn’s current exhibition at Blum & Poe intermittently innovates and belongs.  Called Seven Faces, it’s full of lanky yet dense almost-abstractions, paintings with as much primitive gusto as de Kooning’s Woman and as much flat, psychedelic guile as Fred Tomaselli’s Geode. Surprisingly economical—oil has been applied on top of cardboard which has been stapled to stretched linen, and the paintings’ cavities and protrusions come from cut and stacked cardboard rather than lathered paint—each work consists of scraggly calculated stripes that all radiate from an imaginary focal point or boundary line. Tucked in among these stripes, eyes, the flat, symbolic kind that don’t claim to be windows into anything, glare into the space right in front of them. Sometimes, toothy monster mouths break through the stripes, as well.

Mark Grotjahn Untitled (Black Over Red Orange "Mean as a Snake" Face 842), 2009, Oil on cardboard mounted on linen. Courtesy Blum & Poe Gallery.

Grotjahn’s work announces itself as smart. Whether his sleek, perspectival hipster abstractions, or these rougher, stranger faces, a Grotjahn painting exudes self-knowledge. It knows that it fits into a legacy, and embraces every nuance of that legacy from Picasso, whose distorted figures had similar, overly-wide petal-shaped eyes, to Johns, who was pioneered painterly but cooly controlled line-making; it knows that it’s derivative, but it also knows that it isn’t redundant and that it doesn’t seamlessly fit into any pre-existing category. This sort of uber-awareness doesn’t feel contrived, however; it feels like a personality trait.

I would recognize Grotjahn’s work anywhere because of its quirks. Obsession with perspective and symmetry may not be original but it has never quite looked the way Grotjahn makes it look–combining slightly cagey precision with paradoxically liberal painterliness. I like to think of Grotjahn as a big fan who found a signature not because he had something cataclysmic to say but because, like many artists before him, he wanted to talk about how perspective skews perception and how paint adheres to surface. To have a conversation, you need a voice. But you don’t always need an aggressive, groundbreaking clarion call.