The Cleveland Museum of Art is in the process of acquiring Mark Grotjahn’s 2009 Untitled (Red Yellow and Blue Face 821). The painting, which is oil on cardboard mounted on linen, is 95 inches-by-73-inches and is a promised gift from Scott Mueller and Margaret Fulton Mueller. (The museum says that it will be formally accessioned in September.) It is currently installed in Cleveland’s recently opened, Rafael Vinoly-designed contemporary art galleries.
Red Yellow and Blue Face is magnetic and arresting. Like many good Grotjahns, it’s a ‘pop-tune painting’ that lingers in your subconscious like a catchy Lady Gaga backbeat: Those eyes, those straight, colorful lines, those bold primary colors.
With his recent paintings Grotjahn has stepped away from multi-point-perspective-based abstractions in order to mine Les Demoiselles d’Avignon-period Picasso. The painting from that show that hews most closely to Picasso is the painting that Cleveland has acquired, a fitting choice because Cleveland’s collection is particularly strong in Picasso.
Red Yellow and Blue Face — as well as other canvases in Grotjahn’s recent series — are indebted to paintings that Picasso did in the run-up to Les Demoiselles, most notably 1907’s Dance of the Veils (below, from the collection of the Hermitage) and a study related to Dance of the Veils in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
In those paintings Picasso melded his recent interest in African sculpture with Paul Cezanne’s crisp, hatchings-like brushwork and a dedication to flattening pictorial space. Grotjahn explores all of those elements in Red Yellow and Blue Face. The almondine eyes that command a viewer’s attention are plainly inspired by Picasso’s figure in the two paintings I referenced above, but Grotjahn adds a twist: He flattens out the eyes, turning them into a knowing, punny nod at Picasso’s nearly career-long fascination with leaving semiotic nods at female orifices around his paintings. (And those aren’t Grotjahn’s only references to Picasso’s ori-fascination. Just below Grotjahn’s ‘eyes’ is a group of circles.)
In Dance of the Veils, Picasso almost entirely restricts his palette to three famously inharmonious colors, red, yellow and blue. Grotjahn adheres. Picasso’s hatching never crosses. Grotjahn adheres. Picasso’s space is flat, but he hints at depth. Grotjahn adheres.
But Grotjahn strays from Picasso in ways that nod to Grotjahn’s own previous practice too. Grotjahn’s earlier, trademark abstractions are tightly controlled, wound up in their own rigid, comin’-at-you verticals. The 1907 Picassos that Grotjahn used as points of departure for his recent paintings are similarly rigid, and like those early-to-mid 2000s Grotjahns, seemingly as much pinned to the canvas as painted on it. In Cleveland’s new paintings, Grotjahn seems to be forcing himself away from straight-edges and masking tape, to venture away from straight lines of uniform width and toward a little mess. (It’s as if Grotjahn used Jay DeFeo to unlock his less-controlled side.) That could have resulted in a mess. Instead the painting feels like tightly coiled energy, a painterly sun-god from which you don’t want to look away.
Related: MAN’s February, 2009 Q&A with Grotjahn. Christopher Knight’s review of Grotjahn’s most recent exhibition at Los Angeles’ Blum & Poe gallery. Jerry Saltz’s 2006 take on Grotjahn in the Village Voice is a must-read.