Radical Perspectives: Grotjahn’s Singular Focus

Mark Grotjahn’s large abstract drawings are so meticulously crafted and striking in effect that, looking at them, I wonder why they don’t excite me more. The pieces are all handsome and, in their own way, masterful. I feel a twinge of guilt for not loving them.

That’s not to say Mr. Grotjahn, a young artist based in Los Angeles, doesn’t merit attention or respect. His eight drawings on display in the lobby gallery of the Whitney Museum of American Art show an unwavering commitment to a rather narrow brand of abstraction. An unremitting focus is brought to bear in constructing these images. Seen alongside one another, they disclose unexpected subtlety and individuality. Within severe, self-imposed restrictions, Mr. Grotjahn teases out variety. That’s no mean feat.

Mr. Grotjahn’s first solo exhibition in New York was at the Anton Kern Gallery in 2003, but his art has been more widely seen here in dribs and drabs. A couple of his canvases got lost in the funhouse free-for-all of last spring’s Whitney Biennial, but his work stood out in a recent show of new acquisitions at MoMA and in The Painted World, a mishmash of contemporary painting at P.S. 1. The Whitney offers a sustained opportunity to get acquainted with the artist.

Perspective is Mr. Grotjahn’s leitmotif. Long a staple of Western art and, in particular, the Renaissance, perspective is a means of creating an illusion of deep and coherent spatial structure. Mr. Grotjahn isn’t out to upset the logic of perspective; he wants to radically exaggerate it. The drawings expose the artificiality of perspective by amplifying its ability to manipulate the eye. Masaccio, the 15th-century Florentine painter who is sometimes credited with “inventing” perspective, might have appreciated Mr. Grotjahn’s singular and dogged preoccupation.

A typical Grotjahn drawing is scaled roughly to the human form and bisected vertically, sometimes by a stripe, sometimes by empty space on the page. Within the framework created by that division, two sets of stripes narrow into the center from the edges of the paper. Mr. Grotjahn employs multiple vanishing points—spots where the patterning converges and “disappears.”

The compositions set up expectations of symmetry, but they’re actually skewed and off-kilter. The images expand and shift; they don’t explode or, for that matter, implode—Mr. Grotjahn is too much the sobersides to yield to such drama. The drawings zoom with a stately force. This is perspective as black hole—bottomless if not altogether unknowable.

Mr. Grotjahn’s “butterfly” compositions are in-your-face and immediate. Early in his career, he mimicked the conventions of sign painting; the all-at-once legibility typical of that trade continues to inform his art. Its visual punch accounts for much of the work’s appeal.

Yet the sensitivity he brings to his chosen medium—colored pencils—helps him to avoid the overtly graphic. Dense and velvety areas of color, even the occasional scuff and scrape, reveal an artist for whom process, surface and handiwork are prime motivators. A couple of the pieces have what look to be burn marks. In the accompanying brochure, we learn that some of the drawings were accidentally exposed to heat, causing the pigments to melt. Mr. Grotjahn embraces the “insertion of natural phenomenon,” particularly if it brings about new and different patinas. You can never have too many weapons in your arsenal.

On the Web site for Charles Saatchi’s London gallery—Mr. Grotjahn is a current fave of that influential, if fickle, art-world mover-and-shaker—the artist is praised for fusing “techno-graphics with a timeless spirituality.” Comparisons to El Greco ensue.

The Whitney, to its credit, avoids pseudo-religious blabber and focuses on the artist as a formalist. Mr. Grotjahn shares his fascination with the malleability of space with figures as diverse as John McLaughlin, Brice Marden and Rackstraw Downes; pictorial mechanics, not prayers, are his forte. To pretend otherwise is to take a fanciful step away from what the pictures do.

But despite the spatial tug of war that goes on within them, the drawings offer no welcoming (or seductive) points of entry. They’re red lights for the eye, more resistant to the ebb and flow of space than we initially assume.

Mr. Grotjahn is too picky and deliberate—too craftsy, really—to go all out. A restraint that’s perhaps left over from his early “conceptual practices” waylays any measure of risk, and a nagging lack of core distances us. The work’s be-all and end-all turns out to be a consummate superficiality. The drawings are unfailingly attractive but less than necessary.

An artist incapable of making a bad picture is an artist in danger of complacency. Mr. Grotjahn’s drawings are too fetching and consistent for their own good. There are worse things to say about an artist, but there are better things we should expect from art.

Mark Grotjahn is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, until Jan. 7, 2007.