Behind the maskAn interview with
Mark Grotjahn

photography by Beau Grealy
interview by Bill Powers


Mark’s studio, Los Angeles

We went to visit Mark Grotjahn’s new studio in Frogtown this September on the eve of his inclusion in “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

BP Do you know what you will show in the new paintings exhibition at MoMA this December?
MG Yes, three Circus paintings.
BP How do you define them as such?

MG They’re faces, but I wanted to categorize them as one series of work. I called them Circus paintings after the Seurat painting of the woman on a horse in a corral. I had that image printed out in my studio and it seemed like my paintings had a circular movement that related to that circus.

BP I had imagined your stripes of color as slack tightropes or trapeze lines. MG No, it’s not literally a circus. I wanted these paintings to be as patterned and as colorful as I could make them, to allow myself maximum freedom, to be as indulgent as possible.

BP The line down the middle almost feels like it was feathered.
MG It’s all painted with a palette knife. For the Circuses, I start with a feathered central line. I put three eyes on the right (two of which overlap), three eyes on the left, and a central eye at the top. Then a nose and two mouths.
BP Is your central eye a reference to the mind’s eye?
MG I’m aware it has that kind of connotation — of an evil eye or a third eye — but that’s not why it exists. It’s there to break up the space. I find it aesthetically pleasing. With my Lotus paintings or to a lesser degree the Turkish paintings, I set up a system so I have a composition or a motif which then allows me to just explore the painting.
BP Is there one show or turning point in your career which really catapulted you?
MG Okay, so we’re talking about my career, which is different than my painting. Probably my 2002 show of the white and black butterfly paintings which was at Blum & Poe in Santa Monica. But it was my first solo show in New York with Anton Kern that really changed things. New York has a power structure that L.A. doesn’t.

BP And in tangible terms, what did that look like… that change?
MG We sold the shit out of it. And sold the paintings for more money than we had at Blum & Poe. And then Laura Hoptman asked me to do The Carnegie [International].



 Mark Grotjahn by Beau Grealy

BP In regard to your own art collection, I understand that you own a few Mike Kelley pieces?
MG I love Mike Kelley. He’s one of the reasons I moved to L.A. After I graduated from Berkeley it was either move to New York or Los Angeles. So I went to New York just to check it out and I loved it, but then I came to L.A. and felt that I could be a better artist here. Space was cheaper so I didn’t have to work like such a dog. And at the time, the “Helter Skelter” show was huge for me. Mike Kelley was my favorite artist. And Jason Rhoades showed us there was another generation making good art.

BP Did you guys wind up becoming friends?
MG Kelley, a little bit. The first time I saw him at a party, Annie Philbin grabbed me by the arm and said I want you to meet and I just shook her off. It was enough to see Mike Kelley and hear his voice. That was enough of an introduction. And then later, yeah, I would email sometimes for advice on certain things.

BP And do you remember any advice that he gave you making a difference?
MG He told me not to sue this person, which I ended up doing anyway, but it was good advice on his part. Another memory I have is talking to Mike Kelley and Pamela Anderson together at this house party. She was wearing a trench coat miniskirt and kept lifting it up so you could see her underwear. It was me, Mike Kelley and Pamela Anderson at the Chemosphere looking out over L.A. and I was high off my tits.

BP What is the Chemosphere again?
MG It’s Benedikt Taschen’s house on Mulholland that looks like a flying saucer.

BP So which Mike Kelley works do you own?
MG The first one I got I traded with Larry [Gagosian]. It’s a three-part drawing called “One-Eyed Tent Boat” from 1981. That was huge for me that I could trade my own work for a Mike Kelley… maybe this happened in 2007 and since then I’ve got two garbage drawings, a stuffed animal, and a light box.

BP Interesting that we were talking about your Circus paintings ear- lier which have this central eye as a prominent feature and how that echoes in Kelley’s one-eyed tent.
MG When you first declare yourself an avant-garde artist, you know, like in your teens or when you get to art school, Picasso is sort of the first stop. You draw a face with multiple eyes at a weird angle and that’s your avant-garde statement. But to do that as an adult — knowing the cliché that it can be — to take that language and try making good work is something I find challenging and worth pursuing.

BP And both of you used garbage as source material. In your case, I’m thinking of the mask sculptures made from cardboard boxes. Does that feel like a shared language?
MG Yeah, or maybe when I used the socks as dicks or the toilet paper rolls as dicks in the masks.

BP Speaking of the masks, when they have really long noses do you think of them as having a connection to Pinocchio?
MG Yeah, I’m thinking about everyone when I make those pieces including Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley’s banana man, all those things. But I’m painting them like Twombly and Monet.

BP So the mask sculptures are never made with a subject in mind?
MG No, they’re not. They’re constructed in a way that feels like third grade art class.

BP Have you heard of these new David Hammons’ pieces where he takes African masks from street vendors in New York and then paints them orange? Apparently he calls them “Orange is the New Black.”
MG That’s funny. But Hammons has done some other sculptures with masks before. And I think Jimmie Durham in the early to mid 1980s. He would make them with turquoise and sell them for $5 a pop which was a losing proposition financially, real “Indian art.” I always liked that.

BP May I ask what other artwork you live with?
MG Sure, I have a small Jackson Pollock drawing which I love. If I could own a large Jackson Pollock drip painting and a Jeff Koons’ vacuum cleaner maybe I could stop collecting. Anyway, I own a Julian Schnabel, some Sergej Jensen and a couple of Lothar Hempels.

BP Which Julian Schnabel painting?
MG It’s a 1989 tarpaulin painted purple that reads “Ten thousand apologies Vision deMerde.” It makes me happy to be alive when I see it.

BP So when Cy Twombly was installing his Bacchus paintings at Gagosian in New York, if the painting didn’t look done to him he’d have an assistant add a little peach to it. My question for you is what fix do you go to when you’re struggling with a painting?
MG Yeah, you put white on it. I don’t know why I rely on that when I’m lost, but it seems to make the situation better. Maybe it cleans things up. I can understand why Ryman would do what he did or does.

BP I was talking to Jonas Wood yesterday who I know you’ve played a lot of poker with over the years. So who in your estimation is the best poker player in the art world?
MG Well, I want to say that I am, but I’m not playing poker these days. I used to take poker very seriously and Jonas could be my closest competition so let’s go with “definitely not Jonas Wood.”

BP What is your relationship with Jonas?
MG He’s my good friend and I live with some of his work.

BP Do you own the painting he made of your two kids with a butterfly painting over the couch?
MG Yeah, from when the girls were two or three years old. There’s also a drawing of his that I own which is a self-portrait of Jonas wearing sunglasses holding up $1,200 of my money which he’d won off me playing poker.

BP I guess you could call that a “fuck you” painting?
MG And then of course I had to buy it which was another $2,000.

BP Is it true that you have a thing for redheads?
MG I had pictures of topless redheads on the wall in my other studio which I used for inspiration. I had one that was like a tough girl so I would go to her at the beginning of the day because it made me feel like a bad-ass and then at the end of the day after I’d been beaten up by the paintings and the psychology of it all, I had another redhead who was more motherly and I would go to her for comfort.

BP Did you used to be a redhead when you were younger?
MG No, I was blond, but I have the complexion of a redhead so maybe the whole thing was at attempt at self-love in a way.

BP Sounds almost like a Mick and Bianca Jagger situation where people say he found his female doppelgänger in her.
MG Except he got a real person. I only had the pictures.

BP And does your affinity register in the work? Is that what the red/ orange butterfly paintings were about?
MG My interest in redheads is much newer than that. You know, my gardener killed a rattlesnake at my house. He chopped off its head and I cast it in bronze like thirty or forty times. My idea was to have girls pee on them to change the patina.

BP Almost how Warhol hired male hustlers to make his piss paintings?
MG But so far I only found blondes willing to do it. I thought I’d charge more for the ones peed on by redheads.