The interview with Mark Grotjahn takes place in a suite of Claridges Hotel in London, where he has recently opened an exhibition of his masks at the Gagosian Gallery called “Pink Cosco”. The original masks are made from scraps of corrugated paper or cardboard salvaged from shipments of art supplies, beer boxes or gifts sent by friends. The heads he makes are transformed cardboard boxes, transmuted into bronze heads. He paints the cardboard masks and the bronzes that follow them in a way that is freer than his usual studio work. The masks have allowed him to become an expressionistic painter again.
Mark Grotjahn is a tall man, dressed with blue jeans and a madras shirt. He has salt and pepper short cut hair and a pair of dark-framed Persol glasses. He is sitting on a couch. Sometimes during the conversation he will lie on the same couch. He is wearing thick cotton socks and after we shake hands and start talking he says to me: “You are wearing New Balance shoes,” and adds, “I have the same ones, and they are the most elegant, beautiful and comfortable.” Then he moves to another room and comes back with two pairs of New Balance shoes, one black, identical to the ones I am wearing, and the other red. He asks, “Isn’t this red an extraordinary shade of red?” I smile, and then we start talking about art.
Do you think that in your work there are different periods, like for instance what happened to major artists like Picasso?
I do have periods, but in my mind I can go back and re-investigate them. People know me for two different periods, my butterflies and my faces.
What about the masks?
I like painting them, it gives me a different freedom. It allows me licences that I normally do not have in my paintings. I started making masks to wind down after a day of painting. Making the masks was like an athlete stretching before or after exercise. I was trying to let go of the intensity that was involved in the other kind of art making, but I did really like these. In my mind though I thought of them as an exercise, as something very personal and not for public consumption.
Do you consider them to be like sculptures?
Yes, they are not masks. They are called masks, but they are not. Here in London, half of them are yellow and half pink.
For a private event of one night and two days you showed some new works in the house of Curzio Malaparte in Capri, the house that was built between 1938 and 1941, an incredible project result of the creativity of the writer himself that stands on a cliff 32 metres above the sea?
Yes, it is a red box with reverse pyramidal stairs leading to the roof patio. On the roof there is also a freestanding curving white wall. I have loved that house since a long time. It’s my favourite house in the world, even if I never saw it or went to Capri before, but I so loved the pictures and images of it.
How did you know this house?
I knew it for the first time when I saw the Jean-Luc Godard film ‘Contempt’ (Le Mépris), shot in 1963, that featured this house. Brigitte Bardot was the protagonist of the film.
But how did all this happen?
Larry Gagosian called me and asked if I wanted to do this very special show at Villa Malaparte. I answered that I needed two days to think about it, and then I said, “I will give you a minimum of seven drawings.” But then, on second thoughts, thinking of this exceptional space, I suddenly wanted to show paintings, smaller size paintings than I usually do. I must say that it takes a lot of submission to do a small painting when before I have always been thinking large.
So ultimately you said yes.
Yes, I found it cool enough. I wanted to see my paintings there.Sometimes I was doing a painting a day.
How many paintings did you do?
Around sixteen to eighteen paintings in two months.
Does the fact that you answered yes to Larry Gagosian mean that you like challenges?
I took this on, one of the few times I took on a show with time constraints. I did the paintings in 2 -3 months. The seven drawings were my security in case the paintings failed.
That series of work is called New Capri?
Does the New Capri series looks like a smaller version of your series, faces?
Yes, in a way.
Is there a nuance between your work and the Malaparte house?
To me the house is very interesting, because it’s rigid, handmade and severe. Just look at the location.
Could you stay there and work there?
Not by myself.
What kind of a painter are you?
An abstract painter. I want to be non representational. I would like to be more and more abstract. I want to feel meaningful, but I don’t want any more to represent a face, a body.
Could you be a classical artist, painting landscapes or portraits?
I left this to my wife. I do not have the skill, nor the classical training for that.
How long have you lived in LA?
I have lived there since 1997. I am an American.
You started your career by opening a gallery in Hollywood with a friend?
Yes, I was already an artist at the time, but we opened a gallery with five solo shows. The work of the gallery in itself was a show. At that time very few galleries in LA used to show a young artist’s solo exhibition, the main street was in New York.
In terms of art, do you think Los Angeles has changed since you started working?
Yes, there are now enough galleries with good artists.
Didn’t you like New York?
Yes, I did, and I like the snow, but there is too much going on in New York. In Los Angeles I didn’t have to work too much, and didn’t have to do too much social life. What I loved in New York at that time was that there was a great mixture of artists: writers, musicians, architects… artists were living and gathering together.
How do you live when you are in LA?
I live in my studio.
Do you think there are many good artists nowadays?
There are lots of good artists, but I don’t know who the young artists are any more. When I was young myself I knew who the good artists were.
Do you still have many friends among them?
Yes, I do.
What kind of schedule do you have in your work?
I am a nine-to-fiver, working six days a week.
You take one day off?
Yes, it is a family day.
Are you married?
Yes, and I have two girls.
Can we say that when you had your exhibition in Tokyo in 2010 and your work was entitled Captain America that you somehow referred to Jasper Johns’s flags?
If you are good at languages there are a lot of tools you want to use. Picasso had multi-eyes in multiple perspectives. When I make a work I see other artists come out, I recognise it, never hide it. They developed languages, and if I want them I try to use them.
Has the fact that you became so famous changed your work and your life?
It certainly has changed my life. Today I am a rich man and I must say that I prefer it, because I bought a house and a studio. But I must also say that my own criticality with my work has not changed. I am still very tough with myself.
Do you follow your work and the people buying it?
I do, and there was a time when it bothered me very much to see my work at auction. I took it very personally.
Do you prefer your work to be in private homes or museums?
It’s nice to have work in museums, because in museums you are seen by many people.
Is there an artist you particularly admire?
I admire Mike Kelley’s work very much.
Can we say that your work has been inspired by Kandinsky, Klee and the Bauhaus?
Yes, somehow, yes.
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All images © the artist and/or photographer.