Mark Grotjahn’s early copies of retail signage raise questions about the function and purpose of art

By Matt Stromberg

Grotjahn’s “Big Sale” traded signs are among those on view at Blum & Poe in Culver City

Grotjahn’s “Big Sale” traded signs are among those on view at Blum & Poe in Culver City

Painter Mark Grotjahn is one of Los Angeles’ most significant contemporary artists, a leading figure in the cultural renaissance that is setting the city on course to become the nation’s art capital for the 21st century. He fully embodies the label “art star” with both critical and commercial success — Artnet named him No. 2 on its 2014 list of the Ten Most Expensive West Coast Artists — as well as his bad-boy bohemian behavior.

Grotjahn is best known for his “butterfly” paintings: heavily worked, brightly-colored abstract canvases that feature a series of triangular shapes radiating out from one or two central points. These deceptively simple paintings can be read as compendiums of 20th century abstraction — and then some — referencing expressionism, geometric minimalism, Op Art, Renaissance perspective and the spiritual as depicted by predecessors like Kandinsky.

Long before Grotjahn made his name with these elegant yet idiosyncratic abstractions, however, he created a body of work that paired the straightforward utility of commercial sign painting with a conceptual art framework. Almost 20 years after his first exhibition with the gallery, Blum & Poe presents a selection of works from his early “Sign Exchange” project. Writing about an exhibition of these works earlier this year at Karma in New York, art critic Jerry Saltz noted that the show “pictures a young painter coming of age as an artist by not making paintings, per se.”

When he entered the MFA program at UC Berkeley in the early ‘90s, Grotjahn was an expressionistic painter in the mold of German Neo-Expressionist Georg Baselitz or graffiti-artist-turned-international-art-star Basquiat. He quickly abandoned both figurative and abstract paintings, saying he found them “too coded, too much talking.”

Looking for a way to make work that communicated more effectively, Grotjahn was attracted to the hand-painted signs hanging in the windows of the shops around his San Francisco studio — ones advertising things such as hot dogs, beer, milk or detergent.

Some were completely done by hand. Others were mass-produced, with a space for store owners to customize them by writing in their own prices or sale items. Sometimes products were represented by simplified, cartoonish drawings; other times, photographic reproductions were used. The one thing they all had in common was the clarity of their message.

Grotjahn began to make drawings of the signs, then moved on to copying them whole, painting his own versions. What he did with them next took them beyond a simple update to the commercial infatuation of ‘60s Pop Art into the realm of conceptual undertaking.

“I knew somehow that the originals were better than mine and I figured that the reason that theirs were better was that they had the audience,” Grotjahn remarks in a statement about the exhibition. “They knew who their audience was and they knew what they wanted to say. Their signs were functioning. I figured in order to get my sign to be as good as their signs I needed to get my sign in their store.”

So he did just that.

In a series of barely documented performances, Grotjahn brought his copies into stores and asked the often-perplexed shopkeepers to accept them in exchange for the originals. (He reported a 90% success rate with the trades.) It was these paintings by anonymous artists that he would later exhibit, not his versions, which still hung in the stores.

“It’s an interesting note to consider in the context of the artist’s current position among the higher reaches of blue-chip marketability,” wrote D. Creahan for Art Observed, “that a number of his early works … are now hanging in Chinese restaurants, on backyard fences, or in the windows of convenience stores.”

With this clever post-Duchampian act, exhibiting these found (or traded) works as his own, Grotjahn raised a number of questions regarding originality, skill and worth that are still being hotly debated in the art world. What makes a painting “good”? What makes one valuable? Which is “better,” the paintings made by a “fine artist,” or the previously unremarkable paintings that he copied from, now hanging on the gallery wall? And the biggest of them all: What is the function of art?

In the ensuing two decades since producing this series, Grotjahn has developed from unknown art student to a wildly successful artist, creating paintings that, on the surface, seem quite removed from his sign exchange project.

On the contrary, however, this early work can be viewed as the beginning of a process that would mark Grotjahn’s return to painting.

“Grotjahn’s way back to painting,” concluded Saltz, “began in a conceptual discourse on the function of painting itself, how it communicates, where, to whom, and possible processes open to it.”

His transformation only deepens the significance of these early works, providing a glimpse at a rarely seen, but important period in this enigmatic artist’s oeuvre.

“Mark Grotjahn: Sign Exchange 1993-98” is on view through Nov. 5 at Blum & Poe, 2727 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City. Call (310) 836-2062 or visit for gallery hours and more information.