history. Inasmuch as the artist approaches painting from at least two points of entry, the illustrational and the conceptual, his works encompass modes of artistic thinking traditionally considered to be the antithesis of each other.
In this regard, the work of Jasper Johns is an important precedent to Tansey's. Johns's abstract renditions of flags and other familiar symbols, emerging from the tyranny of nonobjectivity imposed by Abstract Expressionism and formalist critics during the late 1940s and 1950s, asserted that the distinction between figuration and conceptually rich abstraction might, in fact, be an empty one. Despite the tightly representational quality of Mark Tansey's work, he similarly questions the nature of representation, but he also refracts these questions into an array of corollaries that at times go so far as to critically undermine the same traditions of art history and criticism that have maintained the international importance of his work since the early 1980s.
Forward Retreat, for example, metaphorically refers to the concept of an artistic avant-garde by reminding us of the military origin of the French term. Here French soldiers and one polo player scouting a battlefront are merely the shimmer of a reflection in a stagnant pool, the shore of which is littered with frames and vases -- objects that stand for the detritus of art history. Presumably the avant-garde soldiers, who appear in the painting upside-down, pursue the most forward artistic thinking. However, even when imagined right-side up, these vanguardists sit backwards while their horses furiously gallop; toward where or for what, of course, is uncertain.
The artist approaches painting from at least two points of entry, the illustrational and the conceptual. . . .
Tansey's paintings are the results of a calculated system of opposition, reversal, and contradiction. This is evident not only in the content of his finished works, but also in the process by which he creates them. The artist's studio provides a key to understanding his art. In one area he keeps his library of books and files of art-historical images and popular illustrations. Here published sources range from popular journals of the 1940s and 1950s to manifestos by post-structuralist writers Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Jacques Lacan, and Roland Barthes, all of whom have played an important role in defining the character of continental philosophical discourse and literary criticism since the 1960s. Also present are art-historical tomes such as Helen Gardner's Art Through the Ages, revised many times in part by his father, art historian Richard G. Tansey.
The artist begins his work with a thumbnail sketch of a composition expressing an idea. He then elaborates by juxtaposing images and figures culled from his collection of iconographic illustrations, which he began compiling in the late 1970s as a graduate student at Hunter College. Clipped from popular magazines and journals, these illustrations represent a distinctly American graphic visual consciousness developed over the last century.
Forward Retreat, for example, metaphorically refers to the concept of an artistic avant-garde by reminding us of the military origin of the French term.
After appropriating and recontextualizing the images, Tansey initiates a "toner drawing," the next stage in the long process of producing a painting. Building upon previous developments in the evolution of his pictorial notion, the artist photocopies the collage, along with whatever else might enhance the drawing he envisions. But before the photocopy machine finishes its task, before it heats the toner so that the dry black ink fuses with the surface of paper, Tansey turns off the copier and delicately removes the sheet from the paper path. The slightest jarring movement can upset the page and destroy the image, which at this moment sits precariously on the sheet, affixed to the surface only by electrostatic charges.
The intellectual prowess of his paintings depends upon the history of ideas, as well as a long tradition of highly crafted artistic technique. . . .
Similar to this method of manipulation and removal is the artist's monochromatic painting technique.
Clipped from popular magazines and journals, these illustrations represent a distinctly American graphic visual consciousness developed over the last century.
as anything from crumpled paper or Kleenex to brushes to carved wood to lace to wadded-up cloth or string. The game in a sense is to invent or find a tool that has a tactile resonance with the object it will be used to denote. If, for instance, I want to depict a tree, well, maybe there is something that feels a little bit like foliage, that has the same complexity of detail and natural form -- like a knotted ball of string or crochet work, something that can be used if a direct tactile impression leaves a visual result that is uncannily like a tree.2
The nature of oil paint, which dries after a period of time, makes it difficult to remove, so that Tansey must limit his work at any given time to a particular part of the canvas. He divides the composition into sections and then applies no more paint than he can remove before it dries -- a method borrowed from Italian Renaissance fresco painters, who applied only as much wet plaster as they could paint in one day. Straddling the fault lines of tradition, Mark Tansey is a cultural scavenger and stylistic handyman. Just as he combs his archives for the scraps of paper and bits of imagery that will ultimately constitute his monumental painting, he uses a variety of tools and techniques to make his images visually convincing.
One would think that these craft-intensive methods, laborious to the point of obsession, would result in thoroughly convincing, illusionistic representations of the three-dimensional world. Tansey, however, never represents what is visible per se. His pictorial realities are invented; we cannot rightly call them realistic.
Captured somewhere between the realms of the machine and unique artistic expression, the drawing frequently prevents us from knowing whether it was mechanically reproduced or finished by hand.
The monumental Landscape is an excellent example of Tansey's method. Like most of his work, its origins can be found in the manipulated photocopies of visual icons from his library.
The game in a sense is to invent or find a tool that has a tactile resonance with the object it will be used to denote.
The jumbled icons beg us to identify them, but the process inevitably devolves into a chaotic guessing game, owing to the density of the conglomeration and subsequent sensory overload. Landscape represents both an excess of content and its effacement. It is a monument to the pantheon of ures associated with political dominance and a place where differences between individual rulers become irrelevant. This monolithic metaphor of world history is unified by at least two underlying motifs. First, most of the ures illustrated claimed territory and expanded the boundaries of what was originally defined as their dominion. In fact, the busts, statues, and monuments depicted were -- some still are -- embodiments of political power and territorial acquisition. Second, we cannot help but note that Tansey depicts only men. This is not, then, a landscape of world culture, but one of Western patriarchal culture.
As both an ancient, canonical monument and a historical landfill, Landscape represents an either/or proposition, shifting between apparently oppositional conceptions of Western history. We may choose to enshrine particular traditions and histories, or we can relegate them to the dump and forget them. Either way, Landscape shows us that the two acts are intimately related and yield similar outcomes. The painting does not offer an alternative historical tradition to the one depicted, but if we construe the pyramid form as a mound of refuse, then we imply that somewhere is another newly dominant tradition that has presumably replaced it.
Straddling the fault lines of tradition, Mark Tansey is a cultural scavenger and stylistic handyman.
The three Tansey paintings included in "American Kaleidoscope" -- Landscape, Columbus Discovers Spain, and Continental Divide -- all put forth ambivalent, constantly shifting notions of history and cultural identity without sacrificing a sense of pictorial unity or inclusiveness. This is immediately apparent in the title Columbus Discovers Spain, which declares a historical reversal that does not seem to be supported by the evidence of the painting. In fact, the painting appears to suggest a double reversal, or the inversion of the title.
Though seemingly self-evident glimpses into a familiar world, these images rarely make sense.
Columbus Discovers Spain invokes the Surrealist tradition of painter René Magritte. The sparse visual and verbal economy asks viewers to reconsider the ways in which images and words effect meaning. Just as Magritte's renowned pronouncement "This is not a pipe," juxtaposed with a picture of a pipe, still disrupts easily arrived at relationships between word and image, Tansey's substitution of Spain for America and the inclusion of the arches ask us to reevaluate widely held beliefs about the meaning of historical discovery.
Landscape unravels the mechanics behind such decision-making and reminds us that we not only make monuments out of what we remember, but also out of what we choose to forget.
This is not merely a representation, but proof that representations -- illustrational, historical, verbal -- are inherently sites of dilemma. Tansey challenges our perception of an immediately recognizable historical moment, illustrated like those in elementary school textbooks, and leaves us with open-ended questions, not answers. How does picturing the world's oceans as a swimming pool -- a self-contained body of water -- or, as the title suggests, the Italian explorer returning from uncharted territories to "discover" the already populated shores of Spain, inform our preconceived notions of discovery?
In the far distance, dramatically reflecting the gleam that just manages to break through the storm of the clouds above, there appear two monumental arches.
Continental Divide, from the "Frameworks" suite, gives pictorial form to geopolitical debates and identity controversies. Tansey offers a metaphorical map of cultural or perhaps political contention, showing two points of view on either side of a dividing line, at once diametrically opposed and inextricably bound to each other by their differences.
Tansey challenges our perception of an immediately recognizable historical moment, illustrated like those in elementary school textbooks, and leaves us with open-ended questions, not answers.
A continental divide is a barrier separating river systems that flow to opposite sides of a continent. From the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, for example, water divides and flows to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Such is the case, it would seem, with Tansey's painting, which shows an expansive table receding sharply and infinitely into the space of the picture, separating verdant, uncontrollable nature from the dour implacability of civilized culture, with its complex codes of manners and dining etiquette. It is not too great a leap to ascribe to this picture the theme of nature versus culture or, for that matter, an interpretation of post-colonial societies that have appropriated and decontextualized the social rituals and protocols of colonizers.
Like many works by Tansey, Continental Divide's absurd content, rendered in detail, enables us to understand it in a variety of ways, making it relevant to a number of pressing contemporary social issues. Yet despite its apparent specificity, the painting speaks in general terms, analyzing the nature of the relationship of its various components and leaving conclusions to us.
Tansey offers a metaphorical map of cultural or perhaps political contention, showing two points of view on either side of a dividing line. . . .
Perhaps most importantly, neither side forgoes the opportunity to meet and consequently preserve, by means of mutual efforts at understanding, the boundary that both separates and delimits the uniqueness of the two parties. In this regard, the meeting was both inevitable and alluring. In Continental Divide, each side depends upon the other to help define its character. Since nature and culture are readily construed antitheses, each side is what the other is not. And without preserving the line demarcating the differences between them -- that point of contention -- neither could endure.
Jonathan P. Binstock
2. Mark Tansey, "Notes and Comments," interview by Christopher Sweet, in Arthur C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992), 127-28.
3. Jörg-Uwe Albig, "Ein Denker malt Kritik," Art: Das Kunstmagazin 4 (April 1988): 36-54; translation provided by Curt Marcus Gallery, New York.