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Mark Tansey
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Wikipedia About Mark Tansey

Mark Tansey was born in San Jose, California in 1949. His parents were both art historians, so he had an early introduction to art. These early childhood experiences had a profound effect on Tansey’s painting style from the inception of his career as an artist. Many of Tansey’s paintings are monochromatic and seem old-fashioned. His method involves laying down a layer of monochrome pigment on canvas that can be altered easily only before it dries. This leaves Tansey only about a six hour window in which to complete his alterations. As such, he works in a style similar to fresco painters, painting in segments that he can finish in this short time frame. Tansey’s choice of color and tone lends a specific feeling to each painting. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Mark Tansey, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Painting suffers from no lack of interpretive theory. The Renaissance notion of painting as a mirror reflecting or a window opening out to the world went through numerous historical revisions to arrive at repeatedly proclaimed deaths and equally frequent returns in the twentieth century.1 What does this apparent impasse in painting’s progress mean—that it is ever lively and vigorous, or that it can do no more than await a true end? For painters who are necessarily informed and enlightened as well as burdened and haunted by this history, the act of painting continues to require that they contend with tradition as well as with the tradition of antitraditions. As painters’ struggles grow with time, the weight of interpretation seems to do the same.

If there were a painting about the theory of painting, or simply about theory, it might look something like Mark Tansey’s work. He takes art history, philosophy, critical theory, and key terms and buzzwords as the subject and content of his art. A pantheon of twentieth-century thinkers and artists appear as actors in the theaters of his paintings. Even a quick survey of Tansey’s titles reveals how much he is embroiled in, even obsessed with, the particular phraseology of his trade. They often refer to painting itself and discourses surrounding it (A Short History of Modernist Painting, End of Painting) or to crucial cultural concepts or artistic theorems (Modern/Postmodern, Myth of Depth). Another group of titles—Archive, Reader, Close Reading, and Under Erasure—derive from the bibliographic tropes familiar in the “textual turn” effected by deconstruction, represented by the literary critics Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. (The last phrase on the list is the English translation of sous rature, one of Derrida’s better-known ideas.) Tansey’s dramatis personae, besides the two deconstructionists, include other French (post)struc-turalists, such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, and modernist giants from both the School of Paris and the New York School.

As specialized and self-involved as such references are, their manifestations into painting, in Tansey’s deft hands, take surprisingly nostalgic forms: heroic or Romantic landscapes like those of Albert Bierstadt and Caspar David Friedrich or more intimate interior scenes reminiscent of Edward Hopper. Such staging of modern painting might suggest that the artist looks askance at the notorious self-absorption of the medium of his choice and the jargon-ridden, secret society–like academe that was perceived as increasingly dominating contemporary art. Indeed, when conservative critic Daniel Bell launched one of his many attacks on what he saw as “the decay of American intellectual life,” he chose to illustrate the point with a reproduction of Tansey’s Constructing the Grand Canyon (1990), in which the incursion of the French deconstructionists into American universities was paradoxically depicted as a reversal of the process of natural erosion whereby an accumulation of textual strata reaches a height as improbable as the depth of the natural wonder itself.2 The irony, however, lies not in the artist’s subject but in his ability to turn an intellectual dilemma into narrative imagery by strategically marshalling anachronisms.

Tansey paints subtractively on gessoed canvas in a race of time against the drying process. The speed with which he executes a painting is contrasted with and enabled by long, extensive studies and preparations. For all his works, Tansey collects various sources—an extensive bibliography and dossier of notes, photographs, popular magazine illustrations, drawings, and film stills—which he cuts and pastes to develop final motifs. White on White (1986) refers to Kasimir Malevich’s series of works of the same title (circa 1918), one of the Russian Suprematist’s revolutionary propositions to return painting to its zero degree. In Tansey’s late twentieth-century rejoinder, however, people from two distant parts of the world and climatic zones—desert-dwelling Bedouins with camels and fur-clad Inuits with huskies—come to an unlikely rendezvous. The broad-stroked washes of white paint across the canvas seem to depict at once a sirocco and a blizzard. The sense of disorientation is caused, on the one hand, by the narrative impossibility of this encounter and on the other, by the encroachment of figures materializing on the supposedly dematerialized surface of the purest form of painting. The image Tansey concocts, then, may be a nightmare for those believers of painting’s destined passage of self-purification toward some Hegelian telos. But for many others, it just might be a delightful reverie.

  1. This thesis is argued most eloquently by Yve-Alain Bois in “Painting: The Task of Mourning,” in Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1990).

  2. Daniel Bell, “The Cultural Wars: American Intellectual Life, 1965–1992,” Wilson Quarterly 16, no. 3 (Summer 1992): 7.

Chong, Doryun. “Mark Tansey.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center