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Lot 54: Mark Tansey (B. 1949)

Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale

by Christie's

November 15, 2006

New York, NY, USA

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Description: Mont Sainte-Victoire
oil on canvas
100 x 155 in. (254 x 393.7 cm.)
Painted in 1987.

Notes: Mark Tansey's approach to painting reflects a deep knowledge of art. Indeed, growing up with parents who were both art historians, Tansey has spent a lifetime looking at and thinking about pictures. And, while his work makes use of motifs lifted from historical paintings and depicts important artists and philosophers of our time, the allegories they contain are entirely of Tansey's own imagination. His is an art about the meaning of art, and the mystery of the human impulse to make mental images.
Tansey's single hue is a constant reminder of the essential falsehood of all painting. Monochromes are the stuff of reproductions (from masterworks in art history books to scientific illustrations to newspaper and magazine photography), and the artist employs this technique in such a way that contributes to a sense of reality while heightening the reproductive illusion of the work. The use of monochrome is also a means to focus the viewer on the ideas presented. The artist achieves this almost photographic quality through the treatment of gesso and either washing, brushing and scraping the monochromatic paint onto each canvas. For Tansey, approaching a work of art is the product of stretching, rotating, or cropping forms, combining images, and photocopying them over and again until he has produced a preliminary study for the painting in the form of a collage.
Tansey's Mont Sainte-Victoire (1987) is built around an appropriation and combination of two of Cézanne's most famous works: Mont Sainte-Victoire (1904-06) and The Bathers (1898-1905). Rendered in monochromatic tones of reddish-orange and executed on the scale of grand history paintings, Tansey's Mont Sainte-Victoire depicts a group of men in various states of undress lounging on the shore and wading in the water of a lake; and the distant mountain, which gives the painting its title, is mirrored in this water. The painting appears to be organized by the structuralist principle of binary opposition: The horizontal axis establishes the coordinates of the work and the women in Cézanne's Bathers are transformed into fourteen men standing either on the shore or in the water of the lake. Among the bathers we are able to identify philosphers Jean Baudrilliard, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida. The men are depicted gazing narcissistically at their reflections in the water.
Why is Derrida at the figurative center of Tansey's appropriation of Cézanne, the lone bather staring directly at the viewer? In an important essay published in 1948, "Cézanne's Doubt," Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues that Cézanne "wrote in painting what had never yet been painted, and turned it into painting once and for all" (Mark C. Taylor, The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey & the Ends of Representation, Chicago, 1999, p, 90). Critic Mark C. Taylor, takes this idea one step further to explain that "When Cézanne claims that painting is writing, he anticipates the interpretation of the relationship between painting and writing that Tansey discerns in Derrida's texts more than a half century later.... Just as Cézanne's painting figures 'the vibration of appearances,' so Derrida's writing...inscribes the play of differences, which is the matrix of identity and difference." (ibid, p, 90) In many of his paintings, Tansey silk-screens text onto the canvas to explicitly render Cézanne's imperative; here, however, he is much more subtle. Putting Derrida at the metaphorical center, which cannot hold allows Tansey's Mont Sainte-Victoire to implode into an expression of the radical truth of Cézanne's writing.
The longer one ponders Tansey's painting, the stranger it becomes. In the reflection of the water, the men turn into sensual women, and "the sacred mountain of Modernism" (Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, p. 27), is transformed into an abyssal Platonic cave, which questions the validity of all representation, impossibly challenging us to discern the object from its double. A dizzying interplay of opposites unfolds here: man/woman, clothed/naked, mountain/cave, sign/signifier, etc. If Derrida's texts subordinate the image to the impossibility of the word, Tansey's paintings seem to work, ironically, in the opposite manner. Tansey's Mont Sainte-Victoire simultaneously underscores the validity of the image and undermines it at the same time. As Tansey himself explains: "By contrast to the flat, static, formal model for painting on one hand and conceptualism on the other, I found it useful to think in terms of a structurally dynamic model for pictorial content that could include both models as well as subject matter. The notion of a crossroads or an intersection of visible and invisible trajectories offered the most vital metaphor for a picture. It accommodates the fact that pictorial content is mostly invisible (that is, embodied in preconceptions that are conceptual, cultural, temporal, etc.). There is really very little that is visible in the format of a picture" (ibid, p. 134).
Mont Sainte-Victoire, which was first exhibited at Documenta 8 in Kassel, Germany, is one of the Tansey's most important pictures, and the most significant of his works to come to auction. The Art Historian Arthur Danto perfectly explains the pivotal importance of Mont Sainte-Victoire: "[This painting] is pivotal in two senses of the term: if it is pivoted through 180 degrees, it becomes a quite different painting, related to what it was in its original position but in surprising ways. And it is pivotal as well for the direction Tansey's work took after that, less obsessed with ironizing the pretensions of the avant-garde and more concerned with embodying, or at least allegorizing, certain theses of post-structuralist philosophy" (ibid, p. 27).
Mont Sainte-Victoire is not only a reflection on Cézanne's painting; it is also a celebration of itself and painting. The image and the word and history must all be subject to the unknowable but primary truth of individual thought. The anonymous bathers are just as important as the recognizable ones for all are subject to our imagination. Tansey's signs signify everything and nothing at all. And his monochromatic division explodes before us into the objective wonder of fractal fantasy.

Provenance: Curt Marcus Gallery, New York
Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Zürich
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Artist or Maker: Mark Tansey (B. 1949)

Exhibited: Kassel, Museum Fridericianum, Documenta 8, June-September 1987, pp. 248-249 (illustrated).
New York, Curt Marcus Gallery, Mark Tansey, October-November 1987.
Kunsthalle Basel, Mark Tansey, April-May 1990, n.p. (illustrated in color).
Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts; The Saint Louis Art Museum; Minneapolis, The Walker Art Center; Seattle Art Museum; Cambridge, Mass.,
The Albert and Vera List Visual Arts Center, MIT and Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum, Mark Tansey: Art and Source, July 1990-September 1991, pp. 22-23 (illustrated in color).
Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Milwaukee Art Museum; Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum; Boston, Museum of Fine Arts and Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts, Mark Tansey, June 1993-November 1994, pp. 54-55, no. 16 (illustrated in color).
Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Mark Tansey, 1994-1995 (extended loan).
Barcelona, Fundació Joan Miró, La realitat i el designo, September-November 1999, p. 99, no. 34 (illustrated in color).
Kleve, Museum Kurhaus, Mark Tansey, January-April 2005, n.p. (illustrated).
Stuttgart, Württembergischer Kunstverein, Mark Tansey, May-July, 2005, n.p. (illustrated in color).
Kassel, Kunsthalle Fridericinum, Discreet Energies: 50 Jahre/Years documenta 1955-2005, September-November, 2005, p. 137 (illustrated in color).

Literature: R. Martin, Cézanne's doubt and Mark Tansey's certainty in considering Mont Sainte-Victoire, New York, 1987, p. 82 (illustrated in color).
D. Wheeler, Art since mid-century: 1945 to the present, New York, 1991, p. 325, fig. 640 (illustrated in color).
A. C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and revisions, New York, 1992, pp. 86-87 (illustrated in color).
L. Salem, La science dans l'art, Paris, 2000, fig. 41 (illustrated in color).
T. Zaunschirm, Kunstforum International, no. 175: Im Zoo der Kunst II, Ruppichtertoh, 2005, p. 307.

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