titled 'Archive' (lower left)
oil on canvas
77 x 54 1/2 in. (195.7 x 138.5 cm.)
Painted in 1991.
Artist or Maker: Mark Tansey (B. 1949)
Literature: A. C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, p. 118 (illustrated).
Provenance: Curt Marcus Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1991
Notes: In the notes to a monograph of his work Mark Tansey writes: "There is really very little that is visible in the format of a picture. The value of thinking in terms of a crossroads or pictorial intersection is that if not all that much is visible, then what little there is ought to involve vital trajectories and points of collision and encounter between a variety of cultural, formal, or figural systems." (Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, p. 132). Archives are critically important because all of these trajectories must run through their gates.
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What is visible in Archive and where does it lead us? At the top of the canvas we notice two competing headlines, from two different pages of Blindness and Insight, Paul de Man's rudimentary and revolutionary collection of essays that is commonly considered to be among the finest examples of deconstructive criticism. Below these headlines, Tansey constructs an imposing cliff out of overprinted and obscured silkscreened text. Carefully considering this text(ure), we arrive at one of the crossroads that Tansey describes, and we are compelled to look away from the painting to consult an external source, in this case Blindness and Insight, in order to see more we feel a need to turn from Archive to the archive.
One of the most interesting figures in Archive is the surfer on the left side of the canvas. Facing away from the shore, he seems to be intensely focused on something outside of the pictorial frame. Yet, he is not actively paddling toward it. He sits passively on the end of his surfboard as the waves push him further away from the object of his gaze and toward something to which he has his back turned. In this position, the surfer recalls Walter Benjamin's angel of history: A Paul Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. "This is how one pictures the angel of history. His faced is turned toward the past. But a storm is blowing from Paradise.... This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned..."(Illuminations, New York, 1968, 257-8).
If we accept the surfer as Tansey's witty appropriation of the angel of history, then we can see the epic cycle of the waves as Tansey's representation of time. And as time and the history that it engenders crash upon the rock and the beach, they inscribe themselves with an erosive authority in a future archive. Tansey's placement of the archive in a future space is very much in line with Jacques Derrida's concept of the archive: "It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself.... The archive: if we want to know what that will have meant, we will only know in times to come." (Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Chicago, 1996, p. 36).
The bathers on the right-hand side of the canvas, then, seem to represent people of the future. The left-most figure is depicted sleeping, overlooking time going by. There are two other figures, with their faces in the rock and their backs facing the sun; perhaps they embody blindness and insight. There are two readers, one looking at a book and the other reading the textual stone. And there is a final figure, who seems to be looking at herself. Whatever one makes of these future beings, they inhabit the archive, whether they know it or not, and there is no way that they can escape it. We, too, inhabit the archive and all its past and future implications.