Mark Tansey - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 15, 2014 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York
    Tom Patchett, Los Angeles
    Private Collection

  • Exhibited

    Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Mark Tansey Retrospective, June 17 – August 29, 1993 then traveled to Milwaukee, Milwaukee Art Museum (September 10 – November 7, 1993), Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (December 9, 1993 – February 20, 1994), Boston, Museum of Fine Arts (May 11 – August 7, 1994), Montreal, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (September 8 – November 20, 1994)
    New York, New York Academy of Art, The Big Picture, January 28 – March 9, 2014

  • Literature

    C. Marcus, “Mark Tansey,” Artscribe International, The University of Michigan, 1988, p. 87
    A. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992, p. 97 (illustrated)
    J. Freeman, Mark Tansey, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993, p. 37, no. 15 (illustrated)
    M. Fortun, H. Bernstein, Muddling Through: Pursing Science and Truth in the 21st Century, Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 1998, cover (illustrated)
    M. Taylor, The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey and the Ends of Representation, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999, p. 106
    M. Taylor, Rewiring the Real: In Conversation with William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo, New York, Columbia University Press, 2013, p. 107

  • Catalogue Essay

    "I think of the painted picture as an embodiment of the very real problem that we face with the notion of 'reality.' The problem or question is, which reality?"

    MARK TANSEY, 1992

    Conceived at both the height and greatest turning point of Mark Tansey’s career, Coastline Measure, 1987 is Tansey at his most inventive and virtuosic. Beginning that year, Tansey began to intentionally incorporate dissonant elements in his paintings with unprecedented frequency, launching his work from the realm of post-modern excellence into a visionary space of its own, where subject and style fuse into a profound statement on the mission of the artist in today’s world. Layering humor, beauty, and allegory into his work in equal measure, Tansey presents a historically loaded scene of humanity engaged with sublime nature, each attempting to outdo one another rendered in jewel tone monochrome. For this reason, the present lot is one of Tansey’s most enduring and poignant works, grappling with eternal themes as great as painting itself.

    By 1987, Tansey had been working for the better part of two decades, developing a singular style as a painter. Indeed, in the nearly thirty years that have passed since the inception of the present lot, Tansey has altered his technique itself very little, having solidified his manner of working a decade prior. Many have compared Tansey’s working method to that of a fresco painter, emphasizing the temporal dependence of his decision-making. Even prior to his execution, Tansey’s generation of imagery and scope has its roots in his collection photographs and documents—a testament to his remarkable self-sufficiency in finding subject matter: “Before he begins a painting, Mr. Tansey creates an elaborate collage of images that he has collected over the years…the purpose of this optical ambiguity is to encourage multiple and sometimes conflicting readings of the same picture.”(M. Fineman, “Art: Close Reading; Find the Hidden Philosophers”, The New York Times, December 12, 2004) From the onset, Tansey aims to create a dichotomous world, one in which the viewers will find multiple reasons to remain engaged—and argumentative.

    His painstakingly rendered canvasses are the result of a completely standardized process, rare in its ability to repeatedly elicit equally stunning and differentiated works: though it would appear that his canvasses are blank, Tansey has already laid down a layer of gesso. Upon the gesso, he applies a layer of monochromatic pigment across the entire space of the surface, readying himself to begin his signature technical choice: instead of applying color to the surface of his canvas, Tansey relies on creating negative space, employing a multitude of tools in wiping, scraping, and molding the pigment into exposing the white surface beneath. Depending upon the passage of time, Tansey’s monochromes are either forgiving or unyielding in their willingness to cede their ground. Here, we discover Tansey’s marvelous strategy in forming a new canvas, where he must control his elements without risking the destruction of the canvas. It is this strategy that prompts many to lend him the title of fresco painter, for his efficiency and foresight must match the ingenuity of his work.

    To label Coastline Measure, 1987, as expansive would be a harrowing understatement. Stretching over twelve feet horizontally, Tansey’s work is magnificent in its scope yet finely detailed in its minutiae. We find in Tansey’s delicate and impressive brushwork sections of nearly pure white, their chromatic erasure almost complete. In these sections, such as the sweeping sea at far left, we discover Tansey’s hand at work nearly as soon as he has laid down his pigment, fully cognizant of the immediate necessity of erasure. Elsewhere, such as the mountainous cliffs above, saturation is nearly complete, with only fine lines removed later, creating a gorgeous effect of the illusion of texture after the passage of geologic time.

    Tansey’s hue for this picture could very easily be understood as dark blue, but there are aspects of the painting that highlight the very complex nature of his pigment: in swirling ocean below, we find varying shades of sea green, hinting at the fact that Tansey single color is a mix of blue and green, each finding opportunities to be seen on the canvas. More often than not, lighter shades shimmer with an emerald hue, such as the variegations on the figures’ shirts and the small splashes of seawater.

    Tansey’s setting, a tempestuous outcropping at the ends of the earth, betrays a Romantically gorgeous scene. As massive waves mercilessly pound the jutting rocks in the foreground, the background hints at a newly discovered landscape, one rich in natural beauty and nearly mythical in its scope. The movement of water does not cease in the cliffs beyond, rising with violent fury over its many obstacles to the sea. Departing from the ferocity below, seagulls panic and depart the land, seeking shelter on higher ground. Even further back, Tansey paints the profile of a waterfall, the perfect addition to a landscape so familiar to the painters of the later 18th and early 19th centuries.

    Tansey’s landscape draws obvious comparisons to the incomparable work of J.M.W. Turner, one of the defining hands of the Romantic Movement. Yet, displaying his intimidating knowledge of art history, Tansey is able to synthesize differing eras of Turner’s career. In examining Fishermen at Sea, 1796, we find multiple points of comparison with the present lot, including Turner’s use of a nearly monochromatic canvas (blue, with highlights of green and yellow). But it is in the movement of the water at its meeting point with land that we find the most commonality between the two masters; dashing up and down with the movement of the vessel, Turner’s water is bathed in foamy white, his realism apparent in the delicate strokes made to detail the thrashing of the sea. Tansey’s own detail, as in the violent splash at the uppermost left portion of the painting, is remarkably similar in its subtle lines. While employing opposite means to achieve their effect—Turner’s the addition of color and Tansey’s the elimination thereof—both painters create finely tuned movement in their oceans. As a more seasoned painter, Turner came to treat his subject matter more harshly, colors combining into fiery gales of fury—apocalyptic visions of the sea. Indeed, in Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth, 1842, Turner gives us a perfect example of his later work, the nightmarish dissolution of his subject caught in the sea’s frenzied sprawl. Tansey’s cunning piece delivers a similar power in its violence, as his figure climb out precipitously on rocks slippery with death. The similarity between these two canvasses is in their shared vision: man attempting to tame as a sea as dangerous as fate itself.

    But while Turner’s work is technically similar, we must turn to two other artists for the allegorical implications of Tansey’s work. Upon the darkened rocks, Tansey’s contemporary figures attempt a laughable conquest: to hand-measure the length of a fictional coastline. Combined with its Romantic setting, this futile activity conjures that most dominant of Romantic pictures, Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818. Friedrich’s figure contemplates his simultaneous dominance of and submission to the elements of nature. While Friedrich’s lone figure realizes the paradox of his view, Tansey’s workers seem naïve in their quest to deliver accurate measurements of the entire coastline with only a tape measure. In addition, Tansey gives a nod to the ongoing historical tradition of painting: the stark geometry of the figures’ diagonal line across the complex and curved coastline of the sea functions as a form of aesthetic abstraction, as we witness man attempting to organize his surroundings through their utmost simplification.

    Herein, we discover Tansey’s most timeless subject, that of disharmony. While his picture may be technically harmonious—and breathtakingly gorgeous at that—the activity within betrays a certain silliness, or tension with reality, similar to Rene Magritte’s incorporation of out of place elements amidst conservative settings. His Le domaine d’Arnheim, 1962 shares this breaking with reality, as a nest of eggs sits comically upon a very human wall, neglected to ascribe itself to the eagle headed peak where it would certainly be more comfortable.

    But Tansey’s wealth of influence does not end at either the stylistic or the content-based nature of his work—for the evocative qualities of his painting also recall a certain abstraction inherent to Willem de Kooning, in his uses of blue and green. Tansey’s similarity to de Kooning is not limited to mere technical production or pattern, but rather in the holistic aura of the painting. While de Kooning relied on his abstracted chromatic schemes to relay the mood he desired, Tansey’s perfect marriage of form and content creates a similar effect—a darkness in color imbued with a sense of levity in content. The two painters share this mix of humor and seriousness—two great artists achieving similar ends through wholly different techniques. de Koonings’ work—though a product of the dominant movement of the day, American Abstract Expressionism—possesses similar visual texture in the bleeding pigment upon its surface, allowing figure to rise out of abstraction. But, more importantly, the mood of the painting is of a piece with Tansey’s own: both give us a scene of limited daylight, the discrepancy in saturation adding to the dark and mysterious heaviness of each painting.

    As Tansey himself declares: “A picture might be decoded by distinguishing rifts (contradictions, discrepancies, implausibilities) from resonance (plausible elements, structural similarities, shared characteristics, verifications). In fact the notion of rift and resonance is fundamental to the picture-constructing process as well.”(M. Taylor, The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey and the Ends of Representation, Chicago, 1999, pp. 55- 56).

    Tansey asserts that the truth lies somewhere between the plausible and implausible in his picture, and it is this tension in his painting that creates a decent picture. Teeming with both harmony of structure and discord in reality, Coastline Measure, 1987 is a perfect representation of Mark Tansey at a turning point in his career—a man setting out to define the edges of his reality, one canvas at a time.


Coastline Measure

oil on canvas
87 x 122 in. (221 x 309.9 cm.)
Signed, titled and dated "Tansey 1987 'Coastline Measure'" on the reverse.

$3,500,000 - 4,500,000 

Contact Specialist
Zach Miner
Head of Sale
+1 212 940 1256

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 May 2014 7PM