Mark Tansey - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 16, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Mark Tansey, 'View from Mt. Hermeneut', Lot 40

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 16 May 2019

  • Provenance

    Curt Marcus Gallery, New York
    Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zurich
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Trento, Palazzo delle Albere, American art of the 80's, December 18, 1991 - March 1, 1992, no. 49, p. 89 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “In contrast to the assertion of one reality, my work investigates how different realities interact and abrade. And the understanding is that the abrasions start with the medium itself.” –Mark Tansey

    Mark Tansey dramatized the process of interpretation in View from Mt. Hermeneut, 1991, juxtaposing text and image to explore themes of legibility and illegibility. Stretching over 8 feet, this epic canvas draws the viewer in with its intriguing content and expansive blue surface, which he developed with virtuosic additive and subtractive techniques. View from Mt. Hermeneut is from a series of large-scale oil paintings central to Tansey’s considerable aesthetic and conceptual achievements. The present work responds to the ideas proposed by theorists Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, who wrote about the world as systems of signifying texts, introducing strategies of interpretation intended to destabilize – or deconstruct – those systems. Ingeniously making these notions of the world as text literal, Tansey used pages from these critics’ books, enlarging and silk-screening them on his canvases to produce the textured masses that form the painting’s rugged landscape. Overprinted and obscured, these texts are rendered indecipherable. As its two protagonists look out into the abyss of the painting’s cryptic textual fields, they stand in for the viewer’s own attempts to determine its meaning.

    View from Mt. Hermeneut is a visually and conceptually powerful painting from a groundbreaking series that he began in 1987, astutely addressing the ideas of postmodernist philosophy in a brilliantly painted form. Using figurative painting to explore theoretical subjects, these works operated as allegories that engaged with philosophy, criticism and aesthetic theory. The son of two art historians, Tansey pulled from a vast repertoire of knowledge to create this series of work which was full of allusions to art and ideas. Drawn from his substantial archive of photographic clippings from vintage magazines, books and other sources, their imagery drew upon both fine art and popular culture.

    The title of View from Mt. Hermeneut refers to a place of Tansey’s own invention that invokes hermeneutics, an interpretive method used to develop a comprehensive understanding of texts and works of art through close reading and consideration of context. Although the faces of Tansey’s figures are not revealed in this painting, we may identify them as Derrida and de Man, the theorists who inspired this body of work. But any understanding that they have an actual view of the world in this painting is contradicted by its intriguing but indecipherable text and its background of obscure darkness, which is also composed of text. In View from Mt. Hermeneut, therefore, Tansey confronts the idea of metaphorical blindness, a central theme of de Man’s influential book Blindness and Insight, in which he argues that a critic is metaphorically blinded by his or her own assumptions.

    To develop the powerful imagery of View from Mt. Hermeneut, Tansey employed two painting processes that are unique to his artistic practice: the first is subtractive, in which he removed paint to achieve precisely rendered monochromatic imagery, and the second is additive, in which he utilized silk-screen to form the painting’s astounding textual landscape. The two figures in View from Mt. Hermeneut are realized through this subtractive technique: a process by which he applied oil paint to his gessoed canvas, adroitly removing the paint as it dried so as to vary the painting’s tones by selectively revealing its white ground. As Tansey has described, “The fluidity of the paint is always working against the time of the painting. In the first fifteen minutes fluid washes and gradations can be achieved. Human figures can be painted in the first two hours. After three hours tacky paint can be blotted and smudged to create such naturalizing effects as atmospheric perspective and obscuring dusts. After five hours only scraping or abrasion is possible” (Mark Tansey, quoted in Arthur C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, p. 127). Using this innovative time-dependent method, Tansey developed his figures in monochromatic tones that suggest the photographic sources of his imagery while expressing the painted trace of his hand.

    In contrast, the rugged landscape and background are formed utilizing the additive technique wherein pages of theoretical texts are enlarged, multiplied and applied to his canvas with silkscreen. Crumpling the pages, overprinting, blurring, and otherwise obscuring their text, he produced the rugged textures of his painted cliffs, establishing an appropriately postmodern slippage of meaning between “text” and “texture”. According to Tansey, “The key to this rendering or representational function is Jacques Derrida’s definition of text as ‘the trace of the absence of a presence,’ which sounds to me like drawing…and in this sense texture functions as the somewhat forbidden bridge between text and picture. Through abrasion, text can become a geological surface, with smudging it can appear like atmospheric depth, with erasure it can look like water, with crumpling it can be a rock or object rendering, etc.” (Mark Tansey, quoted in Arthur C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, p. 132). In the present painting, Tansey used this method so that its silk-screened sections resemble both printed pages and geological formations. This ingenious dynamic is seen especially in the striking formation on the left, which reads as both a folded page and a rocky overhang.

    In a related painting from the same series, Derrida Queries de Man, 1990, Tansey depicted the two critics locked in struggle on the edge of a perilous chasm that is also composed of silk-screened text. According to Marc Redfield’s analysis, “the edge of Tansey’s cliff is a cut that blurs the difference between seeing and reading, perception and blindness, image and sight” (Marc Redfield, Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America, New York, 2016, p. 175). In View from Mt. Hermeneut, the two are not fighting, but perched together on the precipitously steep cliff, peering into the dark layers of densely overlaid text that constitute the painting’s background. With its sense of obscurity and rough landscape, the present work recalls the Romantic theme of the sublime, conveying a sense of transcendence and the unknown. Given the visual magnificence of View from Mt. Hermeneut, Tansey’s evocation of the sublime raises not only the critical perils of interpreting works of arts, but also its intellectual and aesthetic rewards.

Property from a Distinguished European Collection


View from Mt. Hermeneut

signed and titled "View from Mt. Hermeneut Tansey" lower left; further signed, titled and dated "Tansey 1991 "View from Mt. Hermeneut"" on the reverse
oil on canvas
61 x 100 in. (154.9 x 254 cm.)
Painted in 1991.

$1,000,000 - 1,500,000 

Sold for $1,040,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 16 May | On View at 432 and 450 Park Avenue