Mark Tansey - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, November 17, 2021 | Phillips

    "What I’m doing is saying, ‘What can’t a painting show?' And then doing it."
    —Mark Tansey



    At once surreal and deceptively familiar, Garden reveals Mark Tansey’s celebrated conceptual approach to painting. A quintessential example of Tansey’s instantly recognizable painterly idiom, the work presents what at first glance appears to be a banal suburban scene: a woman, casually clad in a shift t-shirt dress and baseball cap, eats an apple while watering the tree. It is upon closer inspection, however, that the viewer becomes aware of the inconsistencies that proliferate the composition. The figure appears to be watering the tree’s trunk rather than its roots, a ladder set against the tree trunk seems to extend into the sky ad infinitum, and over-sized apples seem to tower menacingly, and through a trick of optics seem to push out beyond the confines of the picture plane. Drawing the viewer into the depths of its ink-blue background, a sustained reading of the canvas surface rewards the eye with a host of painterly techniques. The artist traverses the gamut of painterly styles from the photographically naturalistic style that has become eponymous with his oeuvre used to render the apples, to the more abstracted representation of the leaves and grass. It is through the artist’s restricted color palette that his deft manipulation of his chosen medium truly takes center stage.




    Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem, Adam and Eve in Paradise, 1625. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Quimper, France, Image: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY
    Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem, Adam and Eve in Paradise, 1625. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Quimper, France, Image: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY


    Executed in 2006, Garden was first shown publicly at Tansey's solo exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in London in 2009, where it stood in dialogue with Apple Tree, 2009, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Seen together, these related paintings present otherworldly dreamscapes—it is almost as though the ladder perched against the apple tree in the present painting leads us to Apple Tree, which depicts a birds-eye view of a distant landscape from the tree’s canopy.


    Garden epitomizes how Tansey embraces allegory, symbolism and metaphor in painting to probe questions of meaning and representation. Like René Magritte, Tansey strives for his imagery to be seen as both accessible and open-ended. As the artist noted in 1992, “Magritte’s work also led me to wonder if crisis could take place on other levels of content, more quietly, internally, more plausibly. Could a conventional picture include many less apparent crises—the way everyday life does —without the use of overt surrealistic devices?”i The present work articulates the shift in Tansey’s practice at the time to engage with Surrealist strategies. With an explicit nod to Magritte’s The Listening Room, in the Menil Collection, Houston, Tansey dislocates notions of scale and reality by inserting the magnified form of apples and a ladder that leads to an ambiguous infinity. Whereas many of Tansey’s earlier figures were represented in the midst of a quest for truth, the woman here is ignorant of the path to “enlightenment” as embodied in the ladder and in her failure to feed the roots of the tree, instead choosing to eat the forbidden fruit.




    Rene Magritte, La chambre d'ecoute, 1958. Menil Collection, Image: Banque d'Images, ADAGP / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © C. Herscovici / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York




    With Garden, Tansey has revisited the motif depicted on the left panel of his iconic four-part painting Four Forbidden Senses, 1982, at The Broad, Los Angeles. Rendered in a similar blue monochromatic color palette, this vignette depicted a woman in a strikingly similar pose of hosing a tree whilst eating an apple. As with all of Tansey’s paintings, Garden developed from a visual and conceptual framework: the specific imagery is derived from the artist’s extensive archive of found imagery, culled over the years from myriad sources such as magazines, newspapers and art history books, as a well as a conceptual trove of specific questions, philosophical themes and motifs conceived by the artist. This serves as a basis for Tansey’s creative process of carefully manipulating, combining, and photocopying images to produce a dense collage that serves as a preliminary study for his compositions.



    "A painted picture is a vehicle. You can sit in your driveway and take it apart or you can get in it and
    go somewhere."
    —Mark Tansey



    Coming full circle with Four Forbidden Senses, 1982, the present work epitomizes the groundbreaking representational style that Tansey pursued in opposition to modernist orthodoxy since coming to prominence in the late 1970s. In a context that was dominated by abstract and conceptual art, Tansey alongside such peers as David Salle radically embarked upon a return to figurative painting after it had been famously declared dead. For Tansey, “Pictures should be able to function across the fullest range of content. The conceptual should be able to mingle with the formal and subject matter should enjoy intimate relations with both.”ii To this end, the artist developed a rigorous method that merged appropriation and conceptual art into a highly unique painterly style.


    Employing additive and subtractive painting techniques while adhering to a monochromatic hue, Tansey renders these surreal scenes with a photographically naturalistic style. Speaking of this complex technique, art critic David Joselit observed that, “Like the space of the mass media in which bits and pieces of information are broken loose from their historical grounding and freely recombined into novel configurations, the landscape Tansey describes is one in which radically dissimilar events and places can gracefully coexist. Although his use of grisaille reads most immediately as a reference to old photographs, it also recalls the space of film and television.”iii Typifying the complexity of our post-modern age, Garden, as with Tansey’s greatest paintings, performs the elusiveness of meaning.


    i Mark Tansey, quoted in Mark Tansey, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1993, p. 39.

    ii Ibid., p. 14.

    iii David Joselit, "Wrinkles in Time: Mark Tansey”, Art in America, June 1987, p. 109.

    • Provenance

      Gagosian Gallery, New York
      Private Collection, Los Angeles
      Gagosian Gallery, New York
      Private Collection (acquired from the above)
      Phillips, New York, November 16, 2017, lot 11
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      London, Gagosian Gallery, MARK TANSEY, December 10, 2009 - January 23, 2010, p. 83 (illustrated, p. 85; detail illustrated, pp. 86-89)



signed "Tansey" lower right; signed, titled and dated "Tansey "GARDEN" MAY 2006" on the reverse
oil on canvas
48 x 36 in. (121.9 x 91.4 cm)
Painted in 2006.

Full Cataloguing

$700,000 - 1,000,000 

Sold for $2,934,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
New York Head of Department & Head of Auctions
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 17 November 2021