Mark Tansey - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, April 15, 2021 | Phillips
  • Overview


    Amidst a wash of ultramarine blues interspersed with piercing white lines, a lighthouse hoists upwards in Mark Tansey’s Study for Nocturne, its gyrating searchlight emitting a concentrated horizontal beam that illuminates the surrounding atmosphere. While this luminous activity dominates the upper half of the composition, its lower counterpart is animated by sea movement, captured in its slightest detail as meticulous strokes of white and meandering blues dance in circular motions. As a whole, Study for Nocturne is a shining beacon from Tansey’s body of conceptual and deeply painterly works; it demonstrates the artist’s unparalleled ability in conveying the sensuous phenomenological effects entailed by natural environments, their rippling presentness, their moving qualities. Endlessly enamoured with the power of words and images, Tansey frequently intertwines the two, in the present painting poring over the possibilities enabled by the word ‘Nocturne’, both a sign of the time of day, and a musical quip echoing the composition’s oceanic harmony. Study for Nocturne’s vertical format further amplifies this comparative effect; the work reads like a sheet of music, with the hovering beam of light, nestled at the top, slowly trickling down and making sense of the composition.

    'What I’m doing is saying, “What can’t a painting show?” And then doing it.' —Mark TanseyKnown to produce quasi-photographic paintings from a single hue — most often blue and red — Tansey revels in exploiting a small margin of his colour palettes to produce a paradoxical effect of chromatic diversity and wealth. The blue in Study for Nocturne is evidently dramatic in its own right, but also extremely powerful in conveying the subject at hand — the sea and its many deep, cobalt permutations. The result is all-immersive; it proposes the microcosm of a scene that seems to conversely be propelled into a boundless imagistic universe. This visual effect is exacerbated by the geometric motifs that pervade the painting; upwards, the sky’s lunar light twirls in circles, below, the water’s current forms eddies that seem ready to traverse the confines of the canvas.


    Details of the present work.
    Details of the present work.


    Painting Time and Space


    Materialising like a natural flow in itself, Study for Nocturne betrays Tansey’s interest in concepts of time and space, and the interstices that exist within their realms. ‘There is really very little that is visible in the format of a picture’, the artist has said. ‘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’.1 Study for Nocturne, in its elongated form, provides the framework for this collision. Tansey vertically stacks the sky and the sea to fully occupy the composition — he marks a spatial emphasis of their vast expanse in nature, whilst placing land on a separate axis to pictorially intersect the two. In this sense, the composition is redolent of Tansey’s Achilles and the Tortoise, of a similar format and residing at The Broad, Los Angeles, in which a tree and a rocket rise side by side, as though in a race to reach the canvas’s high extremity.

    '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.' —Mark Tansey 

    In Study for Nocturne, Tansey furthermore makes use of the lighthouse — the painting’s protagonist — as a visual trick to challenge the viewer's understanding of space, suggesting that its beaming beacon of light might reach outwards, spilling over and into the viewer’s own surroundings. ‘He seeks to lure us ever more deeply into the flux of time and the gaps of space by drawing the viewer into the work of art and drawing the work of art into the field of the viewer’, writes Mark C. Taylor. ‘Within his frame of reference, time is no longer a prison from which we seek to escape but is the vital medium of life itself’.2 This enticing act is enacted a second time in the work, where subtle ambiguities in composition challenge the viewer's perception of the earth, sky and sea as three separate entities. As the waves crash onto the shores of the land, and the concentric circles of stars disappear behind the horizon, the three realms fuse together as one, adopting an infinite existence.


    A Surrealist Aura


    Influenced by the cryptic work of his Surrealist forebear René Magritte, Tansey further utilises the idea of a photograph — and how the object’s aesthetic of versimilitude may have altered the way in which we perceive and describe everyday reality — as a starting point from which to create lifelike fantasies. ‘In my work, I'm searching for pictorial functions that are based on the idea that the painted picture knows itself to be metaphorical, rhetorical, transformational, fictional’, the artist reflected. ‘The narratives never actually occurred’.3 In the present work, the thin white lines’ neatness against the monochromatic blue ground evokes the negative or reversal of an image that was never taken. As such, Study for Nocturne recalls Magritte’s The Seducer, a composition almost three decades its senior that displays a boat filled with meandering waves, blurring into the sea. Like Magritte, Tansey strives for his imagery to be both accessible and open-ended. Study for Nocturne evinces this twofold effect precisely; on the one hand, it portrays an immediately recognisable scene, on the other, it seems to withhold an auric secret, anchored in a distant, illusory realm.


    Renne Magritte, The Seducer, 1960, goauche and water colour on paper, private collection.  Image: Bridgeman Images. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021.
    René Magritte, The Seducer, 1960, gouache and water colour on paper, Private Collection. Image: Bridgeman Images. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021.


    Against the Tide


    Notably, the present work epitomises the ground-breaking 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 embarked upon a radical return to figurative painting after it had famously been 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’.4 To this end, the artist developed a rigorous method that merged appropriation and conceptual art into a unique painterly style. Employing additive and subtractive methods whilst adhering to a monochromatic hue, he would render his 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’.5

    '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

     With its sumptuous painterly rendition and its complex psycho-formal structure, Study for Nocturne is an exquisite example of Tansey’s talent, located at the crossroads of visual excellence and intellectual rigour. It demonstrates his own take on a longstanding tradition of maritime painting, melding the sound of crashing waves and the silence of lifelessness, drenched in a tide of profound blues and no other colour. Simultaneously, it highlights the artist’s capacity to capitalise on a composition’s geometric structure — to make use of the mathematical magic that is at times instrumental in the making of a masterpiece. For all its multifarious qualities, both iconographic and conceptual, Study for Nocturne finally amounts to a serene, absorbing, and peaceful scene. A painting that, extending beyond its visual and two-dimensional roots, envelops the viewer and creates a sense of quiet.


    Karl Blechen, Stormy sea with Lighthouse, c.1826, oil on canvas, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Germany. Image: Bridgeman Images.
    Karl Blechen, Stormy sea with Lighthouse, c.1826, oil on canvas, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Germany. Image: Bridgeman Images.


    1 Mark Tansey, quoted in Arthur C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, p. 132.

    2 M. C. Taylor, The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey & the Ends of Representation, Chicago and London, 1999, p. 132.

    3 Mark Tansey, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, p. 132.
    4 Mark Tansey, quoted in Mark Tansey, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1993, p. 14.
    5 David Joselit, ‘Wrinkles in Time: Mark Tansey’, Art in America, June 1987, p. 109.

    • Provenance

      Curt Marcus Gallery, New York
      Private Collection (acquired from the above)
      Christie's, New York, 16 May 2013, lot 531
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Perspectives @ 25: A Quarter Century of New Art in Houston, 16 October 2004 – 9 January 2005, no. 36, p. 54 (illustrated)

Property from an Important Belgian Collector


Study for Nocturne

signed, titled and dated 'Tansey 1998 Study for ''Nocturne''' on the reverse; indecipherably inscribed lower edge
oil on canvas
147 x 65.7 cm (57 7/8 x 25 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1998.

Full Cataloguing

£600,000 - 800,000 

Sold for £748,500

Contact Specialist


Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+ 44 20 7318 4060


Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

+ 44 20 7318 4099


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 April 2021