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  • Video

    Mark Tansey, 'Library (of Babylon)'

    On view now in our 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale preview.

  • Provenance

    Gagosian Gallery, New York
    Phillips, London, 27 June 2011, lot 21
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Denver Art Museum; Columbus Museum of Art, Visions of America, Landscape as Metaphor in the Late Twentieth Century, 14 May 1994 - 8 January 1995, pp. 172-173, 228, 230, 253 (illustrated p. 230)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Spanning nearly five metres, Mark Tansey’s vast Library (of Babylon) from 1994 draws the viewer into a richly detailed panorama that unfolds cinematically before our eyes. Rendered in Tansey’s signature virtuosic style and blue-washed monochromatic palette, starkly illuminated architectural fragments emerge from an abyss of darkness and unravel in a state of continuous becoming. With its title, the painting evokes Jorge Louis Borges’ 1941 short story The Library of Babel, and, by extension, the ancient origin myth of Babel – both of which Tansey alludes to in his construction of an enigmatic realm where a cavernous vaulted library provides glimpses into a distant world modelled on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Tower of Babel, 1563. Exemplary of Tansey’s profound philosophical and art historical knowledge, a plethora of historical and contemporary references merge into a surreal vignette that invites the viewer to participate in a visual and metaphorical adventure into the perception of reality.

    Painted in 1994, Library (of Babylon) debuted in the group exhibition Visions of America: Landscape as Metaphor in the Late Twentieth Century that travelled to the Denver Art Museum and Columbus Museum of Art in the following year. Exhibited alongside paintings such as Landscape, 1994, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the present work is a quintessential example of Tansey’s pursuit of figurative painting in an art world context that had declared it dead in favour of abstract and conceptual approaches. Walking in the conceptual footsteps of forebears such as Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte, Tansey utilises allegory, symbolism and metaphor in painting to probe questions of meaning and representation, without, however, using overtly surrealistic devices.

    Library (of Babylon)
    developed out of Tansey’s deep preoccupation with the philosophies of French structuralism and deconstructivism, as well as the question of the relationship between image and text. As with Constructing the Grand Canyon, 1990, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1990, Tansey puts forth a landscape that is in constant process of construction and deconstruction. Whereas in earlier paintings Tansey explored the futility of language to capture reality through the inclusion of textual fragments, here he does so more subtly – alluding to Borges’ The Library of Babel as a metaphor for mankind’s existential quest for meaning.

    In The Library of Babel, Borges conceived a universe as a vast expanse of indefinite and near infinite number of hexagonal galleries, each of which contains the bare necessities for human survival and four walls of bookshelves. Containing every book ever written or that will be written, the inhabitants, faced with a gluttony of enigmatic information they cannot make sense of, experience a state of near-suicidal despair. The short story itself was based on the biblical story of the ancient city state of Babylon, long considered as the birth place of Western civilisation. Seeking to explain the existence of diverse human languages, the Old Testament postulated that it was when civilisation, united by a single language, sought to build a tower tall enough to reach heaven, God confounded their speech so they would not be able to complete this Tower of Babel.

    With Library (of Babylon), Tansey has merged fragments of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Tower of Babel, 1563, at the upper left, with the complex architectural framework of the Eiffel Tower and the subterranean vaults of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s 18th century etchings Carceri d’Invenzione to create his own interpretation of the origin myth. The question of humanity’s origin and meaning is further alluded to by the inclusion of a magnified double helix on the far right, its structure pointedly paralleling that of the spiral staircases on the left. The resulting cavernous spaces allude to Plato’s epistemological allegory of the cave in Republic to explain mankind’s perception of reality, a major reoccurring motif for the artist as seen in Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1987, and the Bricoleur’s Daughter, 1987.

    'In my work,' as Tansey explained, 'I'm searching for pictorial functions that are based on the idea that the painted picture knows itself to be metaphorical, rhetorical, transformational, fictional. I'm not doing pictures of things that actually exist in the world. … And the understanding is that the abrasions start within the medium itself’ (Mark Tansey, quoted in A.C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, p. 132). Indeed, it is above all through his distinctive and rigorous approach to painting that Tansey performs the elusiveness of meaning.

    As with all of Tansey’s paintings, Library (of Babylon) is the result of the artist’s carefully conceived visual and conceptual framework. Taking his extensive archive of found imagery – which he culled over the years from myriad sources such as magazines, newspapers and art history books – as a point of departure, Tansey utilises a photocopying machine to manipulate and combine different images in the form of a dense collage that serves as a study for his meticulous paintings. After often months of preparation, Tansey pursues a technique akin to fresco painting: applying a heavily gessoed ground to the surface, he successively layers paint to build up a rich surface from which he carves and swipes away pigment to construct surreal scenes with photographically naturalistic style. Adhering to the conventions of figurative painting, Tansey encourages an instantaneous familiarity – only to corrupt it almost immediately, thereby making us aware of our own susceptibility to images.

    Speaking of this complex additive and subtractive painting 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’ (David Joselit, ‘Wrinkles in Time: Mark Tansey’, Art in America, June 1987, p. 109). Figuratively and literally unraveling modes of perception and representation, Library (of Babylon), as with Tansey’s greatest paintings, performs the elusiveness of meaning in our post-modern age.


Library (of Babylon)

each signed, titled and dated 'Tansey 1994 "Library (of Babylon)"' on the reverse
oil on canvas, in 2 parts
overall 149.9 x 489 cm (59 x 192 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1994.

£1,500,000 - 2,000,000 

Sold for £1,569,000

Contact Specialist
Henry Highley
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4061 [email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 27 June 2018