Lot 58
  • 58

Mark Tansey

bidding is closed


  • Mark Tansey
  • signed
  • oil on canvas

  • 60 by 48 in. 152.4 by 121.9 cm.
  • Executed in 1984.


Curt Marcus Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above


Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Milwaukee Art Museum; Modern Art Musuem of Fort Worth; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Mark Tansey, June 1993 - November 1994, cat. no. 7, p. 28, illustrated in color.


Arthur C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, p. 56-57, illustrated in color.

Catalogue Note

Mark Tansey’s The Key is at once an iconic example of the artist’s early work, and a personal picture that depicts the artist and his wife Jean in a dreamlike garden in the middle of the night. After first glance at the picture, Tansey’s audience begins to read the clearly defined scene: a man fumbles through his ring of keys to find the one that will unlock a looming gate while a woman, her back to the painting’s viewers, impatiently waits for the gates to open. After the literal facts of the painting are digested, the allegorical meaning of the work begins to present itself as a riddle; questions about the literal narrative of the work open up broader questions about art historical discourse. Will the man find the key, and if so, what awaits the couple behind the gates? What will it take for the artist to gain the right of passage?

The first clue as to what more the painting might mean, or literally, what finding the key might mean to the couple depicted, emerges after a close inspection of the gates themselves. They are not simply any gates; they are Lorenzo Ghiberti’s fifteenth century Florentine Renaissance masterpiece, the Gates of Paradise. Ghiberti’s entry in a competition to design gates for the baptistery of Florence was met with great success. Unlike any work in low relief that preceded his plan for the gates, Ghiberti presented naturalistic forms in naturalistic spaces articulated through the use of linear perspective. His work itself unlocked a door on the path to the High Renaissance; it was a keystone in the history of the narrative image, a history with which Tansey’s art is consciously engaged. Is Tansey trapped by the overbearing presence of his predecessor, will it hinder his ability to move on, what is the meaning of the female figure, and what is her role in uncovering the picture’s meaning?

The female figure herself is a key to unlocking the meaning of the picture. As is the case with many of Tansey’s protagonists, we see only her back. The illusion of volume underneath the woman’s dress is slightly exaggerated, the bright white of her dress a focal point that attracts the viewer’s eye and helps to direct it at the male figure. In addition, her draped back and inwardly focused point of view bring to mind the contribution of another cornerstone in the history of narrative painting, the work of Giotto. Depicting the figure’s back for the first time in the history of two dimensional art, and doing so in a convincing illusionistic manner, Giotto engaged his figures in the narrative he chose to depict and ultimately enabled the work of many artists that followed, including Ghiberti, to reach the level of sophistication that they did. If Giotto is the enabler at the beginning with the female in Tansey’s picture, and Ghiberti is the next point along the trajectory, Tansey’s homage to the history of narrative painting places him on a journey to understand the origins of his practice.

Held in a moment of suspense and judgment, the artist awaits gaining right of passage into the tradition with which he aligns himself; the angel atop the pillar (along with the painting’s audience) holds the key to Tansey’s fate. The work presents an image of judgment, a test of merit similar to the one that faced Ghiberti in the fifteenth century. Tansey ironically deconstructs the history of narrative art, but also the history of the art career. His cynical self-conscious approach to narrative is not without counterpoint: humor and sentiment highlight what can also be seen as an endearing portrayal of the artist and his wife in a familiar and revealing bond, a study of an intimate human relationship.

Contrast between the allegorical and the literal in The Key is complimented by the contrast Tansey employs as visual technique. Beginning with a monochromatic layer of pigment, Tansey uses a variety of techniques, both additive and subtractive, to create a full range of contrast within each picture. The bright whites and the rich darks of Tansey’s single pigment palette guide us about the composition in a manner that evokes Baroque Caravaggesque technique. Nonetheless, despite its clear and taut construction, Tansey’s carefully collaged image is able to suggest an unexpectedly loose narrative.

The Key is an image that is familiar yet without location in our collective memory, documentary in technique while remaining fictitious in content.  It is at once a tinted illustration that evokes nostalgia and an ironic critique that celebrates new ideas about making art in 1984. The painting appropriates. True to the fashion of the 1980s, and the doctrines of postmodernism, it is a collaged aggregate of art historical references. True to Tansey's form, these disparate elements are tightly woven together to create a unified image. 

The work is carefully crafted, appearing effortlessly made. The subject represented is collaged from a number of different sources; even so, it remains seamlessly convincing as a record of an actual event. Tansey represents his composite subject using variation in his painterly technique. The angels that stand atop the pillars of the gates are brushed with immediacy and ease reminiscent of Tiepolo’s soaring figures, while the scientific naturalism of the foliage is uncannily photographic. Tansey’s brushwork carries character of both intuitive master and obsessive documentarian, yet his facility is naturally seductive within both realms.

The Key reveals itself over time; for every question it answers, it poses another. Masterfully executed, layered in meaning, and endlessly engaging, the work successfully encapsulates both Tansey’s programmatic and purist approach to painting.