Lot 414
  • 414

Mark Tansey

700,000 - 900,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Mark Tansey
  • Study for White on White
  • signed, titled and dated 1986-91 on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 36 by 69 in. 91.4 by 175.3 cm.


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

Catalogue Note

"The question I am addressing now is, How do you make meaning pictorial? It's no longer about getting direct equivalence between the material and the idea. It's not about capturing the real. It's the transition, what happens between the material and the ideas. What is that interaction? I think it's basically analogy. I'm working with pictorial rhetoric; how we read different kinds of visual order." Mark Tansey

Just as Mark Tansey can be seen as an artist concerned with bridging the gap between fiction and reality, Study for White on White can be seen as his working through contradictory ideas arising from that attempt. His source materials for the painting are National Geographic photographs, but the interaction that he foists upon the two groups is a total conceit. It is a painting rife with opposition – Inuits/Bedouins, north/south, east/west, dog/camel, arctic/desert, snow/sand – and yet these incongruities are masked by Tansey’s monochromatic style. The snow and the sand are indistinguishable from one another. Were it not for the differences in clothing and the different directions of the wind, which are not immediately apparent, the extremities of temperature would be elided entirely; in Tansey’s words, “as monochrome does not verify heat or cold, the unity of the space is maintained” (the artist cited in Mark C. Taylor, The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey and the Ends of Representation, Chicago 1999, p. 56).

However, concurrent to his attempt to create a unity of space within the canvas itself, through his very subject matter, Tansey creates “a rift down the center of the picture where the distant continents collide” (ibid.). His painting simultaneously seeks the “ideological erasure of difference” (David Joselit, “Milani, Innerst, Tansey,” Flash Art, No. 134, May 1987, p. 101) and constitutes “a visual pun… [which] suggests that these opposites constitute polarities that cannot be reconciled” (Taylor, p. 55). What is truly irreconcilable is that a painting can seek to both highlight and whitewash difference, and this is the challenge that Tansey poses to his audience. Can the lines between fiction and reality be blurred to such an extent that they do not seem to exist? Of course, these questions are precisely those that Tansey wants the viewer to consider, stating: "I've been reading things about catastrophe, chaos and complexity theory. It's fascinating to go to another field where there is this explosion of kinds of visual order. These scientists are dealing with the problems of the difference between representations and the world as it is. And they are coming to an understanding of the importance of metaphor."

The son of two art historians, he is clearly preoccupied by history and critical perception, as evidenced by his drawing the title of this piece from Kasimir Malevich’s famous White on White. Contemporary art historians also draw comparisons to Réne Magritte, Jasper Johns and Joseph Cornell. The very ambiguity of his layered images locates his painting as “a process and method of questioning” (the artist cited in Patterson Sims Exh. Cat., 1990, p. 4) the nature of painting itself, in an era when “the formalist’s prohibition against representation seemed no longer to have authority” (ibid). Study for White on White illustrates this tension by rendering a realistic depiction of an impossibility.