Lot 221
  • 221

Mark Tansey

800,000 - 1,200,000 USD
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  • Mark Tansey
  • Study for 'Clockwork'
  • signed; signed, titled and dated 1993-98 on the reverse of the backing board
  • oil on canvas
  • 40 by 30 1/8 in. 101.6 by 76.5 cm.


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


This work is in excellent condition overall. The canvas is stretched over a wood panel. Under Ultraviolet light inspection, there is no evidence of restoration. Framed.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

"The word Postmodern in its most obvious sense is a temporal designation...If one can get beyond the prohibitionary reflex action, it might be possible to look more closely at the content of representational or other modes of art to see the degree to which they are sensitive and accountable to other structures of time."

Mark Tansey

A son of two art historians, the study and critique of images has been a part of Mark Tansey’s personal narrative since long before it defined his artistic one. Investigating how different realities interact and abrade, Tansey has examined representational expression through a postmodern lens since his graduate work at Hunter College, New York in the late 1970s. His first mature work, A Short History of Modernist Painting (1979), now in the Collection of the Eli Broad Family Foundation, laid the cornerstone from which Tansey’s entire exploration of painting has been erected. Depicting seven rows of images, fifty-two segments in total, Tansey reproduced in a subdued monochromatic palette carefully arranged clippings from magazines spanning the 1940s to the 1970s. Together these clippings chart the trajectory of modernist and formalist innovation - from mimetic representation to alternative mechanisms and conceptual frameworks - and with characteristic wit, the sequence concludes with a blind man. Two works, Mont Sainte-Victoire (lot 220) and Study for 'Clockwork' (lot 221), both executed in the early 1990s, trace out Tansey’s artistic development from this seminal pictorial manifesto.   

In Mont Sainte-Victoire (1988-98), Tansey layers together two key monuments of modernism, Cezanne’s Large Bathers circa 1906 and the artist’s beloved Aix-en-Provenance mountainside. The familiar imagery plays stage to the deconstructivist thinking of French Philosopher Jacques Derrida and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The thematic concept first occupied Tansey beginning in 1985. Drawing from his extensive archive of carefully catalogued photographic images, Tansey constructed no less than a dozen preparatory studies. Cropping, manipulating and then photocopying the arrangement, Tansey unifies the disparate pieces into a single coherent composition. Similar to how he constructs a painting, by laying down uniform layers of color that are then carved into with a variety of tools and implements, the surface of Mont Sainte-Victoire suggest a grisaille technique. The evidence of Tansey’s hand is seen in the scraped up, almost sculpted contours of the bathers clothing or the thin rippled edges of the water line.

The present work is not considered a study, but rather an exquisitely rendered drawing of the monumentally-scaled final version of Mont Sainte-Victoire that was exhibited at Documenta 8 in Kassel, West Germany in 1987. Like the 155-inch masterpiece painted in a monochromatic tint of clay red, Tansey has created what appears to be a mirror image of soldiers in World War I uniforms in various stages of undress moving from left to right, bathing in the shadow of Cezanne’s favorite motif. The uniformity of the palette briefly masks the fact that the mirror image is an illusion; the mountain and sky above transform into a cave and rock below. Soldiers' uniforms and taught backsides metamorphose into draped fabrics in modern cuts and feminine curves. The cyclical scene is a pictorial equivalent of the rhetoric in Derrida’s 1979 bilingual text Spurs/Éperons, subtitled Nietzsche’s Styles. Complex discussions of gender and castration play out in the reversals and transformations that unfold out from the horizon/waterline. “In Mont Sainte-Victoire Tansey’s paradigm of truth merged Plato’s allegory of prisoners in a cave who perceive reality in shadows with a Frenchman’s critique of a German’s speculations upon the impossibilities of interpretation.” (Patterson Sims, Mark Tansey: Art and Source, Seattle, 1990, p. 20) Covertly portrayed along the waters edge are Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard. The demilitarized avante-garde, a theme that Tansey explores in grand-scale in his 1984 Triumph of the New York School, returns to a natural state in the present work. The nude male figure at the far right bends forward to see his reflection in the glassy surface. Staring back it him is a statuesque female nude who shields her eyes against Plato’s sun; both figures see an obscured version of the truth.

In his luminous cerulean blue painting, Study for 'Clockwork', executed between 1993 and 1998, Tansey uses time-lapse photography as a pictorial device to illustrate movement. Rather than depict a single moment in time - at first glance the viewer sees a meteor shower and a flock of birds in formation - Tansey captures a span of seconds in one image. The flock of birds narrows to one bird, which swoops into the dark behind the rock archway. The movement of the stars is charted across the sky, creating a streaking celestial blanket. In the middle ground the tide swirls and pulls the water away from the shore; a female bather emerges and walks toward a parked car. Fixed in one place within this cinematic landscape is a young man seated at water’s edge, knees tucked beneath a flowered towel, staring out at the splash created from a rock he has presumably just thrown. The slice of time that Tansey illustrates is not clear – to capture a 45-degree change in a star’s position in the sky a camera would need at least an hour exposure time depending on the shooter’s latitude. Yet the flight time of a bird across the perceived distance, or the time it would take for a rock’s splash to rise off the surface, or a woman to walk four steps forward, is only a matter of seconds. Within this study of time, or as Tansey has titled the painting ‘Clockwork’, reflection as a pursuit of truth is again a concept explored. From the seated figures position, the reflection in the water would reveal a sky dotted by pinpoints of fixed light; their real speed and movement through space would be imperceptible to his human eye.

Study for 'Clockwork' may also be Tansey’s postmodern response to Romanticism, which posited nature and its uncontrollable power in opposition to the ordered, rational world of Enlightenment thought. As in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818), Tansey’s young man gazes into the sublime nighttime landscape; his individuality and subjective viewpoint set at odds against the scientific truths governing the world around him. Study for 'Clockwork' can also be interpreted as a metaphor for the artist’s own process; carefully manipulating the paint, Tansey's method is similar to fresco painting, working within the six hour time frame to create the basic image after which point the paint will dry and become unworkable.

A virtuoso of narrative and an archeologist of imagery, Tansey's body of work evokes an insatiable curiosity. Like a master riddler, he lays out his clues across the picture plane and then, placing a high degree of faith in his audience, asks us to pull together the various literary, art historical, cinematic, and scientific threads. The ingenuity and brilliance of Tansey's unique approach to painting is exemplified in Mont Sainte-Victoire and Study for 'Clockwork.'