Lot 43
  • 43

MARK TANSEY | Transition Team

3,500,000 - 5,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Mark Tansey
  • Transition Team
  • signed, titled, dated 1997, and variously inscribed on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 96 by 74 in. 243.8 by 188 cm.


Curt Marcus Gallery, New York
Stefan T. Edlis, Chicago (acquired from the above in 1997)
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 2013


Mark C. Taylor, The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey and the Ends of Representation, Chicago and London, 1999, pp. 129-132 (text)

Catalogue Note

Hauntingly mysterious and seductively enigmatic, Mark Tansey’s 1997 Transition Team unravels traditional modes of perception while assuming the mantle of the storied legacy of history painting. Perennially testing the eye and eluding narrative clarity in favor of incredulous wonder, Transition Team entices viewers with its bacchanalia; its distortions of perspective and disruption of spatial organization prompt a visual adventure of decoding its amalgam of cryptic references. A surreal dreamscape of monumental proportions, the present work embodies the hallmark characteristics of Tansey’s oeuvre: a hyperreal depiction of figures drawn from a vast archive of source imagery, an invocation of philosophical questioning about the nature of perception, and an enigmatic aura of phantasmagoria—all of which he renders through rich variations on a single hue. Testifying to its superb quality and stature within Tansey’s artistic output, Transition Team was held in Stefan T. Edlis’s esteemed collection for nearly twenty years. Captivating in its puzzle-like complexity, and rife with layers of allusion, the present work raises more questions than it answers. Describing its exceptional dynamism, philosopher Mark C. Taylor writes: “Transition Team activates vision by setting the viewer in motion. The picture is, in effect, an interactive work of art...Moving around the picture, perspectives change until transitional spaces begin to vibrate, pulsate, and oscillate. Intersecting axes and contrasting figures combine to create alternating rhythms that trigger anomalous juxtapositions and unexpected dimensional shifts.” (Mark C. Taylor, The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey & The Ends of Representation, Chicago, 1999, p. 130) Set in a resplendent monochrome, Transition Team places the viewer into an alluring fantasy of the artist’s creation. Tansey presents his superbly precise figures—an intriguing cast of characters that includes Madonna, John F. Kennedy Jr., Princess Diana, Drew Barrymore, and Kurt Cobain—in a transitional moment in time: the liminal space between the very-late night and the very-early morning, in which half the figures stumble home from a drunken evening, and the other half begin to clean up the night’s mess. On the right side of the canvas, the distinct profile of Princess Diana canters stoically across the horizontal axis on horseback, luxuriant furs draped across her arm; to the left, Madonna darts surreptitiously from the scene, her gaze fixed on a destination beyond our view. Scattered within the dense thicket of distorted striations lining the background, a motley crew of figures such as Drew Barrymore, Courtney Love, and assorted others peer out in apparent interest, their profiles repeated in warped ripples across the composition. Standing with his trench-coat clad back to the viewer, a paparazzo diligently documents the scene unfolding before us; clearly indicated by the tell-tale camera flash from the reflective darkness, his suggested photograph deftly duplicates the artist’s own representational efforts. By depicting a wide assortment of cultural icons, Tansey invokes the experience of dreaming—diving into a familiar yet elusive motion picture whose meaning one can never fully grasp. While the “ineffable familiarity of the figures promotes confidence in the images’ veracity,” the background—an eerie, pitch-black sky—echoes the nondescript and unchartered territory of dreams. (Judi Freeman, Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Mark Tansey, 1993, p. 19) A gust of wind blows over the eclectic crowd, sweeping the white blonde hair of the central figure over her shoulders, and creating a palpable sense of motion. Save for the littered bottles strewn on the ground, “Everything and everyone in the painting seem to be moving...As the eye traces this line of movement, the painting is actually transformed into a motion picture.” (Mark C. Taylor, The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey & The Ends of Representation, Chicago, 1999, p. 130) Surreal and arcane, Transition Team’s spectral landscape invites even closer investigation, causing viewers to get lost in its ghostly terrain.

Illustrative of Tansey’s “quest for meaning, for comprehension, [and] for truth,” Transition Team questions the very nature of realism itself, seeking to expose the obvious artifice of long-held painterly assumptions. (Judi Freeman, Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Mark Tansey, 1993, p. 16) Mimicking this philosophical exercise, Transition Team’s figures appear wary of their uncertain location; they peer around their surroundings and survey the scene. Elaborating upon his philosophy of art, Tansey explained: “A painted picture is a vehicle. You can sit in your driveway and take it apart or you can get in it and go somewhere.” (The artist cited in Ibid., p. 26) Tansey creates various avenues of meaning for his viewers to explore. Upon careful examination, viewers latch onto Transition Team’s peculiarities: the way in which it willfully defies the laws of reflection, playfully multiplies figures, and unabashedly compresses and stretches them to the point of unrecognizability. Viewers can detect Tansey’s duplication and compression of the central figures in the puddle beneath them; at least two smaller images of the riding Princess Diana are discernable, and the bottom left corner reveals a glimpse of a compressed Madonna fleeing the scene. They can trace the compression of the central, diligent workman directly beneath his “normal-sized” form. In the background, “[the] figures are squeezed...until they are flattened into a series of parallel lines.” (Mark C. Taylor, The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey & The Ends of Representation, Chicago, 1999, pp. 130-31) By toying with illusionism, “The longer one ponders this painting, Tansey has accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of inscribing an infinite number of perspectives within a finite space. In contrast to Cubism...Tansey is not interested in synchronizing viewpoints in a way that makes it possible to rise above them...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.” (Mark C. Taylor, The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey & The Ends of Representation, Chicago, 1999, p. 132) With Transition Team’s breakdown of the picture plane into strata of various perspectives, Tansey exposes painting's inherent fallacy, by denying viewers the ability to enter a "window" unto another world.

Transition Team encapsulates the postmodern inquiry into the conventions and practices of seeing and representation. Developing his signature style during the 1970s—the dawn of the Information Age and the period of mass media’s rapid expansion—Tansey synthesized the emerging aesthetic impulse of appropriation and remix characteristic of the contemporaneous Pictures Generation with a rich analysis of the history of representational painting. Reflecting on this formative period, Tansey recalls: “My paintings began really as a result of...the death of painting in the mid-1970s. It was a time when the formalists’ prohibition against representation seemed no longer to have authority.” (The artist cited in Ibid., p. 3) Freeing himself entirely from Abstract Expressionist dogma, which dominated American art for decades, Tansey returned to figuration with full force; not only does he invoke the visual vocabulary of the long-cherished genre of history painting, but also he draws from mass media source material to create a uniquely contemporary image. With its broody atmosphere of otherworldly exploration, Transition Team reflects Tansey’s endless fascination with “humankind’s confrontation with the unknown, the mysterious, or the awe inspiring,” and provides a veritable “metaphor for the eternal quest for knowledge.” (Judi Freeman, Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Mark Tansey, 1993, p. 27)