“In contrast to the assertion of one reality, my work investigates how different realities interact and abrade. And the understanding is that the abrasions start with the medium itself.” – Mark Tansey
Renowned for his monumental figurative monochromatic paintings that read moments from art history through the philosophical texts of postmodernism, Mark Tansey’s Water Lilies is a classic example of the artist’s questioning of Modernist orthodoxy. Monet’s paintings have been a recurring site of interest for the artist who included the Frenchman’s Grainstack (Snow Effect), 1891, in his 1981 masterpiece The Innocent Eye which is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York. The paintings of the French Impressionist period, which told the world so much about the nature of light and looking, are rendered by Tansey in a grayscale that cleverly denies the viewer any of Monet’s sumptuous color. Here in Water Lilies, the landscape that inspired Monet’s painting, and scores of other artists, is also denied their spectacular coloration. Without this gradation of hues, the landscape represented here is a paradox of chaotic textures. The mirrored surface of the water inverts the sky, deepening the pool at its center, only to be abruptly reoriented by a nearby lily pad.
By denying a variable palette in his compositions, the artist's monochromes emphasize analysis and reading and remind the viewer of the chromophobia of art history, a discipline that advised the study of artworks in black and white images well into the 20th century where it was believed that color distracted from the study of form and line. The art critic David Joselit notes 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. Although his use of grisaille reads most immediately as a reference to old photographs, it also recalls the space of film and television. And yet in spite of their metaphorical reflection on the mass media, the paintings refer to another era of art-historical pastiche: academic art of the 19th century. Through the historical displacement which this similarity suggests, Tansey is able to reflect on the present in images clothed by the conventions of the past" (D. Joselit, "Wrinkles in Time; Mark Tansey," Art in America, June 1987, p. 109).
Tansey’s painstaking process involves multiple preparatory sketches before embarking on a large-scale oil painting. To begin, Tansey culls through his personal archive of collected imagery–a catalogue of magazine and newspaper clippings, illustrated excerpts, and personal photography the artist has maintained since 1977, his final year as a graduate student at Hunter College. Now numbering in the thousands and organized by binder, the collection includes a diversity of figures, poses, and subject matter. Utilizing a photocopier to endlessly alter, crop or rotate the images, Tansey combines and recombines the selected imagery in a variety of collages, resulting in powerful works like the present. From these collages, Tansey will produce drawings using either graphite or copier toner, and in some cases, fully rendered oil paintings. From the present paper collage, in fact, Tansey produced a painting the same year of the same name, which now resides with the collection of the Columbus Art Museum in Ohio.
Tansey considers this meticulous progression to be an investigative process: “In a general way this picture-making process is a mode of inquiry carried out by open-ended interplay among many pictorial sources and signifiers. What should be apparent in this stepped process is that the handmade and the reproduced are set into a sort of dialectical dance. Beginning with alternating steps–manual to mechanical to manual to mechanical–and ending up in an embrace so intimate that the two become virtually indistinguishable” (M. Tansey, quoted in J. Freeman, Mark Tansey, Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1993, p. 70).