Mark Tansey (b. 1949)
Mark Tansey (b. 1949)

Bridge Over the Cartesian Gap

Mark Tansey (b. 1949)
Bridge Over the Cartesian Gap
signed, titled and dated 'Tansey 1990 "Bridge over the Cartesian Gap"' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
87 x 108 in. (220.9 x 274.3 cm.)
Painted in 1990.
Curt Marcus Gallery, New York
Diane Keaton, Los Angeles
Curt Marcus Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
J. Miller, "Mark Tansey: Curt Marcus Gallery," Artforum, summer 1990, p. 166 (illustrated).
A. C. Danto and C. Sweet, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, pp. 110-111, 132 and 143 (illustrated in color).
M. Friedman, ed. Visions of America: Landscape as Metaphor in the Late Twentieth Century, New York, 1994, pp. 168-169 and 173, fig. 1 (illustrated in color).
P. Loubier, "Les Allégories de Mark Tansey au crepuscule du modernisme," Parachute 91, 1998, p. 50 (illustrated in color).
M.C. Taylor, The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey and the Ends of Representation, Chicago, 1999, pp. 44-45, 47-49, 79 and 95.
New York, Curt Marcus Gallery, Mark Tansey, 1990.
Kunsthalle Basel, Mark Tansey, April-May 1990, n.p. (illustrated in color).
Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Milwaukee Art Museum; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; Boston, Museum of Fine Art and Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Mark Tansey, June 1993-November 1994, pp. 52-53 and 114, no. 18 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

Renowned for his figurative monochromatic paintings, Mark Tansey's Bridge over the Cartesian Gap, 1990 is a wryly intelligent work from one of the most celebrated periods in the artist's career. In this vast monochromatic cadmium red landscape, Tansey presents a massive stone bridge impossibly hovering in front of a sky of wispy clouds that recalls the great tradition of classical Dutch landscape. Figures dot the bridge's horizon line, crossing every which way and carrying a random array of objects, some everyday, some bordering on the absurd. One figure stands in this arid landscape carrying a canoe, another runs clutching a briefcase, another struggles under the weight of another human, other figures walk with ladders or roll wheel barrows. Upon closer inspection something familiar begins to emerge from the rocky surface of the bridge: text. The short excerpts that come into focus are from Belgian deconstructionist theorist Paul de Man's text Blindness and Insight, which explores issues related to writing and meaning. Yet, the excerpts are not complete enough for the viewer to decipher; the viewer is left oblivious to the knowledge held in the obscured content. Tansey's figures--which themselves serve as miniature demonstrations of the way language works with each person carrying an object that can be described using language as well as representation--are also ignorant of the meaning of the text they are walking over.

Executed in 1990, the work is one from a remarkable series of paintings completed that year when Tansey's discovery of the graphic potential of texts and the textuality of paintings led to an extraordinary creative eruption. Of these works the artist stated, "By beginning with the printed page as motif: on one side the text and on the other side the image, the underlying questions were: How does representation transform into text? Where does the pictorial rhetoric begin and where does the rhetorical text end? The textual paintings, like Incursion, Bridge over the Cartesian Gap, "a", Close Reading, and Constructing the Grand Canyon, addressed the question in various ways" (M. Tansey, quoted in "Notes and Comments," in A.C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York 1992, p. 132).

Since 1987 his paintings have interrogated post-structuralist ideas, which had taken the art world by storm in the 1970s. Tansey explored these intellectual problems connected with the history of painting and critical theory with a wry and literalist humor. The artist points to the pervasive sentiment in the 1970s that "painting was dead" as a direct influence on his art. He explains, "It was a time when the formalists' prohibition against representation seemed no longer to have authority and anything was possible, but the first problem or the problem that I was concerned with was what to do a picture of" (M. Tansey, quoted in P. Sims, Mark Tansey: Art and Source, exh. cat., Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, 1990, p. 4). It was in this environment of being a painter in a world where painting was dead, that Tansey set out to make pictures about picture-making.

Tansey's chosen medium is nearly as exacting as a fresco: starting with what appears to be a blank canvas, the artist has already applied a layer of gesso upon which he applies a wash of his monochromatic color of choice. Using a type of erasure, Tansey coaxes his image to appear, creating form by manipulating the paint through wipes or pulls executed through a host of tools and techniques that expose the white ground underneath. Paradoxically, through the subtraction of paint, Tansey adds to the canvas's composition, turning his seemingly destructive tendencies into creative ends. As the work dries, different forms and effects emerge that both incorporate time and temporality into his painting strategy. The result is a surface which has become a physical document of his process.

Clearly engaged with the postmodern discourses surrounding representation, Tansey went one step further by literally incorporating text into the very texture of the work itself. In Bridge over the Cartesian Gap, the lines of text from de Man's book metamorphose into the strata of sedimentary rock. This texture is created by the careful layering and overlaying of silk-screened text from which figures gradually emerge. As images become formed by text, it becomes apparent that there is a graphic dimension to all writing. Through these investigations in 1990, Tansey noted that "it became apparent that texts are representations. Furthermore, representations are texts-- inasmuch as they are the objects of textual analysis. Questions followed. How could a text be critical if the meaning of a text is indeterminate? What made anyone think that the painted representations were limited to one meaning? Or only to the past?" (M. Tansey, quoted in "Notes and Comments," in A.C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York 1992, p. 132). Faulted and fissured, his rock formations composed of layers of text that has been underscored or crumpled before silk-screening are not fixed, structured, anchored and convey no certifiable meaning. In his Blindness & Insight, de Man asserts that critics who engage in close reading are blind to their own assumptions and consequently misinterpret what they read: "Literary texts are themselves critical but blinded, and the critical reading of the critics tries to deconstruct the blindness" (P. de Man, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, Minneapolis 1971, p. 141). Tansey's Bridge over the Cartesian Gap is a tongue-in-cheek reference to his own investigations in light of de Man's argument in his purposeful indistinguishing of the textual and the pictorial in his work.

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