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

Study for The Occupation

Mark Tansey (b. 1949)
Study for The Occupation
signed, titled, inscribed and dated 'Tansey 1984 "The Occupation (NEW YORK 1984)" (SKETCH)' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
26 x 38 in. (66 x 96.5 cm.)
Painted in 1984.
Curt Marcus Gallery, New York
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Thomas Amann Fine Art, Zurich
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Kleve, Museum Kurhausand and Stuttgart, Württembergischer Kunstverein, Mark Tansey, January-July 2005, p. 11 (illustrated in color).

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Eliza Netter
Eliza Netter

Lot Essay

Mark Tansey’s Study for The Occupation (1984) is a representational masterpiece with multifarious meanings and layers. Like Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills, the image depicts a scene that feels immediately familiar but is in fact fictional and contrived by the artist. The image also takes on the personality of a film still, simulating narrative and holding a moment in ironical still life, creating an eternal present.

Study for The Occupation depicts an imaginary version of history in which a group of German soldiers in WWI uniforms occupy the corner of West Broadway and Spring Street, the main street of SoHo and the locus of New York City’s art world in the 1980s. The implication is that the avant-garde has become an entrapping army and that art is under the pressure of a force that exacts compliance with its severe laws. In a twist, the painting that depicts the victory of the avant-garde is itself not avant-garde in the traditional sense of the word; its style is not the style of the works shown at that time in SoHo which does not seem to have deterred Tansey’s acceptance of it. The work can also be read as a sly dig at the takeover of art by German Neo-Expressionists whose work was making inroads on the American art market. Furthermore, the work reveals Tansey's winking vision of the art business as a military campaign. Tansey’s painting offers the viewer a multitude of possibilities for interpretation, each one of them opening a labyrinth of overlaid layers of meaning, these in turn offering a multitude of combinations and associations. The result is a thick, complex and impermeable fabric of possible interpretations. Before he begins a painting, Tansey weaves all the layers of meaning together, at the same time deciding how to achieve the visually most convincing effect.

Tansey’s invented historical subject matter is cleverly coupled with the rusty monochrome finish that makes the image seem dated, like an old-fashioned rotogravure plate. He begins his painting with a layer of monochrome pigment which takes six hours to dry, after which it is incredible difficult to modify. Just like a fresco painter who has a limited time to paint before the plaster dries, Tansey covers an area he can work with in the physically mandated interval. Tansey’s painting is then produced by wiping or pulling the paint away. He leaves very little room for revisions and retouching. Working around the middle tone of his ground, adding darks, and wiping away to create lights, the result of Tansey’s finished work has the quality of old master paintings which also worked in and out of the middle tones. This largely subtractive process has the effect of having just appeared, like a chemical transfer, onto the canvas.
During the 1980s, Tansey was primarily interested in modernism and the artistic avant-gardes of the 20th century. The avant-garde of the 1980s art world struggled with the notion of “the death of painting.” In the 1970s, the Conceptual Art movement challenged the relevance of any art object, let alone the traditional medium of painting. Tansey's art in turn challenges the theories and context of this new philosophy of text-based deconstruction advocated by Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. Tansey explained the following: “Included in the art discourse of the early 1980s was a critique of representation that, in part, proposed a general opposition between representational painting and postmodern textuality...The underlying questions were: How does representation transform into text? Where does the pictorial rhetoric begin and where does the rhetorical text end?" (M. Tansey quoted in J. Freeman, Mark Tansey, Los Angeles, 1993, p. 30). Study for The Occupation has the density of text although it appears like a photographic representation of an image from Tansey’s mind. Tansey carries with him the tricks and tools of the illustrator, and his work appears as an illustration that demands to be read. As if the French art historian Louis Marin were describing The Occupation, he discusses paintings in which “events narrate themselves in the story as if no one were speaking” (A. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, p. 14). There is a degree of dialectical interchange between the style of painting and the implied, but invisible, style of its subject in Tansey’s allegorical work. In terms of dialectical complexity, Study for The Occupation can be compared to René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, 1928-1929, although his work is more allegory than image puzzle.

Tansey’s flat and direct representational style is suited to communicating visual information similarly to the dioramas seen in science museums. One almost expects this work to have been taken from the pages of an old history textbook. The painting is self-referential, but draws the viewer into its fictional story to become complicit in its narrative.

Tansey’s technique is dazzling, and his painting is extraordinary even before the deeper layer of meaning is revealed. Few painters today command Tansey’s remarkable pictorial skill. He has a gift for creating the spontaneous and accurate effect of the camera. His image is so convincing that it is as though it materializes on the canvas naturally without the inclusion of the artist’s hand.

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