Painted in 1993, End of History Victory Party is a painting which poses as many questions as it answers. Mark Tansey’s meticulously detailed canvases frequently present a complex idea, depicting figures from history or literature, or with narratives routed in philosophy. They investigate differing realities, mixing together the conceptual with the formal, and the fictional with the metaphorical. The result often appears deceptively simple, depicting naturalistic figures in domestic interiors, yet prolonged consideration reveals a sometimes-hidden layer of meaning, which becomes a jumping off point for an adventure in art history.
Across this monumental canvas, a celebration appears to be in full swing. Behind billowing drapes, figures gather in the shadows; some are talking, some are drinking, one couple smokes, one couple shares a joke. Some people appear to be flirting, while others appear to be engaged in earnest conversation; in the smoky half-light, snatched conversations and furtive glances are glimpsed in the heightened, heady atmosphere. The women are dressed in festive attire—little black dresses stand alongside exposed midriffs, while the men sport chinos and open necked shirts, or even more formal lounge suits. While some of the guests are clearly visible, other are not, instead they are secreted in the looming shadows of the room, hidden behind voluminous drapes. Yet, while the guests appear to be enjoying themselves, there is a pervasive sense of tension as an ominous rising tide of water is encroaching on the sanctity of their well-appointed surroundings. These gentle ripples of water lap the bottom of the drapes, creating an impending sense of unease, which is further enhanced by a slight—almost imperceptible—tilt of room. The off-center verticality of the door frames and the swaying motion of the drapes, all signify that—despite their indifference—the partygoers may be in imminent danger.
This sense of unease is further enhanced by Tansey’s decision to render the image in monochrome. A common tactic in his paintings, rendering the canvas in a single-color range gives his work an ethereal quality, in addition to disrupting its relationship with any original source material. “On one level,” writes Danish art historian Oystein Hjort, “this use of monochrome enables a synthesis of features from different time periods, for example, while on another, Tansey uses it to create a play between original and copy, between authentic and false. All traces of moment of inspiration have disappeared. Tansey has taken the liberty of working in reproduction’s terms, and from this position he criticizes the concept of the aura of the work of art and seriously questions our deep-rooted conceptions of originality and artistic value” (0. Hjort, “Mark Tansey’s Border’s,” in Mark Tansey, exh. cat., Galleri Faurschou, Copenhagen, 1995, p. 12).
By nature, Tansey’s works are unashamedly intellectual and multifaceted, often relying on rich layers of content, while at the same time making use of numerous art historical or literature references. Tansey once said, “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” (J. Freeman, Mark Tansey, Los Angeles 1993, p.26). Continuing the debate which had begun with Douglas Crimp’s famous 1981 treatise The End of Painting, in End of History Victory Party the artist explores the possibilities offered by the End of History—a popular theory in the late 1980s and early 1990s following the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s influential essay of the same title in which he proposed that the end of the Cold War marked the end of human history, and that the Western, liberal, capitalist-based democracies marked the ultimate form of human civilization. What possibilities, Tansey wonders, would the end of history offer painters, what lies beyond? If indeed history has ended, what do we do, and how best does a picture deal with that? This new freedom could offer multiple opportunities, multiple framings, and multiple dimensions of experience. Thus, the painting becomes a parable of change, and a way of asking how we should quantify and celebrate that change.
In addition to the intellectual rigor of his work, Tansey’s production methods help to accentuate the level of detail that goes into each work. The artist lays down a layer of monochrome pigment on canvas that can only be altered easily before it dries. This leaves him only about a six-hour window in which to complete his alterations. As such, he works in a style similar to fresco painters, painting in segments that he can finish in this short time frame. Tansey creates his images by pulling away and wiping pigment, so that various textures and tones are produced on the canvas. He adds pigment to darken certain areas; and when he wipes away pigment, the white of the canvas shows through the thin layer of paint to lighten the area.
The son of art history teachers, Tansey came of age during a fertile period in post war art. Trying to figure out what to paint after the ‘death of painting’ led him to working initially as a freelance illustrator for the New York Times and the New York Review of Books. He later took classes with the critic and theorist Rosalind Krauss, who introduced him to a range of philosophical criticism and critical theory. This, in turn, led to his early work, in which he relentlessly criticizes and satirizes the modern avant-garde. The culmination of this process was a series of works begun in 1990 in which Tansey investigates the relationship of meaning within texts. In End of History Victory Party, his cast of characters appears caught up in the changing nature of the time—celebrating new freedoms, but unsure of exactly what will follow.
Tansey’s own working methods add to the complex level of meaning that surrounds his works. For in his pictures, the paint that he has so painstakingly worked has in fact been applied initially as a monochrome surface on a prepared canvas, and is subsequently removed bit by bit by the artist using various methods in order to create various textures and impressions. This act of un-painting a picture reflects Tansey’s unique participation in its literal deconstruction, “In my work,” Tansey says, “I’m searching for pictorial functions that are based on the idea that the painted picture knows itself to be metaphorical, rhetorical, transformational, fictional. I’m not doing pictures of things that actually exist in the world. The narratives never actually occurred. 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 within the medium itself” (M. Tansey, quoted in A.C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, C. Sweet (ed.), New York, 1992, p. 132).