Mark Tansey's oeuvre can be seen as a fiercely sly and often humorous advocacy for representational art. Looking for the Avant Garde is a classic example of the artist's informed and playful challenge to a core tenet of Modernism by one of its foremost critics, Clement Greenberg. Multiple layers of pictorial and ideological references litter the landscape in Tansey's signature monochrome blue on a white ground. Just as the Modernists appropriated the term "avant garde" from its original military meaning to connote the first wave of soldiers going into battle, Tansey literalizes the metaphor by representing the Modernists as warriors. Closer observation reveals the tight cluster of men to include General George Custer and denotes clear reference to the Battle of Little Bighorn, or Custer's Last Stand. Instead of the avant garde representing the leading edge of Modernism, here we see the avant garde making a "last stand" for abstraction, in a desolate, striated landscape that references the early stripe paintings of Frank Stella and the "all over" abstract painting championed by Greenberg. With two of the soldiers looking mortally wounded, and the others with guns drawn or pointed, it could be "all over" for "all over painting," even as this tight group of soldiers looks for an enemy nowhere to be found. Frank Stella famously stated flatly: "what you see is what you see." For Tansey, the opposite is true: what you see is just the beginning of what you see.
Clement Greenberg argued for "non-objective art" as a revolutionary and radical cultural critique of bourgeois values. By moving away from content, abstract art focused instead on itself so that painting became about painting or about nothing except color, form and texture. Tansey, on the other hand, makes paintings that are loaded with content and ideas, paintings that embrace ambiguity and paradox. Looking for the Avant Garde may be viewed as a "history painting" that challenges not only Greenberg but also Jacques Derrida and the Deconstructivist movement. For Derrida, representational art is illusory and therefore dishonest; only in pure text can truth be pursued. Just as Tansey makes the subject of this painting literal, i.e., the avant garde, upon close examination of the surface we find words and phrases embedded in the furrows of the landscape. Here "text" becomes texture, and texture becomes a picture.
Tansey playfully evokes the absurdity of Modernist attacks on representational art, literally and especially figuratively, turning these arguments on their head. It is a practice that has been a recurrent theme through his brilliant oeuvre; an appreciation of the absurdity of rigid pronouncements about what art cannot or should not be. Mark Tansey's search for truth can be found in his appreciation of duality, his confrontation of the "double talk" in Modernist philosophy and his embrace of the forbidden image.