Study for Forward Retreat (1986) is an instantly recognisable allegorical painting by Mark Tansey. In striking cadmium red monochrome, Tansey depicts the image – reflected upside-down in a pool of water – of four men sat backwards on galloping horses. Three of them, gazing intently through binoculars, are outfitted in the First World War military gear of Germany, France and Britain, while the fourth is dressed as a polo player. The wasteland they charge over is littered with the relics of art history: a ‘primitive’ African mask and wooden idols, a toppled vase of still-life flowers, a lute, scattered paintbrushes and pots. A cracked urn and two gilt picture-frames are submerged in the pool. A fully realised work in its own right, Study for Forward Retreat differs from the famous Forward Retreat (1986, Broad Art Foundation) in just one playful detail: in the final painting, Tansey switched the lute for a platter of apple-cores, a wry image of Cézanne consumed. In this typically complex metaphorical composition, Tansey is satirising the neo-primitive, neo-expressionist, and Neo-Geo artists of the 1980s avant-garde. Rushing forward in the name of progress, they in fact look behind them toward a receding distance, blindly trampling on the ruins of the past. Tansey throws the supposed ‘innovations’ of these artists into doubt, and implies that the course of art history might run on forces beyond their control. Much like his most well-known painting The Triumph of the New York School (1984, Whitney Museum of American Art), which depicts the School of Paris in military surrender to the advocates and artists of Abstract Expressionism, Study for Forward Retreat restores the idiom ‘avant-garde’ – employed by critics like Clement Greenberg as a term for the artistic cutting edge – to its original warlike context. The polo player hints that this modernist vision of art as battlefield might take itself a little too seriously. At once playful and thoughtful, convincing and uncanny, Study for Forward Retreat exemplifies Tansey’s rejuvenation of painting’s metaphorical thrills. As he has put it, ‘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’ (M. Tansey, quoted in J. Saltz, R. Smith and P. Halley, Beyond Boundaries: New York’s New Art, New York 1986, p. 128).
Tansey, who is well-versed in critical theory and post-structuralist philosophy, begins his process by spinning a linguistic ‘colour wheel’ of his own design. The wheel’s concentric sections of subject, object and verb generate phrases that might spark the idea for a painting (‘pagan missionary redeploying vanguard’, or ‘analyst eluding linguistic bodyguard’ are among countless possible combinations). He then creates collaged and photocopied sketches, drawing from a vast analogue image-library that he began stockpiling while a graduate student at Hunter College in the late 1970s. Mid-century magazines, illustrated histories of war and other sources have fed into this immense lexicon of human figures, organised by pose, which he uses to build his compositions. After months of meticulous planning, the painting can begin. Working in strictly monochrome reds, blues and greys – which he applies to a gessoed white ground, then scrapes away to reveal light – Tansey paints like a master fresco painter of old, completing section by section in the short window of time that it takes the paint to dry. He describes this painstaking technique as ‘somewhere between finger painting and watercolour’ (M. Tansey, ‘Notes and Comments’, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revision, New York 1992, p. 127). His monochrome and quietly illustrative style allows him to separate his images from their sources and integrate them into what looks like a ‘believable’ photographic unity. ‘In the beginning I was attracted to monochrome – black and white – because everything I liked was in it, from reproductions of Michelangelo to scientific illustration to Life magazine photos’, Tansey explains. ‘Because this simple but versatile syntax was shared by art, fiction, and photographic reality, it made possible another level of pictorial fiction where aspects of each could commune. That a painted picture no longer had to pretend to non-fiction, no longer had to be a cage for the real, made it possible to think in terms of a conjectural field or a place of inquiry. The picture could work as a hybrid form equidistant between the functions of painting, illustration, and photography’ (M. Tansey, ‘Notes and Comments’, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revision, New York 1992, p. 128).
While Tansey’s virtuoso technique and fierce conceptual intelligence won him huge acclaim in 1980s New York, it is clear he thought little of the ‘neo’ painting that was in vogue there at the time. The paradoxical title of Forward Retreat points up the fact that no true advances are made by artists who simply reprise and rebrand what has gone before them. The pool’s reflection, Tansey says, is a ‘structural metaphor for an art historical present consisting largely of upside down reversed simulations of heroic postures of the recent past’ (M. Tansey quoted in J. Freeman, ‘Metaphor and Inquiry in Mark Tansey’s “Chain of Solutions”’, Mark Tansey, exh. cat. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles 1993, p. 46). Tansey, of course, also draws on certain idioms of the past, deliberately echoing the ‘neutral’ style of illustrations in official history-books and staged daguerreotypes. ‘It’s common practice in contemporary art to rely heavily on critical supplements to provide the conceptual content’, he notes. ‘But in illustration, the critical content and image can be structured together metaphorically’ (M. Tansey, ‘Notes and Comments’, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revision, New York 1992, p. 135). This not only gives his works – replete as they are with surreal juxtapositions and anachronistic detail – their strangely believable flavour, but allows them to stand apart from the prevailing ‘look’ of their time, and makes an ideological statement against the non-representational, non-allegorical forms of painting championed by modernist orthodoxy. For Tansey, art’s trajectory need not be framed in terms of one group triumphing over another, and pictorial content need not be taboo. In Study for Forward Retreat he not only engages in light-hearted mockery of his peers, but also reignites the power of painting to make metaphor visible, and opens up questions about the vast structures of preconception that are embedded, unseen, in every image.