Mark Tansey: The Marriage of Art and Epistemology

Mark Tansey  works in his New York studio from  a "wheel of language" before he translates his ideas onto canvas.                  

A well-known New York City artist, Mark Tansey illustrates the power of art to communicate. He works from both hemispheres of the brain, involving the viewer in his work by incorporating art history, science, math, geography, literature, rhetoric, logic, and even illogic onto his canvas.  Charged with denotative and connotative meaning and framed by rich metaphor, his work makes powerful and sometimes surprising statements. As the artist, he is the first cause, the one who transforms his questions and preconceived ideas into an image. The viewer  must then deductively and inductively translate  that effect.  


Tansey uses structuralism and poststructuralist thought as well as catastrophe, chaos, and complexity theory to create paintings that please the eye while provoking the mind. His work incorporates thinkers ranging from Plato, Kant, and Hegel to Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, and de Man, a complexity that makes his work invaluable for the study of Theory of Knowledge teachers and students.

         Classroom Activity: 

Below you will find representative samples of Tansey's work.  Form groups of five and study one.  (group or teacher choice).  Ask yourself such questions as "What should the title be?" "What is the theme of the painting?" After staring at the painting for a few minutes, try to decipher, "What is unusual that I didn't notice at first?" Try turning the painting upside down and looking closely at background detail. Tansey is notorious for slipping in illogical details that stimulate thought. Eventually ask yourself" how do the parts interrelate to create the whole?"  Synthesize your observations as a group and in about twenty minutes present your  insights to the general class.



                     Triumph over mastery


 For a detailed PDF interpretation of the above works and others click here.

For teachers or students who wish to study Tansey's work displayed on the web, click on the following link:    

Mark Tansey Collection

 Books for reference:

Mark Tansey - On realism and representation:  

- From Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, by Arthur C. Danto

I am not a realist painter. In the nineteenth century, photography co-opted the traditional function of realist painters, which was to make faithful renditions of "reality." Then the realist project was taken over by Modernist abstraction, as later evidenced in the title of Hans Hofmann's book Search for the Real. Minimalism tried to eliminate the gap between the artwork and the real. After that, the project itself dematerialized. But the problem for representation is to find the other functions beside capturing the real.

In my work, 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.

I think of the painted picture as an embodiment of the very problem that we face with the notion "reality." The problem or question is, which reality? In a painted picture, is it the depicted reality, or the reality of the picture plane, or the multidimensional reality the artist and viewer exist in? That all three are involved points to the fact that pictures are inherently problematic. This problem is not one that can or ought to be eradicated by reductionist or purist solutions. We know that to successfully achieve the real is to destroy the medium; there is more to be achieved by using it than through its destruction.

Mark Tansey - On pictorial content:

In the late 1970s, what was particularly attractive about pictorial representation was that one faced an opening and extending realm of content rather than dematerialization, endgames, and prolonged swan songs. Difficulties lay in the long established and increasingly critical isolation of subject matter from art practice. Critical discourse and art education had restricted the notion of content to two pockets coalescing around formal and conceptual poles. To speak about subject matter in a picture simply was not done.

My feeling was that there was no longer any justification for these restrictions. Pictures should be able to function across the fullest range of content. The conceptual should be able to mingle with the formal and subject matter should enjoy intimate relations with both.

Mark Tansey - The notion of the crossroads:

By contrast to the flat, static, formal model for painting on one hand and conceptualism on the other, I found it useful to think in terms of a structurally dynamic model for pictorial content that could include both models as well as subject matter. The notion of a crossroads or an intersection of visible and invisible trajectories offered the most vital metaphor for a picture. It accommodates the fact that pictorial content is mostly invisible (that is, embodied in preconceptions that are conceptual, cultural, temporal, etc.). There is really very little that is visible in the format of a picture. The value of thinking in terms of a crossroads or pictorial intersection is that if not all that much is visible, then what little there is ought to involve vital trajectories and points of collision and encounter between a variety of cultural, formal, or figural systems.

Mark Tansey - On rift and resonance:

In my earlier work I was trying to learn how to bring meaning to the image, and was having difficulty activating the figure and image as a whole. Magritte's eight methods of bringing about the "crisis of the object isolation, modification, hybridization, scale change, accidental encounters, double image puns, paradox, double viewpoints in one came as a revelation. It made it apparent to me that crises and conflicts were results of oppositions and contradictions and these were what was necessary to activate or motivate a picture.

Magritte's work also led me to wonder if crisis could take place on other levels of content, more quietly, internally, more plausibly. Could a conventional picture include many less apparent crisesthe way everyday life does without the use of overt surrealistic devices? Iconograph I was an experiment, a sort of Levi Strauss myth structure grid for crossing artificial/natural oppositions. For example, instead of Magritte's overt hybridization of a bottle/carrot [L'explication, 1954; Private Collection], I found that a potted plant offered a plausible and quiet crisis between artifice and nature.

In my later work, the idea of crisis was tempered and extended to rift and resonance. For instance, a picture might be decoded by distinguishing rifts (contradictions, discrepancies, implausibilities) from resonance (plausible elements, structural similarities, shared characteristics, verifications). In fact the notion of rift and resonance is fundamental to the picture constructing process as well. Take, for example, White on White. The monochrome lateral washes of paint suggest (resonate) with photographic plausibility both snowstorm and sandstorm and, as monochrome does not verify heat or cold, the unity of space is maintained. The unified space affirms the proximity of the Bedouins and Inuits, but their identities, their dress, modes of transportation (huskies and camels) suggest they exist in different climates, and the evidence of the windblown fur and clothing attests to winds blowing in opposite directions. If this evidence is to be affirmed, there would be an invisible rift down the center of the picture, where distant continents collide. Furthermore, the Inuits and Bedouins may be trying to determine exactly where the invisible rift lies.

Mark Tansey - On the value of illustration:

If in paintings there have been problems in linking image and idea, one key may be found buried deep in the practice of illustration. Illustration, having been banished from high art as commercial and slavish to an assigned message, nevertheless is where art begins. The only significant difference that I can find at this point between illustration and art is that the former traditionally involves doing someone else's idea rather than one's own. But of particular value in good illustration is the function of embedding the idea in the image. It's common practice in contemporary art to rely heavily on critical supplements to provide the conceptual content. But in illustration, the critical content and image can be structured toget er metaphorically. This involves the invention or search for a new metaphoric structure that acts as a transformational link between the idea and image. For instance, reflection, as metaphoric structure, can link the idea of equivalence of opposites to an image where an object and its reflection are interchangeable. Mont Sainte Victoire is an example of this.

Another value of illustration is its hyperfictional capacity. Because it is rhetorically out front, it has great latitude of reference and freedom to extend or condense space and time. It is not paralyzed with guilt about the impurities of reference or of metaphor. On the contrary, new metaphoric relations are its substance and aesthetic vehicle. It's at the door of metaphor that illustration transforms into "metaphoric redescription." Metaphoric redescription (Richard Rorty's term) is a function that is becoming increasingly interesting in light of the inadequacies of the term "representation," in that pictures don't actually represent anything.

Mark Tansey - On the role of drawing:

My work is fundamentally drawing. Everything in my practice is an extension, elaboration, or enhancement of drawing. Despite my prolonged focus on a variety of reproductive processes, with no other visual medium can I achieve such complexity with such simple means.

Mark Tansey - Rethinking representation:

More often than not, the critical response to painted representation labels it nostalgic or retrograde. often this is appropriate. But there are other dimensions to this response. One is that behind the label nostalgic (or retrograde) is the valorizing of a narrow sense of the present. The word Postmodern in its most obvious sense is a temporal designation. If Postmodern practice is attempting to break from Modernism, why hasn't the notion of the narrow present been questioned? Is there a temporal chauvinism here that makes it possible for art discourse to ignore all other structures of time (cultural, biological, geological, physiological, cosmological, etc.)? If one can get beyond the prohibitionary reflex action, it might be possible to look more closely at the content of representational or other modes of art to see the degree to which they are sensitive and accountable to other structures of time. In this way specific artworks can create the rupture that the larger critical discourse seems to be resisting.

Given that the painted picture is a declassified medium (in Marshall McLuhan's sense a medium that is no longer the dominant conduit or voice of power, unlike television or film) it can take on new functions. One of these can be as analogue to other representational media in understanding the limits and sensitivities of one as it relates to those of another. We can use the painted picture as a way of studying its own modes of references, its ranges of sensitivity and insensitivity, its deceptions, by way of offering insights into the analogous functions of for example, film, photography, and television.

I'd like to get a sense of the painted picture as a medium vital in its free range of reference and content. This is not to celebrate indiscrimination, but on the contrary, to make it possible to develop pictorial articulation involving a variety of syntaxes that would be interconnected and accountable rather than autonomous or indiscriminate.

At this point, it is apparent from Jasper Johns on that the separation of abstraction from representation from conceptualism is no longer compelling or convincing. Each are portions of an expanded notion of content that can be interfaced, emphasized, or deemphasized according to an artist's interests. The unique value of any artwork depends on how new metaphoric relations are structured within it.

But given this expanded content, the area that is as yet least explored and most in need of rethinking is the realm of representation. In contemporary art practice, notions of narrative, temporality, subject matter, illustration, and metaphor still remain simplistic and ill informed.

This is not to recast representation as though it were again in exile. It's not as though art discourse is moving away from representation, or that textual criticality is situated hierarchically against or outside it. They are also forms of representation. What we have is a dialogue where the critique of one representation is by another. Art discourse is the clash of representations.

- From Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, by Arthur C. Danto