ART REVIEW : Tansey’s Talent to Amuse : Mid-Career Survey at County Museum


Mark Tansey’s paintings describe philosophical conundrums, sometimes with wit and always with intelligence.

Yet, they’re most notable for a frankly peculiar tone, which registers its odd chord somewhere between world-weary ennui over the reigning intellectual doctrines of the day and an unearned certainty about the artist’s own direction that seems principally predicated on old-fashioned faith. Tansey’s work is at once enormously likable and distinctly unexciting.

The mid-career survey that opened Thursday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art offers 25 paintings from the past dozen years by the New York-based artist. Thoughtfully organized and installed by curator Judi Freeman, the show has been wisely laid out in a thematic rather than chronological manner. Tansey’s art is gently polemical, and the thematic focus makes sense.


Tansey employs an illustrational style, often based on photographs, to create impossible or incongruous scenarios. (Think of Magritte.) Not exactly Surrealist, they trace a certain ancestry to Parisian art before World War II.

A kind of disjunctive, cerebral collage of images, the pictures are given a unifying seamlessness through a strict use of monochrome oil paint. Black and white, when they turn up, typically function as neutral shadows and highlights, or as an echo of black-and-white photography. Indeed, whether the monochrome is red, violet, blue or green, his paintings emphasize a photographic look.

A 1990 picture of the influential contemporary philosophers Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man engaged in intellectual struggle at the dangerous edge of a romantically inspired cliff, composed of printed type, is entirely blue. A visual iciness prevails.

“Doubting Thomas” (1986) is a contemporary fellow whose car is pulled over to the side of a mountain road, so that he might kneel by the asphalt to insert his hand into a jagged fissure, perhaps caused by earthquake or frost, that has split the road in two. Flaming red, the picture registers an ominous heat.

The black and white of the amusing “The Innocent Eye Test” (1981), in which a stuffy group of gentlemen (university professors? officious bureaucrats?) has brought in a cow to gaze at a life-size Realist painting of a bull, seems obviously designed to call attention to photography. The pervasiveness of modern image-making machinery, which instantly became a principal player in art’s Victorian tussles over Truth to Nature, is central to Tansey’s art.

Tansey’s limited palette can be put to complex effect. “Triumph Over Mastery II” (1987) employs only red and white. The picture shows a modern painter standing on a ladder and wielding a paint roller. With broad sweeps of whitewash, he covers over Michelangelo’s famous mural “Last Judgment,” from the Sistine Chapel.


The modern artist’s whitewash has so far obliterated the heavenly host, and it’s now sweeping across the torso of the commanding figure of Christ, having already erased the upraised hand with which he saves souls or damns them. Like Michelangelo’s image of the Savior, the painter on the ladder is a bare-torsoed man of action who, with comprehensive gestures, redeems or condemns.

Pictorially, the result is an encroachment of blank, white canvas, symbol of a modern era that spans Russian avant-gardist Kasimir Malevich in the ‘teens and American Minimalist Robert Ryman today. Tansey infers an erasure of publicly engaged moral argument from 20th-Century art.

He further suggests an additional fate: The modern painter is also shown erasing his own shadow, which rakes across Michelangelo’s images of tortured and condemned souls--the shades of hell--and disappears along with them.

Tansey’s limited palette is plainly capable of exerting a broad resonance. What it’s less successful at accomplishing is the visual seduction of which paint is so gorgeously capable.

Captivation is here almost entirely left to the imagery, with its storytelling implications, while Tansey’s monochrome paint creates a surface that feels schematic and notational. The brain might initially be engaged by the content-rich picture, but the eye soon wanders off in search of something to do.

This remote sense of cool, even bemused disengagement can only be called academic, and it’s a fatal weakness in Tansey’s art. His work laments the present condition of painting, but he doesn’t offer much in its place, except benign amusement. As pictures, they’re extraordinarily passive.


You get the feeling, in works such as “Triumph Over Mastery II,” that Tansey believes painting has important work to do in the world. But the claim is never pressed. His paintings are about conflicting theory, in an illustrational sort of way, but they do little to advance a position through example.

Of course, Tansey is elsewhere skeptical of an active or aggressive art. In a jokey, if wonderfully observed picture titled “Triumph of the New York School” (1984), whose composition is based on a battlefield scene by Velazquez, he tweaks art history’s common “battle of the titans” motif.

With a smoky, war-ravaged countryside stretching out in the distance, Andre Breton, chief theorist of the School of Paris, surrenders to his New York School counterpart, Clement Greenberg. At the left, nattily outfitted in World War I attire, stand Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp and other artists of the vanquished aesthetic; at the right, slouching in World War II fatigues, are the all-American victors: Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, David Smith and the rest.

Pictorial ruminations such as this are not unique to Tansey. Consider an image of a hardy band of Arctic explorers daringly led by a Greenberg-like figure, who voyages into the unknown: a field of colorful, brightly painted glacial fissures, dangerously arrayed against the white void of nature in a manner oddly reminiscent of a Morris Louis painting. “Clem” pokes at the cracking ice, cautiously testing the figure-ground relationship.

This picture, which is by John Baldessari, engages in a similar kind of inquiry as Tansey’s paintings do, but with a sizable difference: Baldessari’s is not a painting, but an ordinary, found photograph deftly altered by the artist.

Both Tansey and Baldessari fundamentally invoke mechanical reproduction as having forever altered the nature of art. But, where Baldessari actively engages actual photographs as a dulled but potentially poetic language, with which the situation can effectively be taken in hand, Tansey only mimics the look of camera images. He privileges painting, but sluggishly.


I’m not saying painting is an illegitimate medium for Tansey to use, or even that a Photorealist style is out of bounds. I am saying Tansey’s paintings passively insinuate themselves within the long tradition of oil on canvas, as if adopting that conventional pedestal of privilege would--or could--automatically sanctify his critical argument.

It doesn’t. Tansey’s paintings are often fun, sometimes challenging. Rarely are they persuasive, satisfying repeat viewing.

* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 857-6000, through Aug. 29. Closed Mondays.