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San Jose, California
Tansey had an early introduction to art. These early childhood experiences had a profound effect on Tansey's painting style from the inception of his career as an artist. Many of Tansey's paintings are monochromatic and seem old-fashioned. His method involves laying down a layer of monochrome pigment on canvas that can be altered easily only before it dries. This leaves Tansey 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's choice of color and tone lends a specific feeling to each painting.
Tansey lives in a two story studio in downtown New York City and works there from late afternoon throughout the night almost every day. The first floor of his studio is reserved for final paintings only, while the second floor is where he creates all of the preparatory sketches and variations that inspire his completed works. He derives his inspiration from photographic reproductions and magazine clippings, and works in stages of small sketches and drawings until he is prepared for the final painting.
From the time he was a young child, Tansey knew that he wanted to continue the family tradition and pursue a future in the art industry. He attended Saturday art classes at the San Francisco Art Institute in his early teen years and made a habit of regularly visiting art museums in the area. Beginning in 1969, Tansey spent three years studying at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. There his works portrayed a deep interest in the appropriation and simulation of media which was a style that did not become popular until the 1980s. His early concern with this technique displays Tansey's deep understanding of art history and the development of art over time.
After graduating, Tansey worked as an assistant at the San Jose State University Gallery. There he became well acquainted with the art that would later influence much of his work. In 1974, Tansey enrolled in the graduate program at Hunter College in New York City. He spent four years studying there, in what was possibly the top graduate art program of the era. There Tansey continued his examination of the historic art introduced to him by his parents, as well as modern painting and sculpture techniques and artists.
Tansey's paintings normally depict everyday or historical occurrences, though they typically reveal certain oddities under closer scrutinization. Although he uses depiction of recognizable objects in realistic perspective states, he is not a "realistic" or rather a "naturalistic" painter, because photography has co-opted the role of realism in painting. He argues that representation has other functions rather than "capturing the real." He argues that his work is about "how different realities interact with each other."
One of Tansey's most potent pieces from this early period is The Last Judgement (1971), which he created from oil on masonite. He was inspired by Michelangelo's fresco in the Sistine Chapel and proceeded to reproduce it in 32 rectangular sections. These were placed on display, arranged four across and eight tall. The entire study was done in shades of grey and brown. For Tansey, this project was "a synthesis of photographic, illustrative, and painterly qualities… The meaning of the work resided in the process of re-translation- reinterpretation reproduction- rather than in its perceptual equivalence to reality."[this quote needs a citation] In producing this piece, Tansey "discovered the notion of the 'unlimited brush'- any object able to carry paint could function as a brush… touch was equivalent to light… scraping off the paint let the white ground show through."[this quote needs a citation] This technique becomes the basis for many of his later paintings. In this stepwise process, the overwhelming and complex fresco that Tansey saw in the Sistine Chapel was broken down into a methodological and grid-like cacophony of figures.
At first glance, Tansey's distinctive paintings appear to depict straight narrative scenes but closer scrutiny reveals an undercurrent of quirks and visual puns. By thus manipulating the conventions and structures of figurative painting, he creates corollaries for literary, philosophical, and historical concepts in visual allegories about the nature and implications of perception, meaning, and interpretation in art.
His work is in major collections including Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles; and Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. Solo exhibitions include Kunsthalle Museum, Basel (1990); "Mark Tansey: Art and Source", Seattle Art Museum, Washington (1990, traveled to Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Canada, St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, List Visual Art Center, MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas through 1991); Fisher Landau Center for Art, Long Island City, New York (2005) and Museum Kurhaus Kleve, Germany (2005, traveled to Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart, Germany).
In the 1970s, influenced by the work of René Magritte's eight methods, he began to search for ways of displaying oppositions and contradictions as the motivation for a painting. From this he decided that illustration and representation were fundamentally necessary to heal the rift between art and practice, between symbol and meaning.
The implication is that he as an artist is searching for a "drive" to incorporate in his subjects, that would engage the viewer intellectually, while avoiding simple visual methods and opting for a more subtle and, consequently, more sophisticated and effective approach. Most of his paintings can readily be used as examples of that approach, where at first glance nothing is out of ordinary, but then it becomes apparent that certain elements are out of context, while remaining coherent visually, thus creating the conflict.
- "Mark Tansey - The Broad Art Foundation". broadartfoundation.org. Retrieved 2015-09-08.
- Tansey, Mark. "PROFILE Mark Tansey". Next After This. Retrieved 2012-05-01.
- "Exhibition of Recent Paintings by Mark Tansey at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills". Art Daily. May 2, 2011. Retrieved 2012-05-01.
- Tansey, Mark. "Theory of Knowledge: International Baccalaureate". Amy Scott: International Baccalaureate.
- Artcyclopedia entry
- American Kaleidoscope page
- Brief essay by Amy Scott
- AskArt entry
- Mark Tansey on Widewalls