Gagosian Quarterly

Summer 2017 Issue


Mark Tansey

A guide through the multilayered and complex new Reverb. Text by Alexander Wolf.

Mark Tansey, Reverb, 2017, oil on canvas, 84 × 60 inches (213.4 × 152.4 cm). © Mark Tansey. Photo by Rob McKeever

Mark Tansey, Reverb, 2017, oil on canvas, 84 × 60 inches (213.4 × 152.4 cm). © Mark Tansey. Photo by Rob McKeever

Alexander Wolf

Alexander Wolf has written for Modern Painters, Art in America, The Last Magazine, and The New Republic. In 2013 he joined Gagosian, New York, where his projects have included advising private and institutional collectors, communications, and online initiatives.

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Asked recently whether he paints multiple works at once, Mark Tansey grinned. Reverb, his undivided focus for the last two years, shows a glamorous salon dominated by a long wall of paintings, hung frame to frame, that extends beyond the borders of the 84-by-60-inch canvas. Each square in the grid of floor tiles is inscribed with pictures or diagrams, and mirrors and a vase generate more images still. One work at a time, or many? It remains an open question.

A man and a woman in cocktail attire talk near the wall of paintings. There is tension: he gestures with both hands, making a point, as she looks away into a mirror. Tansey’s paintings are monochromatic, his way of separating borrowed images from their sources and integrating them into a new unity;1 Reverb is in shades of Prussian blue, the color of blueprints.

If Tansey’s paintings always reward close inspection, Reverb eagerly invites it. It doesn’t take long to see that several of the framed images show Woody Allen, doing what Woody Allen does: talking and gesturing—making a point, with his words and with his hands. The images of Allen—walking down a street with Debra Messing, with Helen Hunt on the set of The Curse of the Jade Scorpion  (2001), at a party with his collar in the grip of Diana Vreeland—echo the physical and spoken communications between the painting’s central figures. On the wall’s upper right are tiny Feynman diagrams, physicist Richard Feynman’s pictorial representations of the interactions of subatomic particles. Thus the wall holds a survey of pictures of interactions, from infinitesimal ones to encounters between celebrities.

Mark Tansey

The mirror includes an image of a clown sourced from a photograph of the famous clown Emmett Kelly, reproduced in the psychoanalyst Martin Grotjahn’s book Beyond Laughter (1957).

Among other things, Reverb explores the slippage of representation: the fluctuations that inevitably occur when thoughts are illustrated through words and gestures, a face is reflected in a mirror, or life is represented through art. Tansey came of age in New York at the same time as a generation of artists investigating the nature of picture-making, especially with regards to recycled imagery, and he is no exception. But whereas many of his contemporaries—Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, Richard Prince, and others—delight in the shifts of meaning that take place when images are displaced or recontextualized, Tansey also pursues the more immediate shifts intrinsic to common interactions, the changes that happen in the space between the mind and verbal or physical communication. What nuances are lost and gained in translation? Eyeing Reverb’s salon of appropriated images, viewers might wonder what was left uncommunicated in David Cameron’s wave as he left 10 Downing Street for the last time; or by the pantomimes of a vaudeville-era clown.

The nature of Tansey’s inquiry can be traced in part to his variegated studies at New York’s Hunter College in 1974–78, where he made some of his first forays into image-morphing in courses taught by Ron Gorchov and Robert Morris while also sitting in on Rosalind Krauss’s classes on the French semiologists. Merging these interests, he created notebooks of book and magazine clippings picturing people in every conceivable position—an encyclopedia of human gestures.2 Intense acts of cataloguing have played a role in his process ever since. Nor are images his only sources: it’s possible that more of his preparatory materials derive from literature and language. A note in his current workbook suggests we consider the title Reverb not only in terms of its many visual echoes, but also verbally:






Mark Tansey

On the table is the painting Reverb is a reversed map of the US congressional districts. The table relates in its shape to Tansey’s earlier sculpture Wheel (1990). Photos by Rob McKeever

Mark Tansey

At Tansey’s recent one-painting exhibition at Gagosian, Reverb was accompanied only by Wheel  (1990), a wooden tablelike apparatus whose top comprises three concentric circles inscribed with words. The circles divide loosely into subjects, verbs, and objects, though some entries may be fairly lengthy phrases. These circles can be turned, and as they spin, the words align in countless combinations—“something I used against artist’s block to provide narrative,” Tansey has said.3 A spin of Wheel might tell us “modern traditionalist stalled by sea change,” or “cubists on the threshold of delay tactics.” Tansey’s inclusion of Wheel in the exhibition is telling; he once wrote of this functional sculpture, “I’ve found it useful in making it possible to mix distinctly different levels of content: the conceptual, the figural, and the formal, much as one mixes red, yellow, and blue on a color wheel.”4 (Indeed, the sculpture was predated by several paper versions that he actually called “color wheels.”) Language is to Tansey what color is to most painters—he has referred to his work as “pictorial rhetoric.”5

Picture a deck of cards based on eye-mind-hand interactions and contradictions. To play the game, select some cards, shuffle them, and continue by finding analogies. You make the cards as you go. Sometimes new features or behaviors emerge. Sometimes it might seem as though the deck is infinite.

Mark Tansey
Mark Tansey

The right side wall contains thirty-seven diagrams made by physicist Richard Feynman in 1948. They are mathematical expressions of the relationships of subatomic particles, making visual the interactions of atoms.

Mark Tansey

The floor tiles include a diagram that illustrates the principle of supersymmetry.

If Wheel has become something of a symbol of Tansey’s atypical process, Reverb may be the painting that epitomizes his ability to hold viewers through gradual revelation. He describes the work as “the space where thinking, seeing, and making interact simultaneously and sequentially.”6

The image fuses impressions of the studio, of an archive, of a blueprint (hence the Prussian blue), of a cocktail lounge, even of a church, complete with icons that constitute a layered narrative. A side table bearing a resemblance to Wheel alludes to Tansey’s creative past, while the sketches, diagrams, and tracings on the floor may evolve into future paintings—monochromatic, surely, but colored by the wide spectrum of his purview.

1See Arthur C. Danto and Mark Tansey, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992), p. 128.

2See Patterson Sims, Mark Tansey: Art and Source (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1990), p. 8.

3Tansey, quoted in Phoebe Hoban, “The Wheel Turns: Painting Paintings about Painting,” New York Times, April 27, 1997, available online at (accessed March 13, 2017).

4Judi Freeman, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Tansey, Mark Tansey (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993), pp. 69–70.

5Tansey, quoted in Hoban, “The Wheel Turns: Painting Paintings about Painting.”

6Tansey, telephone conversation and e-mail exchange with Amanda Hajjar of the Gagosian Gallery, March 8 and 9, 2017.

Artwork © Mark Tansey

Painters without Borders

Painters without Borders

The exhibition Figurative Diaspora, co-curated by Mark Tansey and Peter Drake, presented paintings by five Chinese artists alongside work by five Russian artists, all of whom create “unofficial,” subversive, non-state-sanctioned art, thus tracing the influences of art across borders.

Figurative Diaspora

Figurative Diaspora

Curated by Mark Tansey and Peter Drake of the New York Academy of Art, Figurative Diaspora presents works of “unofficial art”—subversive, non-state sanctioned art—created by five Soviet artists and five contemporary Chinese artists.

Mary Weatherford, Orion’s Belt, 2016, Flashe and neon on linen.

Mary Weatherford: Train Yards

Mary Weatherford speaks to Laura Hoptman about her new paintings, the Train Yard series. Begun in 2016, this body of work evokes the sights and sounds of railroads and night skies. The series will be shown for the first time in late 2020, in an exhibition at Gagosian, London.

Ed Ruscha, At That, 2020, dry pigment and acrylic on paper.

“Things Fall Apart”: Ed Ruscha’s Swiped Words

Lisa Turvey examines the range of effects conveyed by the blurred phrases in recent drawings by the artist, detailing the ways these words in motion evoke the experience of the current moment.

Jay DeFeo working on The Rose (then titled Deathrose), photographed by Burt Glinn in 1960.

Jay DeFeo

Suzanne Hudson speaks with Leah Levy, executive director of the Jay DeFeo Foundation, about the artist’s life and work.

Joe Bradley’s studio, New York, 2018

Work in Progress
Joe Bradley

With preparations underway for his 2018 exhibition at Gagosian in London, Phyllis Tuchman visited the artist’s studio in Long Island City, New York, to learn more about this new body of work.

Derek Jarman, 1981. Photo: Janette Beckman/Getty Images

Derek Jarman: A Saint in the Garden

Mark Hudson considers the filmmaker’s enduring legacy and complex relationship to British culture.

Spencer Sweeney in his studio, New York. Photo: Rob McKeever

In Conversation
Spencer Sweeney and Edek Bartz

Curator and concert promoter Edek Bartz speaks with the artist about portraiture, album covers, and subverting expectations.

Andrea Domenico Remps, Cabinet of Curiosities, c. 1690, oil on canvas, 39 × 54 inches (99 × 137 cm), Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence, Italy.

For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.

Sydney Stutterheim meditates on the power and possibilities of small-format artworks throughout time.

Damien Hirst, Happiness, 1993–94, oil on canvas, 24 × 17 ⅞ inches.

Damien Hirst: Visual Candy

James Fox considers the origins of Damien Hirst’s Visual Candy paintings on the occasion of a recent exhibition of these early works in Hong Kong.

Five Books: Urs Fischer

Five Books: Urs Fischer

Urs Fischer talks about reading during the pandemic lockdown, sharing five books—both fiction and nonfiction—that he has turned to while in self-isolation.

David Reed, #714, 2014–19, acrylic, oil, and alkyd on polyester.

David Reed

David Reed and Katharina Grosse met at Reed’s New York studio in the fall of 2019 to talk about his newest paintings, the temporal aspects of both artists’ practice, and some of their mutual inspirations.