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Monday, April 11, 2011

Mark Tansey

Perhaps one of the strangest paintings done in the last 30 years came from the hand of Mark Tansey. It's an enormous painting, some ten feet in length and over six feet in height. It hangs in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The painting is titled the Triumph of the New York School. The title proclaims the historical conquest of American Abstract Expressionism over the mainstream Paris School after World War II. Painted in 1984, at first glance the daring, deep contrast of the red, monochromatic painting is striking. It has the appearance of a giant photo from a Sunday magazine section with realism appropriate to the style. The work appears to be a history painting depicting the battlefield surrender of one army to another. Upon closer inspection, the surrendering army on the left, dressed in World-War I uniforms can be seen as French, while an American army on the right (in WW II uniforms) stands by with a certain casual, non-chalance accepting the capitulation.  
The Triumph of the New York School, 1984, Mark Tansey

It is at this point that the wealth of irony inherent in the work comes to the fore. Each of the more than a dozen officers on each side is a recognizable portrait of famous artists, critics, and writers, including on the French side, the Surrealist Andre Breton and Pablo Picasso (dressed in fur), and on the American side such painters as Jackson Pollock and the highly influential New York art critic, Clement Greenberg. In the background is a war-torn landscape dotted by the smouldering fires of recent artistic conflicts over which the New York School has unconditionally triumphed. The two or three French officers are mounted on anachronistic horses while the American "cavalry" is a modern armored half-track.   
Aside from providing interesting intellectual delights for art historians, the painting's purpose is to shake up conventional ideas about history and truth. The soldiers of WW I surrendering to those WW II is as absurd the comparison of art and war. In addition, the documentary photographic realism of such an impossible historic scene challenges our notions regarding the reliability of photography itself. Today, with many off-the-shelf computers coming bundled with scanners, printers, and photo-editing software, this element of the painting now seems academic. It serves to underline the gradual disappearance of the line between the painted image an the photographic image. With the photo, merely another tool of the artist, and artistic editing merely another tool of the photographer, all images are merely that--images.   

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