Subject: Jackson Pollock walking on water; deals with the idea of depth in painting. Greenberg thought depth was an illusion; the flat surface is what Formalism was all about. So what might look like depth here is only an illusion according to Greenberg is shown in the boat lecturing on the nature of flatness and gesturing toward Pollock; Motherwell is shown doubtful, studying the water’s surface; Gorky clings to his life preserver, but Pollock knows it is all surface and he demonstrates that by walking out onto the water, like a miracle. The painting is in fact Tansey’s own lecture on flatness vs. depth, illusion vs. reality. Pollock may prove here that depth in painting is a myth but Tansey’s painting suggests otherwise: that pictorial space has depth of meaning. Tansey’s allegory on Formalism vs. Content.
Style: seemingly artless style; lets content dominate. He employs a flat, descriptive, didactic style suited to communicate visual information, like that used for medical illustration or images in history books; they look downright illustrational, a taboo in Modernism. The paintings are monochrome. He wants you to read the images as text or allegories–to get to the stories through the imagery in order to explain what you see. He begins with a layer of monochrome pigment that dries in about 6 hrs., after which it can be modified only with great pains. The images are produced by wiping or pulling the paint away. Works like an Old Master, starting from a middle tone, then adding darks and wiping away to lights. Archival in approach: painting as historiography (the history of art history). His style cultivates an air of datedness or “retro”–they seem historical, like dated realism, but conceptually they speak of how Postmodernism goes forward by deconstructing the past.
Context: a Postmodern moment that sees Modernism and the avant-garde as part of history. Instead of a Utopian, future-oriented direction, these artists turn back to try to see where we’ve been; they are on the lookout for Modernism’s blind spots–its demystifying values and limitations of vision. Art not in search of transcendence and the heroic; more concerned with a historical critique and deconstruction; anti-formalism; emphasis placed on content over form. Giving depth to meaning. Identifies his role “as opening up content.”