Whitehot Magazine

Donald Kuspit on Mark Tennant at Georges Berges Gallery: The Past In The Present, The Present In The Past

Mark Tennant, oil on canvas 2024


By DONALD KUSPIT May 14, 2024

A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.

- Albert Camus  

I think Untitled 2024-9 is the one painting that epitomizes Mark Tennant’s concerns—fixations is a better word:  Old Master paintings and young boys and girls, usually teenagers.  We are in the gallery of a museum, looking at two young girls, viewed from the back, looking at 19th century French masterpieces.  It is as though they are hypnotized by—fixated on--them.  Walking past the girls, indifferent to them and the paintings, we see two young boys, also teenagers, also viewed from the back.  They are taller than the girls and dressed differently.  One girl wears a white mini-skirt and white boots; the other girl wears black pants and a white shirt, with a big black handbag slung over her right arm.  They both have black hair, falling halfway down their backs.  One boy wears a hoodie—the hood is down, revealing his black hair--and black pants.  The boy behind him wears a tee shirt and slacks. The girls seem upper class, the boys seem lower class, as their different clothing suggests.  Both the girls and boys are faceless—anonymous strangers who happen to be in the same space, in the same museum.  It is not clear why the boys are there; they’re passing through the gallery.  They don’t bother to stop and look at the paintings in the gallery, attend to them with all their being, as the girls do.  They are fixated on the paintings.  Entering a museum “we enter an aesthetic church,” the philosopher Karsten Harries said, suggesting the “almost religious reverence and respect” with which the girls view the paintings, and implicitly the artists who made them.  

Mark Tennant, oil on canvas 2024

The boys are on the move, heading out of the room, indifferent to the girls and the paintings—the boy in the lead casts a fleeting, dare one say indifferent glance, at one of them.  They seem to be fleeing the room, ill at ease in it, while the girls are comfortable in it, and oblivious to the boys—the paintings fixed on the wall are more interesting than the boys on the move.  Taken together, the line of two girls and the line of two boys form the sides of a scalene triangle, its apex  the edge of the gallery wall in front of the head of the boy wearing the hoodie.  An old woman, wearing a white covid mask and black hat and gray coat, blocks his way, an intimation of death worthy of an Old Master, and a reminder that the Old Master art the girls are contemplating is dead art, which is why it is in a museum, a kind of mausoleum.  Looking at it with fresh eyes, they restore it to life, or at least it reminds them, however unconsciously, that it was once as fresh, young, alive as they are, for contemplating it they project themselves into it.  Museum art is after all “eternally present,” as the art historian Siegfried Giedion said, and with that forever young.     

Mark Tennant, oil on canvas 2024    

For years Tennant has taught museum copying at Paris’ Louvre, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, advising his students—he has taught for years at the University of San Francisco’s Academy of Art—to do the same:  copy Old Master art, that is, traditional art, or rather, more subtly art that is at once traditional, being representational, and modern, even avant-garde for its times, for it once conveyed the “sensation of the new,” as Baudelaire called art that showed people realistically rather than idealized them, showed them as they looked, dressed, and acted today rather than as they appeared in the classical art of antiquity, which, as Baudelaire said, ennobled them.  Tennant has copied the paintings of all kinds of traditional artists, pre-avant-garde artists, but “I love Manet” above them all, Tennant has said, “but in a very modern way,” he adds, because Manet is on the cusp of modernism, having one eye that looks backward to traditional art, as Le dejeuner sur l’herbe, 1863 does, and another eye that looks at contemporary reality, as The Battle of the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama,” 1864 does.  But it is above Manet’s so-called taches—patches, stains, or splashes of paint--that make him a modernist—the first modernist.

Mark Tennant, oil on canvas 2024

In 1889 the French critic Felix Feneon described impressionist painting as tachist, and in 1909 the French artist Maurice Denis described Fauvist painting as tachist.  But Tennant’s taches are more disruptive, dare one say insane, certainly manic--manically violent--as Untitled 2024-9 makes clear.  They disrupt, unsettle, ruin the gallery floor, break the wall molding beneath the paintings in two, suggesting they are meaningless, however meaningful to the girls.  It is as though the room has been undermined by a catastrophic earthquake.  The floor on which the boys move and the girls stand still is dangerous, treacherous, unstable, no longer smooth, flat, supportive, safe to walk or stand on, for it has been fragmented into rows of reified gestures, each broken piece a sort of slippery steppingstone.  They are all perversely pink as though to symbolize the boys’ muted, unconscious desire for the girls they are apparently at odds with.  Emotionally, culturally, intellectually, socially inferior to the girls—an inferiority disguised by indifference to them and the paintings in the gallery—the boys are barbarians out of place in a civilized space.  The gallery—and museum—has been apocalyptically undermined, ruined beyond repair, shaken to its foundations, and with that peculiarly discredited. 

Mark Tennant, oil on canvas 2024

The boys and girls in Tennant’s painting are in separate places and go their separate ways.  The girls stand on tar-like black, presumably their peculiar shadows, perhaps suggesting the “mystery of woman.”  The boy in the tee shirt casts no shadow, the boy in the hoodie has a fragment of a grayish shadow; there’s nothing mysterious about them.  The discrepancy in appearance and position between the girls and boys announces their emotional, intellectual, physical difference and incompatibility.  The work is an ingenious depiction of the war of the sexes—and the precarious, even problematic position of art in the world, for the museum can collapse, its shelter from the world ruined, seemingly beyond repair, as Tennant’s peculiarly pessimistic painting suggests. 

Mark Tennant, oil on canvas 2024

Almost all the other paintings by Tennant deal with the relationship of females and males, directly or obliquely, but they tend to focus more on females than males.  He likes painting young naked pretty women, as Untitled 2024-8 shows—the more the merrier, as the sleeping sprawling fleshy naked young women, their nipples on their breasts emphasized, suggests—but he also likes them more or less clothed, as in Untitled 2024-14, a sort of Dejeuner sur l’herbe of some of his female students, as the white drawing paper around them suggests.  The three young women in Untitled 2024-20 are also implicitly his students, as the backpack that one of them wears suggests.  She has brownish hair, another has black hair, and the one between them has blonde hair, and wears a mini skirt, with a bit of black panties showing, above her very white legs.  The girl with the backpack and her back to us wears blue (denim?) shorts and has tanned legs.  It is a study in extreme contrasts, but they remind me, perhaps absurdly, of the three fates—personifications of destiny.  I am suggesting that Tennant’s renderings of females are fraught with mythopoetic allusions, as those in Manet’s Dejeuner sur la herbe and Olympia are.  Tennant’s heart clearly opens in their presence, and his art is aroused by it.  He does not degrade them by looking at them with the so-called male gaze, nor with voyeuristic lust, but with aesthetic gratitude.  They are his muses and graces in one, as the female model invariable is, even if she is reduced to a passive odalisque.  But there is nothing passive about Tennant’s females, for they make passionate love, as the woman in red in Untitled 2024-1 does.  No doubt they are informed by his desire for them, even as they are his anima, the feminine part of a man’s personality, as Jung says.  The success of Tennant’s paintings depends upon his insight into their psyches and behavior. 

Mark Tennant, oil on canvas 2024

Photography is reified appearance; the brilliance of Tennant is that he can reconcile seemingly objective photography and seemingly subjective painterliness, that is, “frankly declared surface,” as the modernist critic Clement Greenberg called it, and “romantic” expression or “mode of feeling,” as Baudelaire called it, and what Henri Cartier-Bresson called the “decisive moment” that “photography must seize” and “hold immobile the equilibrium of it.”   I suggest the broken wall and collapsing floor in Tennant’s museum gallery indicate that painting and photography cannot be expressively reconciled, let alone seamlessly integrated.  In Tennant’s works their unity is precarious, all the more so because his color patches have a life—dynamic--of their own, subtly—uncannily—subverting the static photograph, the way the unconscious can subvert—or at least “color”--the conscious, which is what the photograph symbolizes.  In 1867 the French critic Hippolyte Babou, who suggested the title “Les Fleurs du mal” to Baudelaire, presciently noted Manet’s “mania for seeing things in patches,” particularly in Music in the Tuileries:  “the Baudelaire patch, the Gautier patch, the Manet patch.”  As the art historian Francoise Cachin writes, Music in the Tuileries can in fact “be regarded (more than Le dejeuner sur l’herbe, which art history has generally cast in the role) as the earliest true example of modern painting, in both subject matter and technique.”  Combining not to say fusing photography, which Baudelaire viciously attacked as positivistic rather than imaginative, and romantic painterliness—tachisme—which subverts the photographic representation of external reality, Tennant gives the painting hallucinatory presence, turns it into a kind of dream, which is a representation of what Anna Freud called “internal reality.”  

Mark Tennant, installation view, Georges Berges, NYC 2024

Baudelaire said black is the color of the 19th century.  Manet was a master of black, used it deftly in his paintings, not because he thought it was “the queen of all colors,” as Renoir said— “black is not a color,” Manet said--but because, in Kandinsky’s words, “black is externally the most toneless color, against which all other colors, even the weakest, sound stronger and more precise.”  This is made exquisitely clear in the setting of colorful flowers against a black background in Manet’s Lilacs and Roses and Two Roses on a Tablecloth, both 1883, and even more dramatically the contrast between the two seated women in white, the standing man in black behind them, and behind all three the abysmal blackness of empty space in The Balcony, 1868-1869.  The Dead Matador, 1864-1865 wears black and reclines in black space, his white shoes and white cloth around his waist.  With an even more dramatic flair and ruthless energy than Manet—“I love Manet” to recall Tennant’s declaration of dependence, certainly acknowledgement of influence—Tennant loads his works with blackness, embedding his figures in it, as in Untitled 2024-2 and Untitled 2024-18.  The buttocks and legs of the four young women in Untitled 2024-18 seem about to fall into a pitch black abyss, the two young women in Untitled 2024-2 seem like hadean wraiths--ghosts in hell.  A woman completely in black—she wears a black hat as well as a long black coat that covers her shoes—appears like a witch at the dinner table in Untitled 2024-21—hardly good company compared to the smiling blonde on the other side of the table.  All the ballet dancers in Untitled 2024-4 wear black sweaters over their white tutus, with the exception of the ballerina in the center, looking at her black cellphone.  The kissing couple in Untitled 2024-1 are set against a black backdrop. 

The boy has black hair, and there are smudges of black shadow on the lower part of his white shirt.  The girl seems to cast or supported by a black shadow.  The distant background in Untitled 2024-14 is black, with a few flicker s of light making it more emphatically present.  One of the young girls in the foreground wears a black bodice, the girl with the cellphone next to her has what seems to be a black briefcase, and the girl on the far right is sitting on her own shadow.  In the middle distance the girl standing with her back to us wears black tights.  In the far distance a boy wears black pants.  The couple in Untitled 2024-10 is set against a blotchy black background.  The shadow under the bench in Untitled 2024-11 is pitch black, and so are the jeans of the girl in the middle of the three on the bench and the tee shirt of the man sitting further down on the bench.  Most startling and moving is the epidemic of blackness in Untitled 2024-5 and Untitled 55. 

The suffering young women pictured hide their faces; they don’t want us to see their tears.  My simple descriptions can hardly do justice to the intensity of the black and the flair with which it often appears, as the grand black gesture hurled over the head of the squatting street person by the angry woman standing over him.  Black bile pervades the picture.  Black also pervades Mt. Merts, strikingly in the jacket of the man, which seems to be peeling black stripes.  They are “slapdash”—as Manet’s tachist gestures were said to be by the critics of his time.  Other critics said his handling looked “crude and unfinished” and “sketch-like,” and some saw “brutality” in them—raw nihilistic energy, I would say.  They’re certainly a far and aggressive cry from Baldassare Castiglione’s sprezzatura, “the art that conceals art,” “not simply a kind of superficial dissimulation,” and “not something that can be taught,” “broken down to a set of rules,” but a perfection acquired through “practice and imitation.”  There’s no art that conceals art—no hint of Renaissance subtlety—in Tennant’s paintings, but a peculiarly mannerist perversity, signaled by the odd distortions that haunt the space, the peculiarly perverse moodiness generated by the nihilistic black, and perhaps above all by their not so hidden sexual subject matter, as in Untitled 24-1, more broadly human relationships, for better, as in Mt. Merts, or worse, as in Untitled 58, or caring, as in Untitled 24-10.  I think the Sturm und Drang of Tennent’s black signals his anxiety about his frustrated desire for the young female art students that appear in many of his works. 

In Untitled 2024-8 we see an artist, standing upright, painting a nude model, bent over.  She has no identity; she’s all but faceless; her lips and nose are blurred; her blonde hair seems uncombed and rumpled; her body is a raw sketch.  In sharp contrast, the artist is neatly dressed; he wears a white shirt and tie; his face, seen in profile, is clearly delineated; his hair is neatly combed.  His left hand is in his pants’ pocket; his right hand is painting the model’s hair.  It’s radiantly blonde in the painting; it has some brown in or shadow on it in reality.  She’s set against a blue sky in the painting and seems to be standing on a white cloud.  The painting is incomplete, but it seems clear that the artist is idealizing the model.  Dare one say she’s a sort of angel in blue heaven?  The artist’s smock is a patchwork of taches, the model’s body is smooth, unmarked by let alone constructed of taches.  But a large black shadow falls on the canvas, obscuring her genital area.  It is the same black that we see in all of Tennent’s paintings of young women.  Perhaps it is the black bile of frustrated love or melancholy.  There seems to be a manic depressive character to Tennent’s paintings. WM

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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