Reflection on a Painting of a Cow Reflecting on a Painting of a Cow 9

The Innocent Eye Test, by Mark Tansey : A Musing…

Click on image to enlarge

I think of the painted picture as an embodiment of the very problem that we face with the notion “reality.” The problem or question is, which reality? In a painted picture, is it the depicted reality, or the reality of the picture plane, or the multidimensional reality the artist and viewer exist in? That all three are involved points to the fact that pictures are inherently problematic. This problem is not one that can or ought to be eradicated by reductionist or purist solutions. We know that to successfully achieve the real is to destroy the medium; there is more to be achieved by using it than through its destruction.

—Mark Tansey, quoted in Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, by Arthur C. Danto

I used to enjoy visiting this huge 78 x 120 inch painting when it was on display at the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York (The MET), and so I was sad to learn that the painting had been sold to a private owner back in May of 2011 (more on the controversy surrounding the sale later).

A few years earlier, I had a huge epiphany while standing in front of this masterpiece at the MET.

I was there in the gallery, gazing at this painting of a cow gazing at a painting of a cow, trying to gain some insight as to why the artist entitled it The Innocent Eye Test. While I was standing there, alone, others began to gather around, joining me in contemplation.

I caught myself taking in this scene of viewers viewing the painting along with me and decided to step back out of the way to let them enjoy the picture more, whilst I stood at a distance to take in the whole scene.

Then it hit me. A minute before, they were watching me watching the paining; now I was watching them watching the painting; I could clearly see now that they were doing exactly what the cow in the painting was doing. I started looking around to see if anyone was watching me, watching them, watching a painting of a cow watching a painting of a cow…

The fact that the paining in the painting was also in a museum (like we were) brought it home. Like a coincidental, spontaneous, involuntary, public reenactment of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, that was the only way I could think to describe it.  The painting was causing us viewers to act out the painting before us.

Or maybe everybody was just looking at a random work of art and I’m ruminating way too much.

While the artist may have had none of that in mind, here’s what I took from the experience. When people get stuck, maybe they need to take a step back to see the whole picture; or maybe they need to do the opposite and take a deeper look inside themselves; or maybe they just need to move on…

The present controversy surrounding the painting

As I mentioned earlier, Mark Tansey’s painting was taken from the MET and sold to a private owner. Apparently, however, the MET owns 31% of the painting (I suppose that would amount to the portion of the canvas that comprises the painting within the painting and maybe the extra cow if you were to cut it up; but I’m not King Solomon). Furthermore, the MET claims that the original owner had promised that the painting would eventually belong, in full, to the MET. The case has gone to court, so perhaps we’ll see Mark Tansey’s The Innocent Eye Test back in the museum (where it belongs!).

[Photo of this painting taken at the Met by “Perpetual Learner” Matthew Green]

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