PRINT June 1963


THE SIGNIFICANT ART THAT has arisen out of post-World War II Europe has, for the most part, dealt with a profound search for moral values. The ethical tradi­tions of European culture that had become so in­grained through the centuries had been suddenly and completely destroyed by the war. The burden of a world with no meaningful supernatural values weighed heavily, and the impact of Sartre’s Existentialism dominated European intellectual thought, and led certain artists to search for their truths in what re­mained, the raw materials of their environment. Among these artists, the Spaniard, Antoni Tapies, developed a body of work that, at its best, could intimate on a highly dramatic scale the structure and burden of a history that had been literally frozen in time, suspended, with no foreseeable chance of or­ganic growth or continuance. Where Alberto Burri presented cast-off materials in a straightforward, non­symbolic context, creating sort of desolate decora­tions, and Dubuffet turned to a naive archetypal symbology in order to play up the absurdity of the human situation, Tapies set out to use the materials of reality as a tool for tragedy.

His trips to France, Belgium and Holland in 1950 acquainted him with the potent philosophic frustra­tions confronting artists throughout Europe, and his first trip to New York in 1953 exposed him to the new space of American action painting. After his re­turn home from America, his work turned away from its early involvement with Surrealism. His new pic­tures took the form of object-paintings––solid, three-­dimensional surfaces that moved out into the room. By mixing with his paints and mediums such ma­terials as sand, marble dust and acrylic resins, he simulated fragments of stucco, mud and clay walls or stone slabs. On these surfaces, he acted by goug­ing, coloring and marking to create the look of human history––time had acted here, events had left their record on these materials and then passed on. This work, though, did not attempt to conform to the American ideas of informal painting. Rather, it worked within the context of a highly structured space, using the techniques of action painting to record, in an emblematic manner, the passage of time and con­frontation. His approach has not been literary or illustrative, rather it has involved a concern with the creation of universal, ambiguous realities––20th-cen­tury myths that impose upon the viewer the dominance and irrepressibility of his historic prison.

At his weakest, Tapies has occasionally been trapped by his materials into the look of specific illustrations. Thus, some pictures appear as walls riddled with bullet holes, or splattered with blood. In his most recent work, though, which comprises the majority of this exhibition, he has become thor­oughly at ease with both his materials and ideas. Here, his object-fragments tend to be suspended in a dark, often deep space, or sometimes cling to the edge of the canvas. The graffiti of past events still cover them, but now this seems more related to art than to pure social history, This is particularly ap­parent in the remarkable series of relief lithographs’ where references to a literal past are less recognizable. The raised surfaces though, even when they dominate almost the entire picture plane, create an image of profound isolation. The colors, generally monochromatic, tending to dark earthy tones and blacks, heightened occasionally with a blue or ma­roon, add a deep sense of mystery and despair. Tapies’ recent work seems to be involved with the refinement and purification of his ideas. He takes history and freezes it in space, challenging man to break it free, but with the secret knowledge of man’s ultimate in­ability to accomplish this, short of death.

––Don Factor