PRINT October 1985


THAT ANTONI TÀPIES IS a key figure in the Spanish and international art world is widely recognized, yet his work has often been the subject of superficial and stereotypical interpretations. Possibly the most common of these is the association of this Catalan artist's paintings with gray and earth colors, with thick, elaborate surfaces, and with the use of everyday substances as media—cardboard, string, ashes, thread. Early on, critics labeled his work “matéria,” “matter painting,” and emphasized certain of its formal aspects—its textural and compositional qualities, the relationship of one medium to another within a work, and so on. These approaches have their validity, but they are one-sided, and have led to a misconception of Tàpies’ development as divided into autonomous periods, almost airtight separate compartments. Furthermore, until recently there was a tendency to underrate one of the these supposed compartments—what was thouught of as Tàpies’ “surrealist”period, the work from about 1948 through 1952_and to see it as a kind of “descent into hell,” a process of purification before the artist’s adventure into abstraction and informel.

Tàpies’ recent work reveals an artist interested not so much in texture as in spontaneity and action, not so much in the pessimistic expression of existential experiences as in recreating subtle lyrical realities—a mood surely related to the restoration of political freedom in Spain since Franco’s death, and to a concurrent recognition of Catalan culture. Many of these works substitute varnish for paint, and often the ground is paper or wood; the stains that ensue, difficult for an artist to control or form, offer special possibilities for order and accident, phenomena crucial to an understanding of Tàpies’ art. The use of varnish—like that of marble dust in an earlier group of Tàpies’ work—upsets the notion of correctable error. Every brush-stroke, every stain, is irreversible and inconcealable; every hesitation betrays itself in the end result. A perfect knowledge of the medium is essential, then, and the finished work reflects a particularly authentic symbiosis between material and artist. The deft swift manipulation that varnish demands is accompanied, in Tàpies’ case, by a receptivity to accident, which registers quickly in the medium and may at any moment impel the work in a direction contrary to the artist's will. This aspect of Tàpies’ recent art relates to first- and second-generation Abstract Expressionism on both sides of the Atlantic, to the work of artists ranging from Clyfford Still to Franz Kline, from Sam Francis to Georges Mathieu.

For all of these artists, as for Tàpies, an Oriental influence was decisive. It is not a coincidence that Tàpies’ painting began to receive an international audience at just the time that an interest in Zen Buddhist calligraphy was reawakening the in West, nor that in this same priod, the late ’40s and early ’50s, the artist established a friendship with the French critic Michel Tapié, not only an early supporter of Tàpies’ work but also an enthusiastic promoter and defender of Japanese art. The references to Oriental culture in Tàpies’ recent production are not a new development but a confirmation and a strengthening of elements already evident in his early paintings. His interest in the Orient began when he was a teenager, in the late ’30s and early ’40s, when he found in its classical literature an alternative to the religious dogmatism that dominated Spain at the time.

It should not surprise us, then, to discover that shadows—which so perfectly express that which is and is not at the same time, eternal Becoming (“the way is more important than the destination,” in the Zen phrase)—should play such a significant role in Tàpies’ work. Shadows and the idea of metamorphosis were important to the artist as early as the late ’40s, and his friendship with the poet and playwright Joan Brossa confirmed that importance. Both men were captivated by the world of magicians and illusionists; they greatly admired a stage magician and actor of the time called Fregoli, who could change from one role into another in seconds. Tàpies’ “surrealist” paintings from this period describe scenes of mysterious shadows, trapdoors, boxes with false bottoms, and so on. Both here and in the constant sense of metamorphosis, of continuous flow, as forms seem to change in reading before the viewer's eyes—the intent is not surrealist in the true sense: Tàpies it not interested in exploring the unconscious, or in objectifying some oneiric reality. Besides their Oriental influences and their references to magic—references whose roots lie in the Middle Ages and before—his images take shape in the Northern Romantic tradition, and particularly in the desire it expresses for a pantheistic communion of man and nature.

These Romantic ideas, which had a profound influence in the turn-of-the-century Barcelona that was Tàpies’ heritage, reflect a cosmos in constant interaction. Certain places and objects summarize the properties of the cosmos; they are authentic microcosms. The parts of the human body, for example, maintain astral correspondences. The visible world is a metaphor for the invisible. Inanimate matter is infused with life, is integrated with the world of the spirit. Tàpies, like the magicians who have fascinated him, acts on matter, transforming it and immersing himself in it, shaping part of its eternal flow.

The cross, a ubiquitous motif in his work, is a perfect example: at different interpretive levels it can stand for the dualities between matter and spirit, horizontal and vertical, death and rebirth. It also alludes to the artist's surname, with its initial T. The marks that Tàpies uses to stamp his presence on the work are multiple and varied, evolving through a dialectical process of hide-and-seek.

This symbiosis between artist and nature is intimately related to the artist's interaction with his material. Here too it is interesting to note a shared gestalt—the parallels between Tàpies’ emergence into artists maturity, in the late ’40s and early ’50s, and the need felt at the same time by many artists outside Spain to attune themselves to the rhythms of nature through their work. I think of painters like Joan Mitchell, Michael Goldberg, and Norman Bluhm, as well as of the classic contemporaneous work of Jackson Pollock. Tàpies’ foot- and handprints in his work from the mid ’50s on correspond to Pollock's handprints in Number 1, 1948, but the traditions that Tàpies’ works invoke are not so much that of Abstract Expressionism as those of alchemy and medieval Catalan mysticism, which aspired to the transmutation of everyday substances, beings, and objects into transcendental archetypes. The writers Arnau de Vilanova, Enrique de Villena, and Ramó Llull are representative figures in this tradition, and Tàpies familiarized himself with their writings in his youth. In 1949, a hand copy he did of a text by Villena was published in the magazine Dau al Set.

We must not forget Northern Europe, and the importance of thinkers like Nietzsche and Wagner to Tàpies. The titles of some of this works, such as L'es camoteig de Wotan (The legerdemain of Wotan) and El Dolor de Brunhilda (The Sorrow of Brunhilda, both 1950), clearly allude to the Wagnerian world. And we cannot forget Antoni Gaudí, whose architecture expresses both the Northern Romantic and the Catalan traditions; exuberant in its handling of media and in its conferring of organic form on inert matter, it suggests medieval alchemy as well as Romantic pantheism. Throughout Tàpies’ work, then, we can see an underlying philosophy informing both his creative process, but also allows us to see something more in his art than its earth colors and elaborate surfaces, helping to save us from appreciating the work only through elements that in themselves are valueless.

Manuel J. Borja is a Catalan writer living in New York and completing a thesis on Antoni Tàpies.

Translated from the Spanish by Hanna Hannah.

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