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PRINT Summer 2012

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Antoni Tàpies

Antoni Tàpies in his studio in Campins, Catalonia, Spain, November 4, 2002. Photo: Martí Gasull.

MANUEL BORJA-VILLEL

ANTONI TÀPIES was one of the most prolific artists of the twentieth century. His vast body of work—which encompasses several thousand paintings, drawings, and sculptures, from the early canvases of the 1940s to the final sketches he produced not long before his death on February 6, at the age of eighty-eight—represents the tireless investigations of an introspective artist who was obsessed with a handful of themes and objects, which he repeated incessantly, and who was, at the same time, engaged in continual experimentation with materials and forms. Perhaps no other modern artist explored the expressive properties of material as Tàpies did throughout his extensive career. In the 1950s, he began mixing marble dust with his pigments, which gave his painting a distinctive character, as did his later use of varnish as though it were ink. It is unsurprising, then, that studies of Tàpies’s painting have consistently been based on its material aspects, and while his early reputation rightly rested on his signal innovations in this area, his critical reception was ultimately diminished by this relentless and limiting focus on the brute materiality of his canvases.

As with Abstract Expressionism in the United States, the triumph of art informel in Europe spelled its own doom. The movement was so popular that its precepts became normative, often degenerating into clichés regarding spontaneity and immediacy of brushwork or sensitivity to textures and materials, which were supposed to be natural reflections of the artist’s energy and emotion. Occasionally, all this was laced with a diffuse mysticism, evidently symbolist in nature. However, far from embodying a repertoire of more or less spontaneous gestures captured on canvas, Tàpies’s works reveal a strict structural logic whose nature escapes both formalist analyses and hagiographic treatises. The artist’s efforts, sustained over the course of seven decades, were aimed at uncovering and exploring the problems of painting rather than solving them. And for this reason, Tàpies left a profound mark on Europe, particularly in his native Spain, despite art informel’s vicissitudes of fortune; his presence in the US, however, is still purely testimonial. Prominent American institutions—including the Museum of Modern Art and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles—have Tàpieses in their collections, but the works have yet to find their place in these institutions’ various modes of presentation.

Straddling the modern world, which was dying out as the young Catalonian began his career, and the postmodern world, whose first stirrings were then barely perceptible, Tàpies’s oeuvre does not fit neatly into the parameters of traditional art history. His painting was, on the one hand, too objectual for a criticism in search of purity of essences, and, on the other, too gestural, too expressionist, and too constrained by the restrictions of the frame for those who would later investigate the poetics of the expanded field. Despite his acknowledged debt to Miró and Picasso and his affinity with the art of Kline and Motherwell, Tàpies belongs both by age and by attitude to a different generation, one on which writing and the ephemeral left a fundamental impression. Calling his work informel—or even abstract—is an imprecision, since these concepts were already alien to him when he started in the mid-’50s to develop his signature work, the so-called matter paintings.

From Beckett to Sartre and from Artaud to Bataille, the literary avant-garde of the immediate postwar period aspired to a kind of superrealism that might supersede both nineteenth-century realism and those conventions of modern art that insisted on the representation of the world as an aesthetic reality external to us. These thinkers tried to construct a language capable of breaking down its own limits, and in which form and matter would commingle. They longed for a return to the concrete, to the urgency of the situation and the impregnable solitude of one faced with a choice.

Tàpies was deeply engaged with these writers’ speculations. It is logical, then, that he would have pursued—as he did in the matter paintings—an art whose materials ceased relating to an external idea, becoming instead the idea itself. In this work there is no difference between material and form, idea and language. It is not a question of rendering ideas in a neutral medium but of the medium itself expressing an idea. The barrier of language is not hidden but shown as an active and constituent part of all communication. The painting is no longer a transparent place where a space is represented optically, but instead becomes an opaque surface, a true wall.

What is fundamental about these “walls” (tàpies, in Catalan, as it happens) is not so much the plastic characteristics of their textural qualities or the nuances of their colors; nor are the represented objects or the scribbled graphics important in themselves (though in their very semiotics if not their content, Tàpies’s “graffiti” might be said to have smuggled in from the streets and onto the walls of the museum the ubiquitous defacements that were the inextinguishable flame of Catalan political aspirations during the Franco regime). The essential thing in these works, rather, is the intentionality with which the artist informs the material and the configurations it acquires. When speaking of the images in his pictures, Tàpies tends to refer not to an “arm,” a “bed,” or a “door” but to “matter in the form of an arm,” “in the form of a bed,” “in the form of a door.” Although arms, beds, doors, and other motifs are identifiable in some of his works (e.g., in Porta vermella [Red Door], 1957, and Matèria en forma de peu [Matter in the Form of a Foot], 1965), the forms acquired by the material are not always immediately identifiable, for what is important is not the form in itself but the existence of a being or object in a permanent state of formation and deformation.

Francis Ponge’s book Le Parti pris des choses (The Nature of Things, 1942) was another of Tàpies’s touchstones. Like the French poet, he collected a variety of everyday elements in his works—representations not only of concrete objects, such as chairs, hats, and doors, but also of less tangible “things,” such as rain, footprints, and shadows. The distinction is important because, whereas the object seems to exist in an impersonal world organized around the subject-object duality, the thing cannot be reduced to this polarity. The thing has to do with event and process. It extends in time, and the traditional separation between object and subject becomes hazy. If our knowledge of the object can be limited to the descriptive faculty, to closed representation, knowledge of the thing presupposes a verbal exercise of opening.¹ The work of art ceases to be something autonomous, permanent, universal, or identical to itself, and it becomes a proposition that is open, contingent, accessory to an ephemeral experience.

The influence of Duchamp on this progressive devaluation of the artwork is evident both in Tàpies and in the generation of artists who amplified the notion of realism in the second half of the 1950s. In Tàpies’s canvases of the time lay the possibility of an artistic experience liberated from the restrictions imposed by idealist aesthetics. The gap existing between the gesture and the gestural, between cause and effect, between making and showing—between the artist’s intentions, that is, and the viewer’s reaction—was no longer hidden, since it had become part of the artwork.² The artist, in turn, thus became a “medium” who collaborates with the unknown, but whose action can only be completed by the viewer, something that opened up the possibility of further broadening the definition of the creative act.

To Tàpies’s way of thinking, the thing opposes the banal world of production and consumption and situates itself in the sacred world of the poet and creator. The artist makes art as the magician makes magic, and his works are not simple objects but form a set, a world apart. Art can only exist as a fiction, and the artist’s role resembles both that of the mystic or Buddhist monk and that of the conjuror or magician. With his tricks, the prestidigitator invites his spectators to participate in full awareness that they are voluntarily submitting to a deception, like every intellectual construction, in order to experience the pure existence of things as if for the first time. If art was, for Tàpies, intrinsically linked to magic, he was thinking more along the lines of parlor tricks than of shamanistic rites à la Joseph Beuys. Indeed, Tàpies had no patience for romantic notions of the artist as a prophet possessed of universal and transcendent truths, and he had seen art’s supposed power to effect political transformation refuted time and again. Like the fairground magician, Tàpies knew it was all a trick, and that what mattered wasn’t the end result but the game itself.

Antoni Tàpies, Matèria en forma de peu (Matter in the Form of a Foot), 1965, mixed media on canvas, 51 1/4 x 63 3/4".

AT THE END of every summer for the past quarter century or so, I would repeat the same ritual, visiting Tàpies’s studio together with mutual friends to enjoy the work he had produced in the previous months. The space was invariably teeming with artworks, most of them new. Tàpies made the great majority of his work in July and August. The rest of the year, he took notes and reflected on images and formats. He painted his pictures on the ground or on carpenters’ sawhorses—always on a horizontal base—and then arranged them one beside the other in a way that recalled the famous image of André Malraux surrounded by the photographs of his Imaginary Museum. The manner in which Tàpies ordered his pictures was not incidental but integral to his practice. If he set down a small picture first, or one with a static composition, he was likely to place next to it one in a larger format or with greater dynamism. If a reference to the Upanishads appeared in one painting, politics might be central to the one alongside it, creating a dynamic of continual rewriting and correction, in which the essential thing was the process and the transformation of the images.

Each year, Tàpies built up an atlas. It was made neither of similar elements nor of completely heterogeneous ones, but was constructed out of movement and the relations established between one picture and another. Not until the studio was full did he regard his task as completed. The most important thing for him was not the individual artworks but the space generated by the viewer moving from one canvas or object to another. It is only natural, then, that in the 1980s he would set up a foundation to house his output, along with that of other artists. Such an interest was already implicit in his production. The logical extension of his paintings—which, in the 1960s and ’70s, increasingly incorporated everyday objects—is to be found not in the ideal space of the picture but in the real world of things, in the interstices between painting and painting, object and object, author and viewer. In this respect, Tàpies followed in the wake of two other artists with close links to Barcelona—Picasso and Miró—who at different moments likewise made up for the deficiencies of a country that had turned its back on modern culture, by creating their own respective museums, not as mausoleums but as centers for the study of modern art. The movement from contemplation to debate, and from the autonomous identity to the contingent relationship, is perhaps the true legacy of Tàpies’s oeuvre.

The former head of the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona, Manuel Borja-Villel is director of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid.

Notes

1. For a discussion of the artistic object in the 1960s, see Jean-François Chevrier, L’any 1967: L’objecte d’art i la cosa pública (Barcelona: Fundació Antoni Tàpies, 1997).

2. On Duchamp’s influence on these artists, see Julia Robinson, “Before Attitudes Became Form—New Realisms: 1957–1962,” in New Realisms, 1957–1962: Object Strategies Between Readymade and Spectacle, exh. cat. (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2010).