New York

Antoni Tàpies

Marta Cervera Gallery

This focused and cogent selection of Antoni Tàpies’ small sculptures from 1969 to 1973 obviates the artist’s idealizing tendencies, notably the alchemical conceits which plague much arte povera. Fashioned from cast-off scraps such as wood, cloth, and paper, these modest works confront the viewer with an unblinking materiality which points up the artifice inherent in all artworks. In so doing, they are remarkably concise, yet eloquent. Each sculpture consists of a gesture so simple that, in most cases, its title alone can go a long way toward describing the piece itself. Cornet de Papier (Paper cone, 1970), for instance, is a cornucopia of sorts, a rough cone of heavy paper stuffed with rags. In Mouchoir Noué et Papiers (Knotted handkerchief and papers, 1970), a large kerchief knotted at each corner contains some balled-up newspaper pages. Caixa de Serpentines (Box of streamers, 1969) consists of a small, beaten-up wooden box stuffed with a jumble of now-faded paper streamers. Couverture Grise (Gray blanket, 1971) is just a gray blanket folded into a lumpy square and bound across the middle with a chain of rags. Its shape has been made permanent with a coating of glue. In Bambou et Toile Suspendue (Bamboo and canvas suspended, 1973), a strip of canvas spattered with oil paint hangs from a short bamboo pole.

Any and all of these materials are universal only in a historically rarified sense, for in this industrial epoch even the dispossessed can lay claim to a handkerchief, a newspaper, a discarded blanket, or a crumpled sheet of paper. Just as the ragpicker appeared only after industrial processes gave refuse a certain value, so today America’s homeless now scramble for empty bottles and cans which, pathetically, might provide an income superior to minimum-wage employment. Yet just as handcuffs once became bracelets in Jean Genet’s world, so Tàpies has redeemed rubbish in the form of beautiful sculpture. For Tàpies and Genet, imbuing the very signs of impoverishment with utopian aspirations makes for powerful allegory (and led to periods of imprisonment for both men).

Baudelaire once expressed a preference for the spare rendering of theatrical backdrops to the technical virtuosity of traditional landscape painting because he found a degree of apparent artifice charming. Tàpies manipulates his materials only slightly and, in shifting his work’s emphasis to its presentational mode, he approximates the acknowledged forthrightness Baudelaire discovered in stage scenery. Thus, the artist’s direct offering of base materials manages to invest the commonplace with an imaginative potential whose visionary portents preserve a spark of hope even under duress. Perhaps it is this quality (ironically, one of political contingency) which led Tàpies to invoke the goal of transcendence in describing his work.

John Miller