New York

Antoni Tàpies

Pace Wildenstein

There is a striking contrast between the sobriety of the works in Antoni Tàpies’ retrospective at the Guggenheim and the angry intensity of the recent paintings exhibited at PaceWildenstein. In the gallery show, Tàpies’ famous marble-dust paintings (he has compared their surfaces to what André Breton called Leonardo’s “paranoid wall”) have been aggressively marked, even violently mashed. Found objects and imprints of found objects abound. In 3, 1994, Tàpies ripped through the “wall,” marking it indelibly with his signature letter, T. There is nothing quite like this in the retrospective; made while Franco was still in power, most of the works displayed in the museum have an air of melancholy that has come to be understood as characteristically Spanish, but is, in fact, a generic response to social and political oppression. By contrast, the more recent works evince a vital late style—the continued creativity of an artist who never really sublimated his youthful impulsiveness, though it had been repressed for many years. In other words, they show us the paradox of an old master with a vigorous—indeed, volcanic—youthful style, while the earlier works reflect the paradox of a youthful master with a preternaturally “aged” style. Where his earlier work seems obsessed with the patina of his thick surfaces, his later work attacks that surface—and the injury and mood it symbolizes—with all his impulsive might.

As the show at the Guggenheim makes clear, Tàpies’ art is informed by three converging sources: his Catalan heritage, art informel, and Abstract Expressionism, or, more particularly, his father (a Catalan nationalist), Jean Dubuffet, and Franz Kline. From his father he learned the renunciation that gave him inwardness, an inwardness Dubuffet and Kline taught him to express. Tàpies’ “abstract expressionism” or “informalism,” however, is not explosive but, rather, seems sublimated by the marble dust that smothers it. Also, his gestural identity—his graffiti signature—is at once more explicitly personal and suggestive of a particular social context. What appears on the surface of his impacted wall is not only the sign of a scarred self but of a scarred Spain: his T is emblematic of both, and of a Catholicism rendered masochistic and absurd by its support of fascism.

Tàpies is doubly crucified—by himself and Spain—but, in his most recent works, he seems to turn this crucified state inside out. In Dust, 1994, the shutters of Barcelona are ripped from their hinges and blackened: it is as though he is parading a bodily wound in much the same way that the primitive, wooden figure of Christ is carried in processions. Again and again one sees a radical, dark exhibitionism in Tàpies; in an act of artistic transubstantiation, he offers us the bread and wine of a crucified body.

After the Spanish Civil War, Tàpies did in fact have a physical breakdown which, as he acknowledged, had mental consequences: this breakdown, along with the defeat of Republican Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War (which for him was inextricably linked with his father), lent him a certain morbidity. As if to deny that his spirit is broken, we see him compulsively destroying and recreating either the body, as he does in Visio (Vision, 1994), or objects that function as symbols of body parts and general emblems of bodiliness. What Dubuffet, Kline, and Tàpies have in common is a certain sense of the “picture” as an aborted body, but for Tàpies that body is never entirely abstracted—reduced to a graffiti scrawl or construction—but possesses a material reality, its remains strewn across the canvas. (Images of body parts recur throughout his oeuvre, and found objects are “disembodied” and even “disemboweled” by being blackened, reduced to shadows—even at times colorful ghosts—and taken apart.) Unlike French art informel and American Abstract Expressionism, which are imbued with a certain delusion of a (postwar) resurrection, Tàpies’ art is, finally, about his own sense of castration and the castration of Spain, both of which left indelible, psychological scars.

Donald Kuspit