New York

Antoni Tàpies

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

Antoni Tàpies’s oeuvre has always been divided against itself, and now, in this old-age work—the artist is almost eighty—the split is more evident than ever. On the one hand, there are works like Llit vermell (Red bed), 1998, relatively youthful, vibrant “wall” pieces, as they might be called, after Tàpies’s Leonardo-esque celebration of the “riches that can be found in the image of the wall and all its possible derivations,” especially “forms suggesting natural rhythms and the spontaneous movement of matter,” as he wrote in 1974. On the other hand, there are objects that reek of death and look to salvation, however ironically. The bronze orb of Esfera i cadena (Ball and chain), 1999, has a heavy chain attached, but the crucifix on top promises resurrection. Similarly, the cross of Encreuament (Burning), 1999, may be a blunt instrument, but it is also a body that seems to raise itself, Lazarus-like, from raw matter.

Tàpies’s technique can be described as modified automatism—chance gesture with a hidden purpose—and the work becomes increasingly morbid until, as in Rite, 1998, it becomes corrosive. The classical torso—suggestive of a brutal, monstrous face, fresh from the unconscious—is eaten away by the gestures that constitute it. The figure is a ruin that is too destroyed ever to be restored to wholeness, a body excavated from oblivion.

Again and again Tàpies sets up a contradiction, an absurdity, perhaps most explicitly in a group of 1996 works, Serp i plat (Snake and plate), Safata amb creu i corda (Tray with cross and rope), and BOL (Bowl). In this last piece, organic white material (painted wood) is set against inert dark material (bronze), with no guarantee that the two will interact to produce spiritual electricity, however many sacred crosses preside over their union. Indeed, the combination seems more forced than blessed, marked by friction and tension rather than accommodation and mutuality. The result is at once abortive and hopeful, and charged with suspense.

Tàpies has long considered the power of time and the use of art to bring back, in ghostly, hallucinatory form, what time consumes. In the fragmentary, peculiarly archaeological character of Tàpies’s found objects, time is a felt presence. There is always the sense of imminent collapse into ruin. Even the artist’s gestures, for all their energy, seem like soot from a dying flame, and as such they are only deceptively spontaneous.

Inhumanity, Tàpies’s other main theme, appears with particular poignancy in Composicio i corda (Composition with rope), 1999. The figure is clearly a victim, slowly but steadily disintegrating, as the dilapidated, obscured state of his head suggests. Almost forgotten, even as he is laid out on an altar with the remnants of his last supper spread before him, the crucified Christ has lost his bearing in time and space. Only his suffering and mortality—there is no transcendence of existence—give him meaning. This visionary work, a product of Tàpies’s humanist religion, is a masterpiece of modernist morbidity.

Donald Kuspit