Antoni Tàpies, Sóc terra (I Am Earth), 2004, mixed media on canvas, 69 × 79".

Antoni Tàpies, Sóc terra (I Am Earth), 2004, mixed media on canvas, 69 × 79".

Antoni Tàpies

Antoni Tàpies, Sóc terra (I Am Earth), 2004, mixed media on canvas, 69 × 79".

The exhibition “Tàpies: From Within” distilled the prolific career of Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies into a succinct group of fifty paintings, works on paper, and assemblages. Organized by Vincente Todolí with the help of Pérez Art Museum’s Tobias Ostrander, and culled from a much larger show Todolí mounted in 2013 at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona, the PAMM iteration attempted to break free from the conventions of a typical monographic retrospective. Todolí limited his selection to artworks found in only three spaces: the artist’s studio, his family home, and the Fundació Antoni Tàpies, which Tàpies founded in 1984 to preserve his own work and to show that of his contemporaries. This brought the exhibition into the realm of the autobiographical, if only ever so slightly. Todolí’s curatorial input notwithstanding, the viewer experienced Tàpies’s oeuvre through his own selections, which were presumably those he thought would distinguish him for posterity. Yet this approach opened up the artworks to a number of avenues of inquiry, not least of which is the fundamental if unanswerable question: What does an artwork mean to its maker?

The first gallery exhibited works from the mid-1940s to the late ’80s and was full of small surprises and new discoveries. A selection of very early works, some never before shown, revealed the ways in which this self-taught artist explored earlier precedents—for example Composició amb figures (Composition with Figures), 1945, a heavily impastoed work with a quasi-mystical edge rooted in nineteenth-century Symbolism, in which figures are surrounded by halos of golden light. The more experimental Fils sobre carto (Threads on Cardboard), 1946, a collage of dropped thread, speaks to both Surrealist and Dadaist themes in its employ of chance as a compositional principle. These dual origins came together in Rellen amb cordes (Relief with Strings), an Informel work from 1963 that combines an interest in materiality—thick brown cords stretched taut by the weight of a section of folded canvas covered in dirt at the bottom of the picture—with the evocative symbolism of a form that conjures the repressive and violent history of Franco’s dictatorial regime.

While the exhibition followed the linear progression of a conventional retrospective, it was also conditioned by the contradictory nature of the artist’s studio. Paper d’embalar (Wrapping Paper), 1964, a modest, ephemeral work—just scribbles, a slash of black paint, and the ribbed pattern of whatever object had pressed against the surface of the torn wrapping paper—reads as a straightforward experiment in material and process. Nus marró (Brown Knot), 1964, merely a paint-stained rag tied in a knot and hung from a string that is nonetheless poignant in its simplicity, speaks to the ways in which Tàpies’s work opened out into the world of material things as a form of resistance to aesthetic autonomy.

The second half of the exhibition presented works from the ’80s through 2009 (three years prior to Tàpies’s death), and highlighted the clarity of materials and virtuosity of process achieved over the decades during which he refined his signature gestural practice while also engaging with those of subsequent generations. If at times his work too literally evoked that of other artists—as with Pila de mantes (Pile of Blankets), 1993, a stack of folded gray blankets that channels Joseph Beuys—there were also more subtle nods to younger generations: for instance Dos peus sobre gris (Two Feet on Gray), 1989, which, with its two cartoonish feet scrawled into a landscape of painterly gray mud-like oil paint, evokes both Baselitz and Basquiat while still holding its own. The works were beautifully installed at PAMM, precisely spaced with room to breathe. But ultimately I would have liked a little bit more of the mess of the studio to have entered the equation, perhaps divulging more about the significance of Tàpies’s process, in which nontraditional materials, such as marble dust, sand, and other earthy substances, were allowed to contaminate the purity of his media in a subtle critique of the violence that permeated life in Franco’s Spain. It will be the task of future exhibitions to reveal to American audiences the nuances of an artist for whom dirt was a discovery.

Karen Butler