Abstract Critical

Antoni Tàpies at Museo Fortuny in Venice

Written by Ken Carpenter

Esfinx (1989), mixed media on canvas, 200 x 300 cm, © Fundació Antoni Tàpies. Barcelona

Esfinx (1989), mixed media on canvas, 200 x 300 cm, © Fundació Antoni Tàpies. Barcelona

Antoni Tàpies was a protean figure, celebrated for the range of his intellectual enquiry, the compelling sources of his inspiration, his contribution to matériel painting, his anti-totalitarian political position and his trenchant writings on art. Tàpies, Lo Sguardo dell’Artista (Tàpies, The Artist’s Vision)[1] at the Museo Fortuny in Venice was a sumptuously installed, enormous exhibition of his art, mostly from 1989-2010, together with a considerable number of works by other artists from his encyclopedic collection, which ranged from ancient Egyptian art, Cycladic art, fifteenth-century Japanese art, and African art to such moderns as Picasso, Miro, Ernst, Pollock and Kline. Coming as it did little more than a year after his death at the age of 88 in 2012, the exhibition provided an excellent opportunity to examine both the spirit of the man and the last developments of his art.

Catalogue essays by curators Toni Tàpies and Natasha Hébert remind us of the impressive range of the artist’s intellectual and spiritual enquiry. As a boy he had written a paper on Assyrian hieroglyphs. He was a precocious teenager who read voraciously: Doestoevsky, Ibsen, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and, at his father’s urging, The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura. For long periods of time reading was all he could do because he was sick so much, suffering from typhus at the age of ten and then brucellosis, tuberculosis, and heart trouble (tachycardia). He spent almost two years bedridden in “almost total forced immobility”[2] at sanitaria and by the age of eighteen was close to death with a heart attack. Reading seminal art historian Heinrich Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History (1915) helped him to discover a “way to appreciate… art independently of… subject matter, what Delacroix had called ‘the music of the painting.’”[3] Tàpies also had an interest in Christian mystics, such as Jakob Böhme, and Ramon Llull; the psychoanalytic theories of both Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, and such eastern religions as Hinduism and Buddhism. Tàpies thought of the Orient as “crucial” to his art.[4] After World War II he developed an interest in the new understanding of matter itself as provided by advanced physics and read Einstein, Planck and Heisenberg.

Cap i creu (1995), mixed media on wood, 116.5 x 89 cm, photo © Jean-Pierre Gabriel

Cap i creu (1995), mixed media on wood, 116.5 x 89 cm, photo © Jean-Pierre Gabriel

 The impact on Tàpies’ sources of inspiration was profound. He observed that Zen Buddhists contemplate the breaking up of the body after death, and Buddhist monks instruct their pupils to think about their mortality – to go to slaughterhouses and graveyards “as important themes for meditation.”[5] Tàpies would have been receptive to that recommendation because his father had taken him to graveyards in Barcelona. Accordingly, the artist often contemplated death. Over the years various works have incorporated a cruciform clipping from a newspaper obituary, gauze so as to evoke Egyptian mummification, a childhood memory of the quilted lining of a coffin, and the torn sweater of a young man who was executed by Franco (A la memòria de Salvador Puig Antich [1974], not in the exhibition). His penchant for meditation on our mortality has often fueled interpretation of Tàpies’ art, even his most abstract paintings.

Around 1953 Tàpies stripped his work of verist Surrealism with its illusionistic space and predetermined literary subjects and started working with new materials, especially powdered marble. He would establish a cement-like ground of glue, sand and plaster, and draw upon it with fingers and various tools. The resultant matériel paintings of the mid-1950s brought Tàpies to international prominence as an important abstract painter, with two prizes at the 1958 Venice Biennale and first prize at the Carnegie International in the same year, but how abstract are they? [examples herehere and here.]

Italian art historian Giulio Argan interpreted these predominantly dark paintings as a metaphor for the darkness of Franco’s Spain (which arrested Tàpies in 1966) and for fear, anxiety, prison, and war; the artist was “filling the material with his own anguish,” and the paintings were a “document of the historical situation in which we live.”[6] Some paintings suggest a wall (tàpies in Catalan means walls), and Victòria Combalia Dexeus interpreted them as spaces “for  contemplating the passage of time,”[7] an account reinforced by Tàpies’ description of one of them as “witness to the march of time” with evocative “tormented, aged and decrepit surfaces.” [8] Frank O’Hara saw Tàpies “walk[ing] the tight-rope between formality and tragedy.” [9]

Arnulf Rainer, Untitled (1979), mixed media, 170 x 138.5 cm and Tàpies, En memòria (1996), mixed media on canvas, 162 x 130 cm

Arnulf Rainer, Untitled (1979), mixed media, 170 x 138.5 cm and Tàpies, En memòria (1996), mixed media on canvas, 162 x 130 cm

 Tàpies’ figurative work has also been subject to interpretation. To Combalia Dexeus, his wounded, lacerated human figures, with their aura of “commiseration” and “infinite pity,” can be seen as a  sort of “Vanitas” and even a “votive offering.” [10] In the Venice exhibition the works most consistent with the Vanitas interpretation would be Cap I creu (1995) with its gruesome, lugubrious head, and the pain-ridden En memòria (1996). Throughout his career, Tàpies has created numerous images suggesting the ephemeral nature of life, often setting them against the insistent presence of his materials. A deeply moving example is the well known Triptych with Footprints (1970, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, not in the exhibition), dedicated to his New York dealer, Martha Jackson, upon her death.  Here, the footprints become fainter as they move to the right; time is evoked by traces, often not quite readable, of past actions, and flying birds remind of death. But for me, the depth and range of feeling plumbed by Tàpies goes beyond the paraphrasable content of a mere Vanitas. High art is always more than some idea, and Tàpies eschewed “stereotypical symbols” and any hint of “a code.” [11]

Tres dits (1990), paint and varnish on canvas, 146 x 114 cm,  photo © Jean-Pierre Gabriel

Tres dits (1990), paint and varnish on canvas, 146 x 114 cm, photo © Jean-Pierre Gabriel

The impact of Tàpies’ immersion in eastern thought also influenced both the appearance and the making of his art.  On the first page of The Book of Tea (1906) Okakura argued that the tea ceremony encouraged simplicity in Japanese art and architecture and veneration of “the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence.” [12] It favoured ” the love of the subdued and austere,” [13] reflected in part, I believe, in Tàpies’ statement, “I have an almost manic aversion … to the primary colours.” [14]

In The Book of Tea we read:

“The Taoist and Zen conception of perfection… laid more stress upon the process through which perfection was sought than upon perfection itself. True beauty could be discovered only by one who mentally completed the incomplete. [15]“

Tàpies has always had a preference for incomplete, multi-referential imagery that resists being read, producing what Barrio-Garay calls an “open-ended signifying structure.” [16] Esfinx (1989) [head of article] frames its two partially delimited figures – or is it three or even four? – with obsessive repetition at the top of the plus sign – or is it a T for Tàpies or even Christ’s cross? – and equally obsessive, inexplicable counting from one to seven at the bottom. This is a work that reflects Tàpies’ rejection of Roman statuary, Raphael and neo-classicism in favour of “the irrational and the obscure.” [17] And yet I find it a bit too sweet, with the emotional valence somewhat forced, as if the later Tàpies occasionally looked back at his so-called Wagnerian period of ca. 1949-51 with its moodiness and irrational spaces, even though that was a body of work the artist himself later rejected. As I experience it, a similar sweetness – perhaps even sentimentality – vitiates Tres dits (1990).

Balances (1990), paint and collage on canvas, 175 x 100 cm,  photo © Jean-Pierre Gabriel

Balances (1990), paint and collage on canvas, 175 x 100 cm, photo © Jean-Pierre Gabriel

Tàpies also found in Eastern art a  “controlled haphazardness in which… spiritual  concentration prepares the way for a free gesture of the hand.” [18] Among the paintings of this type I especially admired the very spare Mitjà Hàbil num. 3 (2007). Balances (1990) was another convincing example of such a work, as was Inspiració expiració (2006), but that painting also suggests a significant change in much of the later Tàpies. Here the aggressive gouging and insistent materiality of his previous work is gone, replaced by a surprisingly ethereal looseness and openness. The impression is of a letting go of force, control, presence even, and the two canted V shapes at the top left have some affinity with the menacing birds in Van Gogh’s last painting, Wheat Field with Crows (July, 1890). (That work has typically been viewed as premonitory of Van Gogh’s impending death.) In Tàpies’ very late painting, Peus i creus (2010) there is an even stronger suggestion that nothing is very tangible and everything is about to float away.

Inspiració expiració (2006), paint on canvas, 130 x 162 cm,  photo © Jean-Pierre Gabriel

Inspiració expiració (2006), paint on canvas, 130 x 162 cm, photo © Jean-Pierre Gabriel

But what did the artist himself think was the nature of his art and how it affects the audience? Combalia Dexeus quotes Tàpies on his goals as follows:

To remind man of what he really is; to provide him with a theme for meditation; to cause him a shock that will awaken him from the frenzy of the inauthentic…[19] 

But if his art is a vehicle for meditation, it is not quite the “pure contemplation” of Immanuel Kant. Tàpies’ sometimes claimed instrumental values for his art, putting him at odds with much of modernism: “my painting claims to be a technique.. an aid to meditation and enlightenment.”[20] To him, painting is “a way of thinking about life;” and “the artist has to know how to put the message across;” furthermore, “art should be socially useful,” and his is a “committed art” drawn to Marx’s aim of transforming the world.[21] To Tàpies, art – or at least his art as he intended it to be – was a more comprehensive activity than either Kant or the later Clement Greenberg [22] envisioned.

Peus i creus (2010), paint and varnish on wood, 170 x 130 cm,  photo © Jean-Pierre Gabriel

Peus i creus (2010), paint and varnish on wood, 170 x 130 cm, photo © Jean-Pierre Gabriel

 It would seem that Tàpies was a kind of mystic, drawn to numerous spiritual texts and practices, including a mediaeval Catalonian tradition of alchemy and mystical thought. He was “communicating with things,” [23] cultivating a higher level of awareness, aiming to be in fuller touch with reality, before he was the kind of artist that aims at producing masterpieces. He seems to have had a Zen-like attraction to process rather than product and reported an affinity with Klee’s “preoccupation for being ‘a man’ before being ‘an artist.’” [24] This is not to deny that Tàpies produced many great works of art, but to some they could appear as almost a byproduct of his spiritual quest.

Despertar sobtat (2006), paint, varnish and assemblage on canvas, 220 x 270 cm,  photo © Jean-Pierre Gabriel

Despertar sobtat (2006), paint, varnish and assemblage on canvas, 220 x 270 cm, photo © Jean-Pierre Gabriel

Frank O’Hara was among the first American writers to notice Tàpies’ “insistence on the identity of his material.”[25] Tàpies’ work can be seen as part of a widespread post-World-War-II tendency towards literalism, extending even to abstract painters like the resolutely anti-referential Frank Stella (“What you see is what you see.”[26]) Tàpies’ literalism is based on his being “obsessed by the materiality… of phenomena.”[27] While real objects began to appear in Tàpies’ art in the mid 1950s, his literalism seems to have been at its most extreme in the 1970s with works like Desk with Straw, Three Brooms and Stack of Plates (all 1970, not in the exhibition). They were nothing more than what the title says, with scant intervention by the artist. Perhaps Tàpies was momentarily sidetracked by the “paradox” and “absurdity” of Duchamp’s presenting “everyday objects… removed from their habitual locations.”[28] But they also suggest a reverence for the most banal of objects around him – “a reverence for everything and the intention to show that beauty exists everywhere, including places that may seem soiled or dirty.”[29] This fascination with the objects in our lives is quite unlike the more emphatically artisanal focus of modernists like Robert Motherwell who once asserted,  “An artist is someone who has an abnormal sensitivity to a medium.”[30] Tàpies’ creative process is different, inspired not just by the medium but also by a heightened sensitivity to the objects around him, both human and non-human – beds, chairs, torsos, legs and so many more – which appear in the lengthy lists he maintained of his imagery. Perhaps this fascination is a residue of his Catholic upbringing, with votive objects hung in chapels, dedicated to various saints, e.g., crutches associated with miraculous cures. Indeed, Tàpies has referred to his “Wagnerian” paintings as ex votos. But his literalism is also influenced by an affinity with Chekhov, about whom Tàpies said:

It’s extraordinary; he tells you almost nothing.  He is almost absent.  He gives you bits of reality in its raw state… no philosophy, nothing solemn: just incidents of intimate life, accidents of daily living.  But a whole world of sentiments…[31] 

Not surprisingly then, Tàpies does not always respect the flatness of the surface but instead embraces the freedom to attach seemingly extraneous objects to it. Over the years, many works have used cloth, typically shabby blankets or sheets, folded, creased, or knotted. Despertar sobtat (2006) has a heavy coil of rope jutting out on the left side, justified only by the precedence of Miró and the symbolic meaning Tàpies attached to that substance – “the fabric of life.”[32] Likewise, the collaged elements in Desplaçaments (1996) also betray some indifference to the surface integrity of the painting.

Nor does his sculpture, if I can call it that, have the values we associate with that medium in its essence: the relation between inside and outside space as in Picasso, or between real and perceived mass as in Caro, one of whose large sculptures, Verduggio Plain (1972-73), is in the exhibition. In La Butaca (1987) Tàpies has painted over a bronze replica of an armchair but provided neither of these seemingly essential properties of sculpture.

Tàpies, then, has his limitations. Some modernists might lament that he did not either respect or bear down on the medium enough, although his matériel  paintings did enrich the medium in their very defiance of its assumed essential properties. Some might complain that he was not the colourist that Hans Hofmann was. The unity of his work can be one of feeling rather than of surface integrity. In this exhibition paintings like Matèria i cadira (1997-99), LLençol (2005) and Vernis i llapis (2007) fail to establish sufficient aesthetic unity. Occasionally his imagery would seem to matter to no-one but himself – a stack of plates! His work is, I believe, frustratingly uneven in terms of aesthetic quality. But whatever his faults, I do think of him as a great artist. But why, and in what portions of his oeuvre? What are his core strengths as an artist?

Even though Tàpies has said, “my painting isn’t abstract,” and thought of it as a “synthesis of [a]bstraction and figurative elements,”[33] there is a  continuing tension between two  poles in Tàpies’ art – reality vs. pure abstraction. That tension is exemplified by Miro’s observation that he could not see an armpit in the Tàpies painting he owned, Material in the Shape of an Armpit (1968, not in the exhibition), despite the real human hair in it. I have the distinct impression that the more abstract Tàpies is, the better is the result. That the proportion of successes is less in the more figurative works. That any temptation to obscurantism and self-indulgence is held at bay in the more abstract works.

In my experience, the range of feeling in the best of Tàpies goes well beyond the apollonian calm and grandeur of the colour-field artists I esteem, and he is never over-distanced[34] as they can sometimes be. In 1977 Tàpies approvingly quoted Herbert Read on the qualities of a great artist like Shakespeare: “the capability of working with  man’s psychological material… with desires, emotions, fears and fantasies.”[35] Tàpies’ ambition was to do all of that, and he seems to have been remarkably sensitive to the emotional valence of his work.  He said of his late 1940s work, “The pain and misery of existence…appear… but not without a certain tenderness, a sadness even… compassion towards the humblest…”[36] He was well aware that his materials, and his handling of them with its “human and object imprints,” had the “power of suggestion” and could “give the sensation of destruction, of cataclysm, of creation, of resurgence, of delicacy, of love, of pain, of disgust, of chaos… Depending on the distribution of the masses, I was able to give the sensation of falling or soaring, of dispersion or concentration.” [37] His art was consistently directed by basic, human feelings, such as each of us has. Yet for me, these remain subliminal, at an appropriate distance, on Panofsky’s iconological level, locked there, as Tàpies said, in “the coincidence between form and emotion.”[38]

Tàpies was undeniably the product of a very specific place and time. His concerns and his vocabulary were shaped by his Catalonia, especially Catalonia under the yoke of Franco.  On occasion we see the four stripes of the Catalan flag or indications of the Sárdana – the circle dance associated with Catalan nationalism. But Tàpies aimed to find “the universal in the particular” as suggested by The Book of Tea. He argued that the art of “the pioneers of avant-garde art… was precisely the result of their preoccupations with all that was profound in our lives and our society,”[39] and he aimed to follow resolutely on that path. Perhaps he was not at his very best in the last decade or two of his life. Certainly he would have benefited from more editing, just as Renoir and so many others would have. But I am convinced that the best of his art has a lasting power to move his audience deeply. 

Tàpies, Lo Sguardo dell’Artista (Tàpies, The Artist’s Vision) was at the Museo Fortuny in Venice from June 1 through Nov. 24, 2013.


[1] The cover of the English-language catalogue says “The eye of the artist, ” but I prefer the translation provided for Natasha’ Hébert’s  catalogue essay.

[2] Antoni Tàpies, A Personal Memoir, Fragments for an Autobiograhy, translated by Josp Miquel Sobrer (Barcelona, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Fundacio Antoni Tàpies and Indiana University Press, 2009), p. 146.

[3] Tàpies, A Personal Memoir , op. cit., p. 139.

[4] Barbara Catoir, Conversations with Antoni Tàpies (Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1991), pp. 79 and 86.

[5] Barbara Catoir, op. cit., p. 82.

[6] Giulio Argan, Superstizione di Tàpies (Buenos Aires: Instituto Torcuato di Tella, 1961) and Tàpies, A Personal Memoir , op. cit., p. 300.

[7] Victòria Combalia Dexeus, Tàpies (New York: Rizzoli, 990), p. 19.

[8] José Luis Barrio-Garay, “Intention, Object, and Signification in the work of Tàpies” in Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Tàpies, Thirty-Three Years of His Work (Buffalo: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1977), p.12, from interviews with the artist of Nov. 6-12, 1976.

[9] Frank O’Hara, “New Spanish Painting and Sculpture,” in Museum of Modern Art, New Spanish Painting and Sculpture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1960), p. 10.

[10] Combalia Dexeus, op. cit., pp. 27-8.

[11] Tàpies, A Personal Memoir , op. cit., p. 270.

[12] Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea (Boston and London: Shambala, 2001.)

[13] Hounsai Genshitsu Sen ,”Afterward” to The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura (Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 2006).

[14] Barbara Catoir, op. cit., p. 95.

[15] The Book of Tea, op. cit., p. 57.

[16] Jose Luis Barrio-Garay, op. cit., p. 28.

[17] Barbara Catoir, op. cit., p. 98.

[18] Combalia Dexeus, op. cit., p. 29.

[19] Combalia Dexeus, op. cit., pp. 23.

[20] Barbara Catoir, op. cit., pp. 15. 82, 130.

[21] Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Tàpies in Perspective  (Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2004), p. 59.

[22] Greenberg’s position changed over time as he stripped his concept of art of intra-psychic functions that he had envisioned up to 1948. See my article, “Strengths and Weaknesses in Greenberg’s Aesthetics,” Canadian Aesthetics Journal (on-line),  XIV (Summer, 2008) www.uqtr.uquebec.ca/AE/Vol_14/modernism/Carpenter.htm

[23] Barbara Catoir, op. cit., p. 73.

[24] Tàpies, A Personal Memoir , op. cit., p. 194.

[25] Frank O’Hara, op. cit., p. 9

[26]“Questions to Stella and Judd” (interview by Bruce Glaser, edited by Lucy Lippard), ARTnews, 65:5 (Sept., 1966), p. 55.

[27] Tàpies, A Personal Memoir , op. cit., p. 173.

[28] Tàpies, A Personal Memoir , op. cit., p. 196.

[29] Jose Luis Barrio-Garay, op. cit., p. 26.

[30] Stephanie Terenzio, The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 136.

[31] As quoted in Vera Linhartová, Antoni Tàpies (London: Thames and Hudson, 1972), p. 70 (emphasis added).

[32] Jose Luis Barrio-Garay, op. cit., p. 18.

[33] Barbara Catoir, op. cit., p. 105 and Tàpies, A Personal Memoir , op. cit., p. 294.

[34] I’m using the term as it appears in  Edward Bullough’s widely reproduced article, “‘Psychical Distance’ as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle,” British Journal of Psychology, V:2 (June, 1912), pp. 87-118.

[35] Tàpies, A Personal Memoir , op. cit., p. 163.

[36] Tàpies, A Personal Memoir , op. cit., pp. 187-8.

[37] Tàpies, A Personal Memoir , op. cit., pp. 292 and 298.

[38] Tàpies, A Personal Memoir , op. cit., p. 316.

[39] Tàpies, A Personal Memoir , op. cit., p. 169.

  1. Ronald Boaks said…

    Very informative and well written article.
    I like the clarity of the layout and the sumptuous pictures.

  2. Patrick Jones said…

    Thank you ,Ken,for a terrific piece on Tapies,who I am on record on this site as finding a moving and fascinating artist.His wish for a politically engaged Art,I find a pre-requisite for ambitious Art.The fact he had his own somber colour sense,which is extremely affecting, actually supports the sense of shock of juxtaposition in his best works.Catalonia is such a wonderfull soil to grow in,Barcelona a maze of treasures,where students should roam at will to feel the same sense of history and mystery.He and Miro ,who were both arrested by Franco for supporting the cause of the subsequently garotted anarchist,are national heros.I would love to see this show,but must be content with Waddingtons occasional pieces. I am acutely aware and disappointed how ignorant the British are about this artist and how his Art works on us.