Abstract Critical

Antoni Tàpies

Written by Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann

Installation of ‘Antoni Tàpies’, Timothy Taylor Gallery. L-R Tassa sobre gris, 2001; Materia i diaris, 2009; Espai-visio, 1996. Copyright Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona/VEGAP, Madrid, 2012. Image courtesy of Timothy Taylor Gallery.

Installation of ‘Antoni Tàpies’, Timothy Taylor Gallery. L-R Tassa sobre gris, 2001; Materia i diaris, 2009; Espai-visio, 1996. Copyright Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona/VEGAP, Madrid, 2012. Image courtesy of Timothy Taylor Gallery.

About a year ago there was a conversation hovering around the message boards of this site contrasting the ‘visual matrix’ of Alan Gouk’s work with the allusive physicality of Alberto Burri’s; the importance of Gouk’s critically approachable practice versus Burri’s ‘metaphysical codswallop’ as Robin Greenwood framed it. At about the same time John Bunker wrote a review comparing the Indiscipline of Painting exhibition with Burri’s show at the Estorick – broadly praising the means by which Burri brought his art away from the frequent isolation of high art practice and into contact with the wider world. Sam Cornish spoke of a certain ‘image quality’ that he perceived in Burri and was accused of ineffable spiritualism.

I mention this because these debates were brought to the surface (literally?) by Timothy Taylor Gallery’s current exhibition of Antoni Tàpies’s work. It is an exhibition which I must confess I did not hold out the highest expectations for. After warming my adolescent loins on Tàpies (to use an image not a million miles from two of the works in this show) I have, as I suspect have others, found the regular succession of his exhibitions over recent years repetitive and disappointing. This show is broader than many of those (including work from 1992 – 2009) and contains some arguably finer works (Escrits i formes sobre materia, 2009 and Entre les celles, 1992 engaged me as few recent works have – though I feel I have seen the former before). In wrestling the estate from Lesley Waddington (now Waddington Custot Galleries) Timothy Taylor has also given us a loftier and better lit gallery space to dispel the sensation of annual déjà-vu that was emerging in Cork Street. Nonetheless, some issues remain.

Fragments, 1995, Mixed media on wood, 35.2 x 45.7 in / 89.5 x 116 cm, T008725, Copyright:  Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona/VEGAP, Madrid, 2012, Photography by Gasull Fotografía, Barcelona

Fragments, 1995, Mixed media on wood, 35.2 x 45.7 in / 89.5 x 116 cm, T008725, Copyright: Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona/VEGAP, Madrid, 2012, Photography by Gasull Fotografía, Barcelona

The first is the consistency of the output that Tàpies churned out over his final decades. Whilst scholars have noted his developing interests in Eastern Mythology, his increased use of sand and his evolving existential angst, to me it appears rather more like a (now finite – but for a spell seemingly infinite) variation upon a couple of familiar modes. His employment of letters, words, excremental pictographs, sand, cement, surface-scratching, tagging, black paint and elusive mystical titles in truth seems to have altered hardly at all across the years of the show. (I challenge anyone to reconstruct a chronology without the benefit of the list).

This is not necessarily in and of itself a basis for reproach – but the sensation that in arriving so early upon these interests Tàpies seems to have spared himself from the continued self-questioning and visual reassessment that define the work of the best late careers, perhaps is. It is here that Robin Greenwood’s attack on the ineffability of Burri may come into play (though Burri’s production seems both more varied and very often richer than that of Tàpies – certainly than these late works). For Tàpies’s practice (and to an extent that of Burri) pushes towards what could be considered a form of mystical elementalism, in which the use of materials and references from outside the realms of fine art holds an intrinsic value of its own. Often discussed through the mist of terms like ‘alchemy’ or the ‘spiritual interconnection of matter’ this value is often framed as somehow separate from the visual parameters of the work – and as such from criticism.

(It seems worth noting that Burri was quite clear as to the necessity of judging his art on formal terms. Tàpies distinctly not so).

The incorporation of the ‘everyday’, is something that John Bunker praised in Burri’s work and is undoubtedly also part of the hold which both artists have over me. In Tàpies’ work it has multiple effects. To me the most pronounced is the disruption of our relation to the work through a complication of the ground’s physical identity and an assertion of diverse links to the wider world. Such disruptive effects are so often spoken of in artspeak that they rather lose their ring of truth – susceptible as they are to the dramatic exaggerations of marketplace myth-making. But taking works like Entre les celles or Escrits i formes sobre materia I think it is worth noting the means by which Tàpies, at times, succeeds.

Installation of ‘Antoni Tàpies’, Timothy Taylor Gallery. Central image: Entre les celles, 1992. Copyright Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona/VEGAP, Madrid, 2012. Image courtesy of Timothy Taylor Gallery.

Installation of ‘Antoni Tàpies’, Timothy Taylor Gallery. Central image: Entre les celles, 1992. Copyright Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona/VEGAP, Madrid, 2012. Image courtesy of Timothy Taylor Gallery.

Both consist of (wooden) supports draped in a fixed, sand-like, material. The thick, textured grounds are then incised, pressed and painted into and onto with broad or scrawling accumulations of black paint. These marks have diverse assertions. In Entre les celles some appear to be the imprint of a discarded object, others call to mind the thick loaded swish of a city tagger or the cathartic immediacy of gestural abstraction. In Escrits i formes sobre materia some marks open up crude spatial possibilities with a few roughly hewn lines, others present strangely inscrutable pictographs and others still appear as though the thoughtless imprints of a bored finger on a beach. The range of such allusions is at once a strength and a risk – for their effectiveness is dependent upon the capacity of the work to hold our visual intrigue. In these two works the combination of visual and allusive strategies held my attention – allowing my mind to drift across a plethora of visual excrement beyond the gallery walls – too often, however, the looseness of compositional strategy and allusive ambition remains uncompelling.

Installation of ‘Antoni Tàpies’, Timothy Taylor Gallery. L-R: Fragments, 1995; Escrits i formes sobre materia, 2009; Ona-mar, 2000; Extensio, 1999. Copyright Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona/VEGAP, Madrid, 2012. Image courtesy of Timothy Taylor Gallery.

Installation of ‘Antoni Tàpies’, Timothy Taylor Gallery. L-R: Fragments, 1995; Escrits i formes sobre materia, 2009; Ona-mar, 2000; Extensio, 1999. Copyright Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona/VEGAP, Madrid, 2012. Image courtesy of Timothy Taylor Gallery.

These marks can also play into a tension between the textured surface of the work and its representational identity. In Extensio, for example, the crudely drawn penis, the lick of sand and the strange framing devices mean the surface’s referent alternates between flesh, the phallic obsessions of childhood exercise books, sea washed beaches and crop-marked photographs. In Escrits i formes Sobre Materia, with the spatial possibilities of the black swing-like structure playing against the fingered compressions and scrawled incisions, the surface appears at once hard, malleable and absent. There is a swirling play of reference in which the surface is a source of illusion and allusion as well as an obdurate presence. Our experience of the work moves between these physically disparate assertions – which in their mundanity and diversity at best approach a sort of poetic meter.

But as these devices are repeated from work to work and year to year their disruptive effects are nullified by the monotony of their deployment. Rather than a dislocating encounter with a floating signifier we are often left with the familiar one of ‘another Tàpies’. His near infantile repetition of his initials does not help – bringing us closer to Banksyesque branding than the outsider isolation of late-night taggers, as his art is increasingly co-opted into the fine art cannon. This is a problem which seems to loom large over the ‘democratic incorporation of the physical world’, or what Walter Benjamin described as the ‘Physical Shock effect of Dada’. Its shock is both reliant on and excessively vulnerable to the esteem it seeks to disrupt; in order to reach audiences it must nullify itself in the elitist and conditioning space of the gallery.

Materia e diaris Materia i diaris, 2009, Mixed media and collage on wood, 511/8 x 76 1/2 in./130 x 194.3 cm, T008640, Copyright:  Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona/VEGAP, Madrid, 2012, Photography by Gasull Fotografía, Barcelona

Materia e diaris Materia i diaris, 2009, Mixed media and collage on wood, 511/8 x 76 1/2 in./130 x 194.3 cm, T008640, Copyright: Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona/VEGAP, Madrid, 2012, Photography by Gasull Fotografía, Barcelona

This need not be a terminal impasse. Indeed, in Tàpies, and certainly Burri’s best work, the impasse is frequently overcome. Yet, for me, it is overcome not by the spiritualist concepts of the oneness of the material world, which Tàpies seemed so keen to extend (if his titles and promotional strategies are anything to go by), but rather by the complex visually allusive possibilities of the materials themselves. For building from the dislocating presence of a wall-mounted fragment of sand there are a range of effects and references which paint on canvas cannot reach. There is intrigue in the combination of the crude perspective and ghostly compressed marks in Escrits i formes Sobre Materia. There is a sensual joy to the way in which the paint sits in the sand in Entre les celles and compelling allusions and realities of depth emerge in Materia e diaris, 2009.

Often, however these physical excitements are drowned out in the whiff of sheer pretentiousness that surrounds Tàpies; that press release speak about the intertwined deployment of spirituality and matter. In buying into these concepts of the spiritual profundity of his art Tàpies would seem to have spared himself from the consistent visual questioning that underpins the progress of the best artists. If certain visual details hold our attention – more often than not they are overpowered by other elements; the loose high-minded pretensions of the angels in Espai-visio, 1996, the underwhelming visual facility of Ona-mar, 2000; the distance between the scatological obviousness of the image and the high-minded allusions of the title in Prajna-Dhyana, 1993, the meaningless scribbles of equations in Tassa sobre gris, 2001. These are works which rely upon the audience’s credence of their profundity to fill in for the loose emptiness of their unresolved visual and allusive ploys.

Espai-visio, 1996, Mixed media on wood, 98 1/2 x 118 in / 250 x 300 cm, T008684. Copyright:  Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona/VEGAP, Madrid, 2012, Photography by Gasull Fotografía, Barcelona

Espai-visio, 1996, Mixed media on wood, 98 1/2 x 118 in / 250 x 300 cm, T008684. Copyright: Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona/VEGAP, Madrid, 2012, Photography by Gasull Fotografía, Barcelona

In imbuing his materials with a spiritual purpose Tàpies seems to have neglected the visual potential of his practice and in so doing pushed towards the monotony of  a production line. For whilst all the best art of course approaches a notion of alchemy – in its transcendence of rationally explicable inputs – one cannot help but think that a more critically accessible conception of his own practice would have aided Tàpies’ development. If at times, therefore, the floating references of Tàpies’ output approach poesis, too often they merely aim to.

Antoni Tàpies is on at Timothy Taylor Gallery until the 14th of April

 

  1. Patrick Jones said…

    In defence of Tapies,I have seen a terrific work at Waddingtons last year.Called Bed,it was exactly that,including crudely drawn headboard.However the majority of the huge painting[10ft tall]was occupied by the tumbling white sheets,in rolled white marble dust,on a black wooden surface.Without wishing to be drawn into semiotics,it was memorable for its re-experiencing something from life,just in the way Joyce does in Ulysees.It was every crumpled,stained ,slept in Bed[including hotel and hospital]we have ever slept in.I better go before Tracey Emin is mentioned.It was so much more interesting than a state funeral!

  2. Robert Linsley said…

    I’m keeping an open mind on Tapies, because I don’t really know how to take him. The review suggests he may be an example of something I see more frequently – “modern” art, meaning work that looks of its time, if that makes any sense. I have the feeling that despite their best efforts, what artists actually accomplish is not necessarily what they strive for, or what their audiences believe they see. A conventional period feel is something one is not aware of until the period is past. But that’s a pretty general observation.

    Coincidentally I have been reading his memoirs, which I find strangely lifeless and dull, but the two most recent posts on my blog are drawn from there (http://newabstraction.net).

    The overall sameness of Tapies work may be a function of professionalism, but that may also be the source of our period feel, so it can hardly be avoided. For an artist who has used his success in the best possible way, and DOES NOT repeat himself, I propose Frank Stella, but then the readers/writers of abcrit are strangely resistant to his merits.

    I think I will stroll over to the Gillian Ayres article and goose Robin Greenwood.

    • John Holland said…

      Robert- Good luck with the goosing- but I don’t quite understand what you mean by either ‘modern’ or ‘period feel’ in this context.

      Does Tapies’ work look particularly ‘of its time’? He seems to me to be part of a loose group of post war European artists (including Beuys, Kounellis, Arte Povera), who’s work uses a paradoxical tension between an almost excremental materialism and a kind of atavistic mysticism. It saw itself in opposition to other more explicitly ‘modern’, more ‘Positivist’, art. It had the look of its time partly in the way it opposed its time,the way it rather desperately looked to some pre-modern spiritual order. You could say this is in fact one manifestation of the times, essentially in the way it shares Conceptualism’s belief in the way physical substance can be imbued with an aura of Meaning beyond, or outside of, any particularities of relational form, like a Haunting.
      In this sense, formal development is a bit of an irrelevant concept here, as it’s the metaphysical message to society that is important.

      You will be fined if you gratuitously mention Frank Stella again.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        About Tapies I can’t say until I see a proper show one day. But sometimes I get the feeling that art looks like it’s made for contemporary galleries, that it’s just proper modern art, that it has a kind of feel typical of modern art. Sounds vague, but it’s just an instinctual reaction. When I feel that, I lose interest in the work. Can’t really explain it. Thought that the reviewer here felt something like, but maybe not.
        I never feel that way about the unmentionable.

  3. JOHN JACOB LYONS said…

    Why does the ‘Emperor’s Suit of Clothes’ come to mind?

  4. Alan Gouk said…

    Another excellent piece from an in-form writer. And almost no redundant pseudo-semiotic jargon .

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      I agree, but I’m a little bugged over and again by the idea that if you are not into metaphysical abstract art, full of metaphors, allusions, or cod-spirituality, then you must of necessity be a formalist. Not so. And I think there is lots and lots of great art, both abstract and figurative, that is neither of those things. In fact, I think that dichotomy misses out on the real delivery of complex visual meaning in art.

      • Sam said…

        Maybe you’re right (I’m not sure). But I don’t think that the dichotomy is actually contained in anything that Ben has said – he does not really mention a pure formalism or position that opposed to ‘metaphysical abstract art’. Instead hasn’t he said that Tapies is an allusive artist, but that allusions need to have a visual basis, a physical (formal?) presence, that they cannot just rely on being put unthinkingly into a painting, or glossed over paintings by press-releases and titles.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        But you’ve just done it! His allusions need a formal presence, you (and Ben) say. There is the split. If you split painting into, on the one hand, subject matter, and on the other, the formal means of putting across that idea, you are directly into the dread territory of academic excercises. Then, there is a common idea that abstract art is just the ‘formal’ side, because it sheds the subject matter.

        Don’t you think it is telling that the bland minimalism of Burri (who himself insisted on a formalist critique), or indeed Tapies, whose work looks to me excruciatingly dull, just begs to be interpreted through metaphor in order to make it even a little bit more interesting than it actually is. Whereas, if one was able to make abstract art that was in and of itself fantastically interesting to look at, one would have no need of such spurious resorts, or the consequential split into subject and object.

      • Sam said…

        Ok – well I didn’t really just do it, you did. No one said anything about an idea then translated into formal terms: rather that for the allusions to be of sustained interest, or to allow sustained involvement they had to have some physical qualities, which (and I maybe going beyond what BWK said) are a – perhaps inseparable or only artificially separable – combination of the allusive and something beyond that. Having said that I’ve no particular love of Tapies (though I haven’t seen this show). But really we’re not going to get anywhere with this – you have your position, and that’s fine but that seems to be the end of it. The Ayres thread has much more potential…

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        To quote you : ‘Instead hasn’t he said that Tapies is an allusive artist, but that allusions need to have a visual basis, a physical (formal?) presence’

      • Sam said…

        Which could imply that the allusions start in the physical / form (or grow out of it). Rather than a definable idea which is then formally translated, which is what you seem to be suggesting.

        But the way you look at art cannot allow Tapies any value, so what is there to say? I think the position that one can be abstract artist without metaphor etc but not be a formalist is an interesting, even an exciting one, but it has very little direct relevance to this article.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I must be reading a different article. I’ll get my coat…

      • John Bunker said…

        Ben, Thank you for such a clear sighted and intelligent critique of a great artist.
        We know ‘alchemy’ is a hopelessly loaded term. But ‘transformations’ of some kind or another are the goal of this kind of work. As a viewer thats what we want!
        Robin must have a taste for this kind of battle when, in the white heat of welding, ‘scrap metal’ gets turned into ‘High Abstract’ sculpture. No?
        I think there is a correspondence between later Caro ( thinking of ‘Witness’) and Tapies. But I guess that would be perceived as part of Caro’s decline? Why am I thinking of William Turnbull too?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Don’t go romanticizing my bleedin’ welding into a sodding metaphor.

      • John Bunker said…

        Lov’n it!

      • Sam said…

        Bleedin’ Welding: An Exhibition of New Sculpture by Robin Greenwood

        As Greenwood presses his angle-grinder down, the sparks fly like blood and the steel shudders like a corpse on the operating table.* At once living agent and inert matter these works [continues..]

        * I’m not sure corpses to shudder on the operating table

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Good to see you parodying your own writing style, Sam, with a genuine sense of the slapstick. One day you’ll aspire to irony.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        More seriously, it would be good to know, John B, what achievements you think make Tapies ‘a great artist’, and who in the history of art you think he is comparable with. Because, for the life of me, he looks like a con-merchant of the worst order. I think even Ben, who obviously had a youthful crush, seems to see through the guy now, if one reads between the lines. Work that was “churned out over his final decades” doesn’t sound too “great” to me. He sets an awful example to impressionable young artists like yourself…ha!

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        So this is Ben nailing the means of his best successes:

        “…painted into and onto with broad or scrawling accumulations of black paint… some appear to be the imprint of a discarded object, others call to mind the thick loaded swish of a city tagger or the cathartic immediacy of gestural abstraction. In ‘Escrits i formes sobre materia’ some marks open up crude spatial possibilities with a few roughly hewn lines, others present strangely inscrutable pictographs and others still appear as though the thoughtless imprints of a bored finger on a beach.”

        That doesn’t sound too successful… In fact, they never quite do anything, really, do they? Apart, of course, from the really important thing of “allowing [Ben's] mind to drift across a plethora of visual excrement beyond the gallery walls”. Well, nuff said.