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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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