Antoni Tàpies

Summary

Antoni Tàpies i Puig, I Marqués de Tápies (Barcelona, December 13, 1923 – ibidem, February 6, 2012), was a Spanish painter, sculptor and art theorist. One of the world”s leading exponents of informalism, he is considered one of the most outstanding Spanish artists of the 20th century. The Catalan artist”s work enjoys a study and conservation center at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona.

Self-taught, Tàpies created his own style within the avant-garde art of the twentieth century, combining tradition and innovation in an abstract style, but full of symbolism, giving great importance to the material substrate of the work. It is worth noting the marked spiritual sense given by the artist to his work, where the material support transcends its state to signify a profound analysis of the human condition.

Tàpies” work has been highly valued both nationally and internationally, being exhibited in the most prestigious museums in the world. Throughout his career he has received numerous awards and distinctions, including the Wolf Foundation of the Arts Award (1981), the Gold Medal of the Generalitat de Catalunya (1983), the Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts (1990), the Picasso Medal of Unesco (1993) and the Velázquez Award for Plastic Arts (2003). In recognition of his artistic career, King Juan Carlos I awarded him the title of Marquis of Tàpies on April 9, 2010.

The work of Antoni Tàpies is in the tradition of these explosions that from time to time occur in our country and that move so many dead things. It is authentically Barcelona with universal irradiation. For this he deserves all my admiration.

Tàpies was the son of the lawyer Josep Tàpies i Mestres and Maria Puig i Guerra, daughter of a family of Catalanist politicians. His father”s profession and his maternal family”s relations with members of Catalan political life fostered a liberal atmosphere during the artist”s childhood. Tàpies always remarked that the confrontation between his father”s anticlericalism and his mother”s orthodox Catholicism led him to a personal search for a new spirituality, which he found in Eastern philosophies and religions, mainly Zen Buddhism.

According to his own confession, his artistic vocation awoke with a Christmas issue of the magazine D”Ací i d”Allà in 1934, which presented an extensive panorama of international modern art. One of the events that marked his life was his convalescence from consumption at the age of 18, a circumstance that made him rethink the meaning of his life, as well as his vocation, since during his recovery he devoted himself intensely to drawing. The feverish states he suffered caused frequent hallucinations that would be essential for the development of his work. During his stay at the Puig d”Olena sanatorium (1942-1943) he took refuge in music (Wagner) and literature (Ibsen, Nietzsche, Thomas Mann), and made copies of Van Gogh and Picasso.

He combined his law studies at the University of Barcelona, which he had begun in 1943, with his passion for art, and finally opted for painting, which he abandoned in 1946. He finally opted for painting and abandoned his studies in 1946. Self-taught, he only studied briefly at the Academy of Nolasc Valls. He set up his first painting studio in Barcelona in 1946.

In 1948 he was one of the founders of the magazine and movement known as Dau al Set, related to surrealism and Dadaism. The leader of this movement was the poet Joan Brossa and, together with Tàpies, Modest Cuixart, Joan-Josep Tharrats, Joan Ponç, Arnau Puig and later Juan Eduardo Cirlot. The magazine lasted until 1956, but Tàpies had left for Paris in 1950 and had distanced himself from the group, although he continued to collaborate sporadically in the publication.

Tàpies” first works were framed within surrealism, but after that departure he changed his style, becoming one of the main exponents of informalism. Representative of the so-called “matter painting”, Tàpies used for his works materials that are not considered artistic, but rather recycled or waste, such as ropes, paper or marble dust.

In 1948 he exhibited his work for the first time at the I Salon d”Octubre in Barcelona, showing two works from 1947: Pintura and Encolado (Painting and Gluing). That year he met Joan Miró, one of his most admired artists. In 1949 he participated in the exhibition Un aspecto de la joven pintura catalana at the French Institute in Barcelona, where he was seen by Eugeni d”Ors, who invited him to the VII Salón de los Once, in Madrid (1950). In 1950 he had his first solo exhibition at the Galeries Laietanes in Barcelona, where he exhibited again in 1952. With a scholarship from the French Institute, he traveled to Paris (1950), where he managed to exhibit at the Carnegie International Competition in Pittsburgh, and where he met Picasso.

In 1950 he was selected to represent Spain at the Venice Biennale, where he participated several times. In 1953 he exhibited in Chicago and Madrid; that year the art dealer Martha Jackson organized an exhibition for him in New York, making him known in the United States. That same year he won first prize at the Barcelona Jazz Salon, and met the critic Michel Tapié, advisor to the Galerie Stadler in Paris, where he exhibited in 1956 and several times since then. In 1954 he married Teresa Barba i Fàbregas, with whom he had three children: Antoni (poet), Clara and Miquel Àngel.

He was one of the founders of the Taüll group in 1955, together with Modest Cuixart, Joan-Josep Tharrats, Marc Aleu, Josep Guinovart, Jordi Mercadé and Jaume Muxart. That year he was awarded a prize at the III Bienal Hispanoamericana in Barcelona, and exhibited in Stockholm with Tharrats, presented by Salvador Dalí. In 1958 he had a special room at the Venice Biennale, and won the first Carnegie Prize and the Unesco Prize.

In 1960 he participated in the exhibition New Spanish Painting and Sculpture at the MOMA in New York. Since then he exhibited in Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, New York, Washington, Bern, Munich, Bilbao, Buenos Aires, Hannover, Caracas, Zurich, Rome, Sankt Gallen, Cologne, Kassel, London, Cannes, etc., and received awards in Tokyo (1960), New York (1964) and Menton (1966). In 1967 he entered the orbit of the art dealer Aimé Maeght and exhibited at the Musée d”Art Moderne in Paris (1973), New York (1975) and the Maeght Foundation (1976).

In the 1970s his work acquired a more political tinge, of Catalanist vindication and opposition to the Franco regime, generally with words and signs on the paintings, such as the four bars of the Catalan flag (El espíritu catalán, 1971). This activism also led him to actions such as the confinement of the Capuchin convent in Sarrià to form a democratic student union (1966) or the march to Montserrat in protest against the Burgos trial (1970), for which he was imprisoned for a short period of time.

Since then he has had numerous solo and anthological exhibitions: Tokyo, 1976; New York, 1977; Rome, 1980; Amsterdam, 1980; Madrid, 1980; Venice, 1982; Milan, 1985; Vienna, 1986; Brussels, 1986; MNCARS, Madrid, 2000; Micovna Pavilion of the Royal Garden in Prague, 1991; MOMA, New York, 1992; Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1995; Kirin Art Space Harajuku, Tokyo, 1996; Centro per l”Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci, Prato, 1997. Antoni Tàpies” work has been exhibited in the world”s leading modern art museums. In addition to being named doctor honoris causa by several universities, Tàpies was awarded several prizes, including the Wolf Foundation of the Arts Award (1981), the Gold Medal of the Generalitat de Catalunya (1983) and the Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts (1990).

In 1990 the Fundació Antoni Tàpies, an institution created by the artist himself to promote contemporary art, opened its doors to the public in the building of the former Editorial Montaner i Simón, a modernist work by Lluís Domènech i Montaner. The foundation also serves as a museum, with a large number of works donated by the artist, as well as a library and an auditorium.

Tàpies was also the author of scenographies (Or i sal, by Joan Brossa, 1961) and illustrations for books, mainly by Brossa (Ú no és ningú, 1979); he was also dedicated to poster design, holding an exhibition in 1984 with his main poster work, as well as graphic production: engravings, lithographs, serigraphs, etc. In 2002 he created the poster for the Mercè festivities in Barcelona.

As an art theorist, Tàpies published articles in Destino, Serra d”Or, La Vanguardia, Avui, etc., most of them compiled in the books La práctica del arte (1970), El arte contra la estética (1974), La realidad como arte (1982) and Por un arte moderno y progresista (1985), as well as the autobiography Memoria personal (1977). In his works he attacked both traditional art and the extreme avant-garde of conceptual art.

With the transition to the 21st century Tàpies did not cease to receive numerous recognitions both nationally and internationally, and retrospective exhibitions of his work were organized in the best museums and galleries of the world. In 2003, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, a retrospective of his best works was held at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies, with the public attending an open day. Likewise, in 2004, a tribute to his figure was organized at the MACBA in Barcelona, with a large exhibition of 150 works from the 1940s to the present, including paintings, sculptures, drawings and various creations by the brilliant artist.

Among his last public acts it is worth mentioning his collaboration with José Saramago in 2005 in defense of the Basque pacifist group Elkarri, or the donation the same year of his work 7 de noviembre to the Parliament of Catalonia on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of its restoration. In October 2007 he gave an original work of his to the campaign against the closure of TV3 broadcasts in Valencia, so that its reproductions could be sold for ten euros and thus defray the fine imposed on ACPV by the Generalitat Valenciana. The same year he left a message in the Caja de las Letras of the Cervantes Institute, which will not be opened until 2022. On April 9, 2010 he was named Marquis of Tàpies by King Juan Carlos I.

Antoni Tàpies died on February 6, 2012 at his home in Barcelona, at the age of 88.

Practically self-taught in the artistic field, Tàpies was, however, a man of great culture, a lover of philosophy (Nietzsche), literature (Dostoyevsky) and music (Wagner). He was a great defender of Catalan culture, of which he was deeply imbued: he was a great admirer of the mystical writer Ramon Llull (of whom he made a book of engravings between 1973 and 1985), as well as of the Catalan Romanesque and the modernist architecture of Antoni Gaudí. At the same time, he was an admirer of Eastern art and philosophy, which, like Tàpies, blurred the boundary between matter and spirit, between man and nature. Influenced by Buddhism, he showed in his work how pain, both physical and spiritual, is inherent to life.

Tàpies” initiation in art was through realistic drawings, mainly portraits of family and friends. His first contact with the avant-garde art of the time led him to subscribe to a surrealism of magical tone influenced by artists such as Joan Miró, Paul Klee and Max Ernst, a style that crystallized in his Dau al Set period.

Dau al Set was a movement mainly influenced by Dadaism and Surrealism, but it also drew from multiple literary, philosophical and musical sources: they rediscovered the Mallorcan mystic Ramon Llull, the music of Wagner, Schönberg and jazz, the artistic work of Gaudí and the literary work of Poe and Mallarmé, the philosophy of Nietzsche and German existentialism, the psychology of Freud and Jung, etc. His painting was figurative, with a marked magical-fantastic component, as well as a metaphysical character, of concern for the destiny of man.

After his time at Dau al Set, in 1951 he began a phase of geometric abstraction, passing in 1953 to informalism: in 1951 he traveled to Paris, where he got to know the new European currents, as well as the new pictorial techniques (here he contacted informalist artists such as Jean Fautrier or Jean Dubuffet. Informalism was a movement that emerged after World War II, which shows the mark left by the war in a pessimistic conception of man, influenced by existentialist philosophy. Artistically, the origins of informalism can be traced in the abstraction of Kandinsky or in the experiments carried out with different materials by Dadaism. Informalism also seeks an interrelation with the spectator, within the concept of “open work” expressed by the Italian theorist Umberto Eco.

Within Informalism, Tàpies was part of the so-called “matter painting”, also known as “art brut”, which is characterized by technical mixing and the use of heterogeneous materials, often waste or recycled, mixed with traditional art materials in search of a new language of artistic expression. The main exponents of matter painting were, in addition to Tàpies, the French artists Fautrier and Dubuffet and the Spaniard Manolo Millares. Since the 1950”s, matter painting was Tàpies” main means of expression, in which he worked with different peculiarities until his death.

Tàpies” most characteristic works are those in which he applies his mixture of diverse materials in compositions that acquire the consistency of walls, to which he adds different distinctive elements through signs that emphasize the communicative character of the work, resembling the popular art of “graffiti”. This wall-like consistency has always attracted Tàpies, who also liked to relate his style to the etymology of his own surname:

“The wall is an image that I found a bit by surprise. It was after some painting sessions in which I fought so much with the plastic material I was using and filled it with so many scratches that, suddenly, the painting changed, took a qualitative leap, and became a still and calm surface. I found that I had painted a wall, a wall, which was at the same time related to my name”.

Also of primary significance in Tàpies” work is the iconographic character he adds to his works through different signs such as crosses, moons, asterisks, letters, numbers, geometric figures, etc. For Tàpies these elements have an allegorical meaning related to the artist”s inner world, evoking such transcendental themes as life and death, or such as loneliness, lack of communication or sexuality. Each figure can have a specific meaning: as for the letters, A and T are for the initials of his name or for Antoni and Teresa (the M he explains as follows:

“We all have an M drawn on the lines of the palm of the hand, which refers to death, and on the foot there are wrinkles in the shape of an S; all combined was Certain Death.”

Another distinctive feature in Tàpies was the chromatic austerity, he generally moved in ranges of austere, cold, earthy colors, such as ocher, brown, gray, beige or black. The artist gives us his own explanation:

“If I have come to make paintings only with gray, it is partly because of the reaction I had to the colorism that characterized the art of the generation before mine, a painting in which primary colors were used a lot. The fact of being continuously surrounded by the impact of advertising and signage characteristic of our society also led me to look for a more internalized color, which could be defined as the penumbra, the light of dreams and of our inner world. The color brown is related to a philosophy closely linked to Franciscanism, with the habit of the Franciscan friars. There is a tendency to look for what the cheerful colors say: red, yellow; but for me, gray and brown colors are more interior, they are more related to the philosophical world”.

In his work Tàpies reflected a great concern for the problems of the human being: illness, death, loneliness, pain or sex. Tàpies gave us a new vision of the simplest and most everyday reality, exalting it to levels of true spirituality. Tàpies” vital conception was nourished by existentialist philosophy, which emphasizes the material and mortal condition of man, the anguish of existence that Sartre spoke of; the loneliness, the illness, the poverty that we perceive in Tàpies can also be found in the work of Samuel Beckett or Eugène Ionesco. Existentialism points out the tragic destiny of man, but it also vindicates his freedom, the importance of the individual, his capacity for action in the face of life; thus, Tàpies intended with his art to make us reflect on our own existence:

“I think a work of art should perplex the viewer, make him or her meditate on the meaning of life.”

In the 1970s, influenced by pop-art, he began to use more solid objects in his works, such as furniture parts. However, the use of everyday elements in Tàpies” work does not have the same objective as in pop-art, where they are used to make a trivialization of consumer society and mass media; instead, in Tàpies the spiritual substratum is always present, the significance of simple elements as evocative of a greater universal order.

Tàpies is often considered a precursor of arte povera, in his use of poor and discarded materials, although again the conceptual difference between the two styles must be emphasized.

In his most characteristic work within the informalism of matter, Tàpies used techniques that mixed traditional art pigments with materials such as sand, clothing, straw, etc., with a predominance of collage and assemblage, and a texture close to bas-relief.

Tàpies defined his technique as “mixed”: he painted on canvas, in medium formats, in a horizontal position, arranging a homogeneous layer of monochromatic paint, on which he applied the “mix”, a mixture of crushed marble dust, binder, pigment and oil, applied with a palette knife or with his own hands.

When it was almost dry I made a grattage with hessian cloth, applied on the surface, and when it was adhered I tore it off, creating a relief structure, with torn, scratched or even perforated areas, which contrasted with the clusters and material densities of other areas of the painting. He then made a new grattage with various tools (awl, knife, scissors, brush). Finally, he added signs (crosses, moons, asterisks, letters, numbers, etc.), in compositions reminiscent of graffiti, as well as stains, applied by dripping.

He did not add elements of fixation, so the works degraded quickly -the mixture is quite ephemeral-; however, Tàpies defended decomposition, as a loss of the idea of the eternity of art, he liked his works to reflect the sensation of the passage of time. He also contributed to this by his own traces in his work, the incisions he made, which for him were a reflection of nature.

Tàpies” beginnings were in the field of drawing, generally in India ink, mainly dedicated to portraits, preferably of family and friends, of great realism: Josep Gudiol, Antoni Puigvert, Pere Mir i Martorell, Self-Portrait (1944). He became interested in new techniques, and began to leave his mark on his work: Zoom (1946), an inverted portrait, in the form of a sun, with a yellow tone influenced by Van Gogh and a very pure Spanish white, giving a strong luminosity.

Towards 1947 he made more fluid drawings, influenced by Matisse. Later he began his authentically personal work, with thick materials and short, separate brushstrokes, with a primitive and expressionist air, with a magical and pantheistic theme (Triptych, 1948).

During the Dau al Set stage, Tàpies was framed in a figurative magical surrealism, influenced by Joan Miró, Paul Klee and Max Ernst: Nymphs, dryads and harpies (El gato, influenced by Klee, strong chiaroscuro, fantastic world, unreal, dark colors; El dolor de Brunhilde, influenced by German expressionism in the contrasts of color, light and shadow.

Finally, after his time at Dau al Set, in 1951 he began a phase of geometric abstraction, passing in 1953 to the informalism of material tendency that would be characteristic of his work. His works acquired a thicker density, with very dense impasto, incorporating grattage, which he used to do with an inverted brush, creating relief. He also made collages with newspaper or cardboard, and recycled or even detrital materials, showing the influence of Kurt Schwitters (Collage of strings and rice). His typical colors were dark: chestnut, ochre, beige, brown, brown, black; white is usually “dirty”, mixed with dark tones. Only sporadically did he delve into vibrant colors, such as red (Red and black with torn areas, 1963-1965) and blue (Blue and two crosses, 1980).

In 1954 he made some sculptural panels in relief on the facade of the Finanzauto office building at 216 Balmes Street in Barcelona, with motifs alluding to the Piarists, owners of the building.

Between 1955 and 1960 he had his most radically materialistic period, with an austere style, with neutral colors, of the earth, and a profusion of signs: cross, T (of Tàpies), cross in a cross blade (X), 4 (for the four elements and the four cardinal points, as a symbol of the earth), etc.: Large gray painting (1956), Large oval (1956), White oval (1957), Painting in the shape of a T (1960).

Also important in Tàpies” work is the presence of the human body, generally in separate parts, in schematic forms, often with the appearance of deterioration, the body appears torn, assaulted, pierced. This is how we perceive it in El fuego interior (Relieve ocre y rosa (Relieve ocher and pink) (Materia en forma de axila) (Materia en forma de axila) (Cráneo blanco (White skull (Body (1986) reflects a recumbent figure, evocative of death -which is accentuated by the word “Tartaros”, the Greek hell-; Días de Agua I (Days of Water I (1987), a body submerged in waves of gray paint, evoking the legend of Hero and Leandro.

Another of Tàpies” characteristics is his profuse use of the most diverse objects in his works: Caja de cordeles (1946) already anticipated this tendency, with a box full of cords arranged in a radial fashion reminiscent of a scalp; Puerta metálica y violín (1956) is a curious composition of the two aforementioned elements, apparently antithetical, one because of its prosaic character and the other because of its high artistic and intellectual connotation; Pressed Straw with X (Cushion and Bottle (1970), a new conjunction of two disparate objects, aims to contrast a cushion of refined bourgeois taste with a simple glass bottle of almost proletarian air.

Geometric figures are also important in Tàpies” work, perhaps influenced by Catalan Romanesque or primitive and oriental art: White Oval (Materia doblada (1981), a canvas similar to the shroud of Christ, with certain reminiscences that recall Zurbarán, a painter admired by Tàpies; The Ladder (1974), as a symbol of ascension, inspired by works by Miró such as Dog barking at the moon or Carnival of the Harlequin.

Although the evolution of Tapian”s work was uniform from its beginnings in informalism, with the passage of time there were subtle differences in both techniques and content: between 1963 and 1968 he received a certain influence of pop-art, in his approach to the world of the surrounding reality, in which the everyday object stands out: Matter in the form of a hat, The frame, Woman, Matter in the form of a walnut, Table and chairs (1968), Matter with blanket (1968), Large bundle of straw (1968), Pressed straw (1969). Between 1969 and 1972 he gave preponderance to Catalan themes: Atención Cataluña (1969), El espíritu catalán (1971), Pintura románica con barretina (1971), Sardana (1971), Inscripciones y cuatro barras sobre arpillera (1971-1972), Cataluña-Libertad (1972).

In the period 1970-1971 he had a conceptualist stage, working with detritic materials, with grease stains or raw materials: Pica de lavar con cruz, Mueble con paja, Palangana con Vanguardias, Paja cubierta con trapo. After a period of crisis until the late 70”s, when he focused on sculpture and engraving, since 1980 he renewed techniques and themes, returning to a certain informalism. Also during that decade, under the influence of postmodern art -especially German neo-expressionism- he incorporated more figurative elements, generally as a tribute to traditional styles and artists in the history of art, as in Recuerdo (1982), which alludes to Leonardo Da Vinci, or Materia ocre (1984) and Mancha marrón sobre blanco (1986), which evoke the Baroque.

In the 1990s he received a series of institutional commissions: in 1991 he created The Four Chronicles, in the Tarradellas Hall of the Palace of the Generalitat of Catalonia. In 1992 he was commissioned to decorate the mural pavilions of Catalonia and the International Olympic Committee for the Universal Exposition of Seville. That same year a strong controversy arose over the project commissioned by the Barcelona City Council to decorate the Oval Hall of the National Palace of Montjuïc, home of the MNAC. Tàpies designed a sculpture in the shape of a sock, 18 meters high, with the meaning, according to him, of “a humble sock inside which meditation is proposed and with which I want to represent the importance in the cosmic order of small things”. However, due to the popular rejection of the project and the opposition of the Generalitat de Catalunya, the work was not finally completed. Even so, years later the artist took up the project again and built his work on the terrace of the Fundació Antoni Tàpies, as the main representative work of the Foundation after its reopening in 2010, after two years of renovation of the museum. However, the original 18-meter project was not built, but a reduced version of 2.75 meters.

In 1994 Tàpies was commissioned by the Pompeu Fabra University to adapt a space as a secular chapel, that is, as a space of recollection for reflection and meditation. The space was part of the university”s Agora Rubió i Balaguer, designed by the architect Jordi Garcés, which connects the former Roger de Llúria and Jaume I barracks buildings subway and, in addition to the chapel, contains an auditorium and an exhibition hall. Tàpies conceived the space as a refuge from the outside world, leaving the architectural structure as it was, with concrete walls, installing a series of artistic interventions to complete the chapel”s air of recollection: the mural Díptico de la campana and the sculpture Serpiente y plato, as well as some belfry chairs hung on a wall and a burlap rug, all to produce an atmosphere of meditation and repose. The sculpture is placed on an altar, with a large porcelain plate on which the serpent is placed; we can glimpse the antecedent of the project of the sock for the National Palace, which would also have been placed on an altar.

In sculpture, from his beginnings in the assemblage technique in the 70”s he moved on to the use of terracotta since 1981 and bronze since 1987, always in a line similar to that of his painting, with mixed techniques and use of recycled or waste materials, in sometimes unusual associations that seek to shock the viewer. His Homage to Picasso (Parc de la Ciutadella, 1983), and the ceramic mosaic in the Plaza de Cataluña in San Baudilio de Llobregat (1983) stand out, as well as the installation entitled Cloud and Chair at the Tàpies Foundation (1989).

Sources

  1. Antoni Tàpies
  2. Antoni Tàpies