Meditating on the Void

Antoni Tàpies

“The artist may rightly venture the opinion that he does not convey ideas, does not preach, nor does he intend to convert people by using mass communication techniques... Better than handing out all kinds of wise advice, he could show life itself; he could awake forces lying dormant in everybody. He could launch an invitation to create direct and personal experiences” - Antoni Tàpies

The most important member of the Art Informel (Unformed Art) movement to come out of Spain in the latter part of the 20th-century, Antoni Tàpies (1923-2012) conceived of his body of work as a meditation on the concept of “the void” – more specifically, “that play of emptiness and fullness which composes everything and which reveals the meaning of nature”. Tàpies believed art was a kind of alchemy or magic, and through his mixed-media paintings, incorporating sand, marble dust, found objects, and resin, he hoped to connect the basest of materials with an unseen, metaphysical world. Since the 1950s, he placed the brutality of the material and the energy of the gesture at the heart of his work, keeping to the same palette of raw natural colours: burnt black, earth brown, wine red, rust red, the gold of sand or marble. Tàpies experienced first-hand the political unrest and oppression of Catalan culture and language under Franco's rule, and accordingly, themes of religion, politics and social consciousness permeate many of his heavily textured and tactile works, which are both celebrations of life and demonstrations of its fragility: “Franco’s dictatorship was very different from Nazism and Italian fascism. They didn’t consider modern art as dangerous; rather they wanted to use it to make the world believe Spain was a tolerant country.”

Tàpies was an intellectual who loved books and was greatly influenced by the 13th-century Catalan mystic Ramon Llull (1232-1316), who constructed his own alphabet in which individual letters had their own meanings. A private syntax of profane codes — plucked seemingly from the realms of the unconsciousness — often appearing as an amalgam of Eastern calligraphy and Western graffiti, can be seen throughout Tàpies’ work. The cross or “X” plays a central role, a recurrent symbol, it holds a variety of meanings and is an apt emblem for his art as a whole; simultaneously it marks a crossroads on a map, a sign of existence, a vote, a kiss, rotated to a “T” it becomes a signature, the initial of Tàpies’ surname, and at the same time is the crucifix, the grave marker, the sign used in the newspaper notices announcing deaths in Spain. Often austere yet, at the same time, full of force and expression, Tàpies develops his own provocative, personal iconography, responding to questions about the unsettling incertitude of the human condition, and to demonstrate that beauty and transcendence can often be found in the humblest of materials, such as string, rags and scraps of paper. His art evolved its own esoteric language of signs, marks, letters and words, exploring wider ideas about the relationship between matter and spirit, and reflecting the artists struggles to achieve “the ultimate mysterious unity” that links the entire universe. Much of his work focuses on an exploration of the anguish and existential “Void” that emerged after the Spanish civil war, and the sense of something beyond the material world that only exists in its absence. “If one draws things in a manner which provides only the barest clue to their meaning, the viewer is forced to fill in the gaps by using his own imagination,” he reflected. “He is compelled to participate in the creative act, which I consider very important.”

Terra i Palla, mixed media on board (2005) by Antoni Tàpies

Terra i Palla, mixed media on board (2005) by Antoni Tàpies

Espuma con escuadra, Household paint on foam (1986) by Antoni Tàpies

Espuma con escuadra, Household paint on foam (1986) by Antoni Tàpies

Born in Barcelona, Spain, to a highly academic family, his adolescence was disrupted by the ravages of the Spanish Civil War and a serious illness that lasted two years — a time when he made copies in oils of works by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), and read philosophical texts by Nietzsche, as well as the Japanese Buddhist Okakura Kakuzo. His father Josep Tàpies i Mestres, was a lawyer with secular, nationalist sympathies who worked for the republican Catalan government; as a result of which, Tàpies was exposed at an early age to the cultural and social experiences of leaders in the Catalan public life and its republicanism. By contrast, his mother was a devout Catholic, the daughter of a prominent right-wing separatist, who insisted on a religious education for her son throughout the upheavals of the period. Apart from the unintended consequence of instilling in him a long-lasting fear of nuns, the severity his schooling caused Tàpies to develop something of an idiosyncratic spirituality that had a deep and sustained effect on his artistic development; outlines of crucifixes often emerge from his minimal smeared, smudged or torn works, sometimes formed from base materials such as toilet paper. After two years spent studying law at the Universitat de Barcelona, Tàpies devoted himself from 1943 onwards exclusively to art, transforming himself into, as the critic Roland Penrose put it in his monograph “Tàpies” (1978), “a painter who was to create mysteries in matter itself.”

He was essentially self-taught as a painter; the few art classes that he attended apparently leaving little impression on him. His early work was greatly influenced by Catalan Surrealists — Joan Miró showed him what he should do and Salvador Dalí what he shouldn’t, as he later recalled —but he also drew on the fresco techniques and powerful spirituality found in Catalonia’s extraordinarily rich Romanesque heritage. Shortly after becoming an artist, he began attending clandestine meetings of Els Blaus (the Blues, formed in 1946), an iconoclastic group of Catalan artists and writers. They were the precursors to Dau al Set (“the seventh face of the die”), the first post-war art movement in Spain, co-founded by Tàpies and number of other figures, including his friend the surrealist poet Joan Brossa, which which was inspired by dreams and the unconscious, having strong connections to the Surrealist and Dada movements. This was a more pointed decision under the regime of General Franco; despite the risks, the group produced an eponymous review (54 issues, 1948–56), that advocated a more liberal strain of art than that favoured by the authorities. In 1945 Tàpies began experimenting with materials, mixing oil paint with whiting. He also became increasingly interested in philosophy, especially that of Sartre as well as Eastern thought.

Finestra,  Plaster and wooden frame on board (2000)  by Antoni Tàpies

Finestra, Plaster and wooden frame on board (2000) by Antoni Tàpies

Tàpies’ first painterly explorations, produced in the late 1940s and early 1950s, were inspired partly by the “primitive” art of children and, more obviously, Paul Klee (1879-1940), his friend Joan Miró (1893-1983) and the Surrealists. Although undemonstrative as a person, Tàpies had something of the shaman about him, and his paintings, filled with a mysterious, suggestive ambiance, often featured figures and creatures that could inhabit only dreams. At the same time, their surfaces were often very finely worked with an abundance of thickly impastoed paint — at times, using Max Ernst's grattage (or scraping) technique — revealing an early interest in his materials that would come to the fore in later years. This was all the more evident in his collages of the period, which, anticipating the Arte Povera movement of the 1960s, used humble materials, like string and scraps of newspaper, to create enigmatic, multi-layered compositions, such as Creu de paper de diari (1946-47), consisting of a cross made from paper torn out of a Catholic journal's obituaries page. After his first solo show at Galeries Laietanes, Barcelona, in 1950 he travelled to Paris, on a French Government scholarship, where he met some of the most important figures of the 20th-century avant-garde, and also briefly became interested in social realism.

“My wish is that we might progressively lose our confidence in what we think we believe and the things we consider stable and secure, in order to remind ourselves of the infinite number of things still waiting to be discovered” - Antoni Tàpies

After the Surrealist adventures of his “magic period”, Tàpies began to shift away from the fantastical, semi-figurative vocabulary that had hitherto dominated much of his output, searching for new expressive parameters in which rich, painterly textures and sober use of colour played a key role; the critic John Russell referred to their “seignorial dignity” — to works that “seemed to have been not so much painted as excavated from an idiosyncratic compound of mud, sand, earth, dried blood and powdered minerals.” Incorporating the scrawling marks of Paul Klee, he soon developed a recognizable personal style related to Matiérisme (matter art), and as his work turned more abstract he was drawn to the Art Informel movement — the European equivalent to abstract expressionism in America — of which he would become one of the most celebrated proponents. It was in this genre of Haute Pâte or “matter” painting that Tàpies created his most famous and original works of art, mixing the conventional, pigments and varnish, with unconventional, including marble dust and sand — in a style known as pintura matèrica (informal painting) — to create dense, wall-like surfaces that are both blank and mysterious at the same time.

Tàpies’ vivacious handling of materials resulted in rich, painterly textures, but its more important aim was exploring of the transformative qualities of matter. He began producing works with fragments torn off, lacerations and scratches, alluding to the horrors of the Civil War and referencing the brute reality of the shrapnel-pocked walls of his native Barcelona. This exhilarating new style of “gashes, blows [and] scars”, corporeal and visceral, reflected the anxiety he felt to express the haunting unease of the human condition. Frequent use of assemblage and the incorporation of elements alien to academic tradition — such as shoes and socks — became a signature of his work and the recurring use of furniture, whether real or represented, became a key component. The bed took on a particular significance as an archetype or metaphor for human life; the vast majority of people are born on beds, it’s a place of warmth and death.

Over the several decades to follow, Tàpies became more nuanced in his choice of materials, and his preoccupation with matter would evolve into something altogether more serene and profound: “One day I tried to arrive at silence … Those millions of furious clawings were transformed into millions of grains of dust, of sand … A whole new landscape, as in the story of one who goes through the looking glass, opened before me as if to communicate the most secret innerness of things … And the most sensational surprise was to discover one day, suddenly, that my paintings, for the first time in history, had turned into walls.” His works often transcend their rich materiality, his choice of imagery identifying with both European Surrealism and Eastern aesthetics, evoking both physical and spiritual transformation.

The Dog and the Buddha, graphite on paper (1973) by Antoni Tàpies

The Dog and the Buddha, graphite on paper (1973) by Antoni Tàpies

Throughout his career Tàpies remained staunchly opposed to the Franco regime, his works strongly denouncing the political situation. By the early 1970s, when Franco’s one-party, authoritarian dictatorship was solidified, Tàpies’ started to reference symbols of Catalan identity, which was anathema to Franco. A painting from the period, 7 de novembre (7 November) (1971), honoured the near three hundred people who on November 7, 1971, met clandestinely in the church of Santo Agustí de Barcelona to constitute the Assembly of Catalonia. On that very day, Tàpies painted a large rectangular canvas emblazoned with only the date, underneath a hue of Catalan yellow, and a swath of red paint, an ode to those thousands of political prisoners who died or went missing under the regime. In Fragment per a una autobiografia (A Personal Memoir. Fragments for an Autobiography) Tàpies recounts the challenges of life under Franco: “I now understood that, all told, the condition as a solitary bird, as an independent rebel that artists need to assume at times painfully, may also lie at the center of the freedom and hope that inspire so many ideas that turn to militancy.”

Influenced by the rise of Pop art and Conceptualism, many of his “object works” of the 1970s incorporate a multiplicity of potent, often paradoxical, objects, such as buckets, mirrors, and silk stockings — and even larger objects, as in his assemblage Mattress (1971), in which an actual mattress painted with bloodlike stains, is ripped down the centre to reveal horsehair stuffing. In Desk and Straw (1970), a desk serves as the “canvas”, piled high with heaps of straw, suggesting the influence of Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), well known for his “combines” of the 1950s. In one of Tàpies’ more whimsical works, “Sock” (1971), he affixed a man’s white sock to a canvas. This was not as an ironic statement of mass production or consumerism, like many of his contemporaries, but to emphasize the humility of everyday objects. In Cadira i Roba (Chair and Clothes) (1970), an elegant yet simple object assemblage that defines the Arte Povera movement; Tàpies took a chair from his studio, covered it with his own towels and clothes, and sealed the piece with resin to present the work as sculpture — a nod to both Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and classical European sculpture, in which the elegance of drapery is a characteristic element.

The paintings produced by Tàpies, later in the 1970s and in the 1980s, show his characteristic aesthetic of meditative emptiness, with linear elements suggestive of Oriental calligraphy and oblique allusions to imagery, within a fundamentally abstract idiom, as in Imprint of a Basket on Cloth (1980). Fragmentary religious iconography would sometimes appear, as would references to the Zen philosophy, which can be seen as based on the yin-yang dichotomy. “For me, art is a mechanism, a system that makes it possible to change the spectator’s way of looking and to bring him or her closer to a state of contemplation of reality at its deepest level,” Tàpies explained. “The artist is like the mystic: each one acts in his own way but their common purpose is to achieve the inner illumination that enables them to perceive the depths of reality” (Tàpies, quoted in ‘Antoni Tàpies: Catalan artist celebrated for his use of found materials’, The Independent, 8 Feb 2012).

“If one draws things in a manner which provides only the barest clue to their meaning, the viewer is forced to fill in the gaps by using his own imagination. He is compelled to participate in the creative act, which I consider very important” - Antoni Tàpies

In his later years, Tàpies’ creative output remained diverse and prolific. Something of a recluse, his existence largely centred on his studio. He felt no need to divide his career into neat, marketable phases, but continued to experiment with new techniques and materials. Tàpies was one of 24 of the world's leading artists invited to create a work in response to the Old Masters for Encounters: New Art from Old at the National Gallery, London, in 2000. Tàpies' piece was inspired by Rembrandt's A Woman Bathing in a Stream (c. 1654); characteristically earthy, it gives particular emphasis to those body parts, such as the soles of the feet, that are usually ignored or even despised. Tàpies's ideas have had a profound influence on subsequent generations of artists, especially in the realms of painting, sculpture, etchings and lithography. “My illusion is to have something to transmit,” he said at the opening of the Fundació Antoni Tàpies. “If I can’t change the world, at least I want to change the way people look at it.”

Benjamin Weaver