Antoni Tàpies: Updated Reflections | Arnau Puig

Tàpies was a conceptual artist par excellence because he always needed the support of the material, a reality that he, through his perception, which was conceptual, converted into the perceptive element that he wanted or would like to determine. To him materials were basic, but what he expressed was—he considered—in the materials themselves or in their symbolic value. We have the examples of those containers with content in works like Porta metàl·lica i violí (Metal Shutter and Violin) (1956), in the famous beds of Rinzen (Sudden Awakening) (1992-93), and in seemingly anonymous paintings such as Negre amb dos entallaments (Black with Two Carvings) (1962), works in which, in semiotic language, we could say that the container already expresses the content, works that are almost onomatopoeic, in which the screech and the scratch are the same, are equivalent. Cry and wound, or mockery, or sanction.

This is the great secret strength of Tàpies’s works, which take you by surprise, draw you in although you understand nothing; because it’s not necessary to understand art: they’re pure emotional expression; a clamour of sorts. They’d be—this is the way Tàpies wished to understand it—total works, à la Wagner.

No wonder Tàpies was a big Wagner fan from an early age, as he was, too, of Brahms’s sonorous forests. Tàpies was always a great lover of music, the more complex, the more mysterious kind, the kind that seems to have no other justification than sound; sounds, at that, which are the screech of the living soul.

From the very first the fundamental issue in Tàpies’s work is whether or not it is content based; whether it’s an extraordinary and ingenious, impulsive formal game or whether it corresponds instead to a critical attitude towards the reality he experiences since his childhood and all through his life; a socio-political and geographical reality in a context with its particular characteristics of an aspiration towards self-government or of submission to, and admission of, the imperative they order us to obey; whatever it may be and from whoever it may be, if it has coercive force. This contextual creative discourse is not one typical of verbiage, and not all creative concerns are perennially subject to these pressures. For creative individuals there are also times or options of a more or less pressure-free bonanza, and times of obligatory commitment, if they wish to assume them. The history of creation in the different realms of artifice, of what is neither natural nor spontaneous, is full of these situations. Indeed, the different changes of creative style in which history has been subdivided are an indication of this: it is not the same to practise the “descriptive” Romanesque imperative of the beyond or the artisanal Gothic which discovers nature; nor is it the same to accept impassive figuration—however well executed and with the maximum possible professionalism (Lebrun, Mengs) of the eighteenth century (although contemporary writers and thinkers were moving, in general, the other way: Voltaire, Rousseau; Chardin in the visual arts)—as to opt for a social stance within dissident and revolutionary neoclassicism which was inspired by the idea of a sincere soul (the authentic, natural vital impetus [in the Iberian peninsula this inflection is picked up on by Goya]). Even so, the form creative factual realities acquire can present the same configuration, but it does not offer the ad hoc cosmetics of the rigidity of immovable autocratic societies. Free inspiration creates, I’d say, atmospheric realism (which Impressionism would reinvent in order to situate it among the ingredients that go to form it).

Tàpies is born in Barcelona in 1923 and lives his early self-aware years (from the age of 4 to 7) in a wealthy bourgeois family, progressive and Catalanist; he lives amidst the generalized political crisis, regressive and centralist, of the political dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera. When the Republic is proclaimed in 1931, it too is bourgeois because it cannot cope with the thrust of an immigrant working class. When the dictatorial military uprising occurs in 1936, the family, for political rather than economic interests, is on the receiving end of strong reprisals. The general atmosphere keeps to the same ups and downs: a fluctuating wellbeing according to social class, which seeks after spiritual calm and individualized politics. His pedagogical education is, obviously, the one the religious schools provide: official cultural teaching, but also a timorous training in the mys teries of transcendent spirituality. Some tales will disturb Tàpies forever. The boy becomes physically ill and is moved to the Puigdolena sanatorium— right in the middle of Catalonia—which has recently passed the poet Màrius Torres, a mystical pantheist who believes that life was a passage between a rooting in the earth and an expansion towards the infinite atmosphere; two indestructible physical entities. In my opinion that stay in the sanatorium is crucial—further to the political, economic and social contradictions experienced in the family—to defining what would be the foundations of his sentient and intellectual capability and future aesthetic. The reading of the then indispensable The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann sheds light on his later frame of mind: the paradox between tedium and eternity in a world we know to be alive and active [Chekhov also spoke of the politico-social contradiction of a crushed society]. There are no horizons; the ageing, sgraffitoed walls and doors crush one, but taken together they generate a liberating energy.

At the age of 20 or so Antoni feels a radical sense of responsibility for himself; he no longer accepts the protective measures of his family and learns to stand on his own two feet with respect to everything we’ve hitherto alluded to. The youngster begins to feel the anxiety to express himself visually rather than verbally and so begins to attend different ad hoc artistic training facilities. Even so, given his bourgeois family environment he has the chance to inform himself about what is established, as the norm or otherwise, in Europe. A progressive Catalan family knows what is done in terms of the innovatory; that’s why he knows something about Cubism, Surrealism, fantastic art, Dadaism (the famous Winter 1934 number of D’Ací, d’Allá had already informed him about this). Not only do socially habitual forms exist for expressing oneself, there are also other options provided by restless individuals, some of whom are even close to him, like Picasso, Gaudí, Nonell, Miró, Dalí.

As is habitual in the circles of the day, first one performs according to established ways but, thereafter, if one decides to continue, one feels that personal ways exist of expressing oneself which are, normally, those that one’s particular attitude generates in the face of the surrounding reality, in general, in which one lives and one finds oneself. What interests us is that in 1946 Tàpies creates some absolutely marginal artworks: collage, paint—painted or plastered on—a support, wires, incisions and graffiti; everything is valid. An authentic surrealistic and dadaist subjectivity, destructive and satiric, emanating from an intimate critique of the family setting and of the social class in which he lives; he also acts against and responds to the political lie he is subjected to and which he finds himself in, a social situation that deserves no other consideration than mockery and doctrinal contempt.

Some of the new models of artistic and intellectual innovation and creation, based on private information (given the political moment the country is living through) may have reached him; for example, Dubuffet’s art brut (art is an act performed without any control or precise intention, but it is nonetheless gestural, which is within reach of whoever might sense it or aspire to it), and the informalism of Jean Fautrier, pictographic plasmas executed as a consequence of the impossibility of encountering a Cézannean subject who might provoke an emotional impulse distinct from that of the actual and inexplicable surrounding reality in the presence of the behaviour of established social structures, which ignore the innocent on purpose (concentration and extermination camps). Another artist disengaged (though not distanced or marginalised; but who feels himself marginalised) from the established is Wols, whose materic and linearly amorphous clutter is a manifestation of the incongruence of a culture that cancels itself out from within. Surrealism as a creative procedure, Dadaism as an attitude in the face of the contradiction of reality and ideology of established societies, and the aforesaid materic informalism were fertilising Tàpies’s initial creative activity. Moreover, Fautrier said that there was no art without sentient human input, however imperceptible it may be. And this is what Tàpies begins doing from the moment he felt sufficiently free to express himself directly, as a poet or a musician would. Other influential evidence could have come from the photographs Brassaï took of the graffiti on the walls of Paris: incisions, grattages and scribblings traced in chalk or dug into the stone or the facing were evidence of human expression; non-linguistic hieroglyphs that through the sensibility and profound intention with which they’d been created clamoured for what is specific to art: the feelings and the ideas of human beings. It isn’t the Academy that provides expressive norms but lived experience instead, which in the case of the visual needs no other maestro than the gestural physical ability to execute them.

Having reached this point under the premises discussed thus far, contact at the end of 1946 with the people of Algol (the Surrealism and creative automatism of Brossa and a fundamental philosophical investigation at a far remove from established parameters by Arnau Puig, with an as yet Fauve Ponç), prompted the whole lot of them to question the meaning of creativity in general and of the arts in particular. A commitment to society imposes itself. Surrealism had experienced the same development: at one point it asked itself whether Surrealism amounted to political revolution. The same thing happened to the group of youngsters—named Dau al Set (a restless move in the direction of the impossible)—formed in 1948 by Antoni Tàpies, Modest Cuixart, Joan Ponç, Joan Brossa and Arnau Puig, with the typographic and printing input of J. J. Tharrats. The magazine Dau al Set emerged as a preoccupation with distantiated visual and intellectual creativity and with a commitment to an entente between art, science and a new society. Art, science and social commitment were the ongoing objectives of some of the constituents. A vital basis rooted in existentialism, a philosophy of scientific commitment, a plastic art inspired by the minimalism of Picasso, Miró and Klee, and a literature reflecting the communicative absurdity of the contemporary world would mark the different numbers of said publication until 1954.

After a certain time spent in setting out to embody the above objectives, the visual artists would drift off in the direction of a magic realism in which sarcastic, ironic or poetic figuration was transmuted into atmospheres of a disturbing drive and, henceforth, each of the constituents set out on a more personalised and individual path.

In 1950 Tàpies embarks on his first trip to Paris. He verifies the intentional quality of his visual goals and drifts in turn towards the informal abstraction he has observed in the European and American artists who are his contemporaries; a visual creativity that otherwise corresponds perfectly to what would be a reflection of what occurs in his Catalan and Spanish political environment of repression and misrepresentation, not only of local traditional values but also of the forced, obligatory orientation of the thinking of a society that evolves towards other landmarks.

Tàpies goes over decidedly to Informalism in 1954; from that moment on, and successively, the paintings turn into materic spaces which objectively reflect nothing other than the ego of their author. A conscious and gestural amalgam of colour, coagulant, marble dust and, if necessary, collage, graffiti and grattage; all come together in the expressiveness of the work. But if one always observes attentively, through the association of visual and/or conceptual ideas, the work admits of a referent, surely subjective, for both the creative artist and the observer, which is that indication alluded to by Fautrier of what in every abstraction—unless it is strictly geometric—is always the motivation. If to begin with in the work of Tàpies it was his personal or social family situation, with the passage of time he intends to wrest (instil) humanity from (in) the work executed according to the sentimental projection or historical perception that a real earlier vision had provoked in him and which he offers virtually, yet concretised, in the execution. It is the already referenced farmhouse doors or walls, replete with blood, suffering and real struggles that the artist sublimates via a radically conceptual and gestural execution. Theoretically, this would involve a plastic spatialism of a calculated constructivist bent left to executive gestural chance. An American-style all-over painting which posits expressiveness as being infinite but contains, qua work of art, the limitations society imposes in order for them, the artworks, to be granted access to the market. For although the executed works are completely subjective—a strict sentimental and emotional projection— Tàpies does not in the least wish to remain distanced from having a social impact, given that, over time, and due to assumed new executive theses that he will apply, the artist believes that such works of his are full of messages and may, even, be healing and salubrious for the minds that accept them as their own. Art will become, for Tàpies, contrived transcendent execution; a message that makes us see another dimension of life.

In a new phase of intentional change, but neither of support nor material, Tàpies proceeds when executing these works from the principle that each object has to lose its objective value and assume a subjective one, a dimension of personal use. Hence the fact that, progressively, Tàpies feels the need to incorporate in his work not the classic collage of affixing an element that completes the intention of a work created at the periphery of the resources of visual perspective—formulated by Duchamp—but seeks a collage—an affixing, adding, hanging—that comes from a personal object, esteemed, loved, appreciated, retained by memory, an object that really exudes, generates, the kinds of affection that will be added to the materic, spatial, tactile and abraded, scribbledupon impact in the wall—with all the vital associations that this involves—of a pictorial spatialism that has its own virtues given that it is a human work that, at very least, expresses a will to communication and to the transference of feelings and emotions. In his work Tàpies expressly avoids anything that might be impersonal or neutral (a cup broken during use is worth more than a new, unused cup). It goes without saying that Tàpies also considers adjacent to the emotionality of the executed work the presence of numbers, letters and inscriptions that are valued for their content as well as for their calligraphy, now transformed in plastic expressivity.

And he ostensibly began disparaging, too, whatever might have a hierarchical social value. All in all, only those elements and those materials that might serve as a basis and as a compositional structure were beginning to concern him, with the association of reminders and of the personal or family memory they could deploy or release.

The work from 1954 gets worn away in streaks that obey nothing more than the impulsive executive gesture. The remains of poetic allusion subsist, but they will henceforth disappear and give way to the aforesaid materic magmas. Around 1958-59 the picture becomes an object in itself and it is the observer who has to begin supplying that human content. The author refrains from messages, although he has arrived at that magma from absolutely existential projections wrested from concrete social reality. This is the force his work will have in future: one doesn’t know from where it will come—all attributive options are valid—but the weighty (of weight, due to the elements that compose it) tactile and visual concrete reality that it offers is imposing, makes an impact and leaves the observer speechless, moved and astonished. We have arrived at the formless, materic Tàpieses. And also at the three-dimensional Tàpieses. The artist does not have enough with the “flat” works and has recourse to the third dimension, to the objects that can be designated as being sculptural, although they are only montages of autonomous elements intentionally composed by the author according and in relation to experiences, attitudes, affections, rages or hatreds towards the environment in which he lives and with which he mixes socially.

It is then, as well, that there will unequivocally begin to appear, albeit in multifocal and symbolic language, the political commitment that the artist adds to his creative impulses. Gesturality and vital and social reality become one and the same in Tàpies’s work.

In the meantime he has also felt the need to curb creative noise. Geometry, contention, is found in reality, but needs correction, needs placing at the service of what might be appropriate, measured without cheating: Empremtes de plats (Plate Prints) (1973). The path, firstly, consists in breaking with the momentum of the rule, of the norm, and then retrieving it later, entrapping it in order to turn round and give meaning to that expressive, impulsive imbroglio.

It is in the 1960s that the control sought after by the geometry of the impulse of retention is modified, and transforms Tàpies’s work in an application of Eastern quietist philosophy, more or less Buddhist in spirit. The dimension and expressive sociopolitical meaning the artist’s work had turns into a tribute to simplicity, to the minimization of affective impulses in an investigation of spiritual peace. A peace that requires from him the same creative wherewithal.

The work is a conglomerate, a construction, of elements, of fragments—of what? Of ideas, social data, feelings? The silence preceding all artistic creation tells him his work is a composite, an assembly of all this. Tàpies seeks after a meaning, if not more precise then perhaps more overarching, more interwoven, something, like life itself, uniform, a unique undifferentiated conglomerate that is whosoever experiences it or whosoever wishes to find it. In the world of Western culture the explanation already exists: continuous, undefined, ever-projective action: Forats i claus sobre blanc (Holes and Nails on White) (1968). But the world we know as, or call, Eastern believes that this interweaving is the goal of a life composed of all the objectives that have been attained. Like a wall: all is grains of sand, bricks, coiled iron elements; in short, a one-off thing. Through Samsara we arrive at the fulfilment—each on his own—of the task we undertake while alive. Life is a path; each work is the attainment of a path; in each work there is found the totality of all, a totality that may only consist of the simplest, most humble and insignificant satisfaction. There are no categories of attainment, simply attainment itself.

Instead of extracting history from a lived social vestige—the memory of the wall, the door—a progressive Eastern inspiration has driven Tàpies to extract it from the exposed material or executed through sensual tactility, from a sense of smell. A radically Buddhist attitude neutralising all active reflection. Art would be a gesture or impulse rather than an assumed feeling, without another dimension.

Thus, we find ourselves in a type of confluence and coincidence of objectives: lived, creative ones. In, precisely, the Eastern world—due to materials—and in the Western world—due to reflection: each question requires a solution, but many questions require, as well, a single solution: Ocre amb sis collages (Ochre with Six Collages) (1973).

Geometry—Poincaré pointed out to us that it was neither true nor false but that it was advantageous, it adapted, provided the desired solution according to previously established parameters—the need to have objectives, visions, a life project, clear ideas coincide in both the West (reasons) and the East (sensations): Empremtes d’escaire (Set-Square Imprints) (1980). Tàpies’s work is offered to us in the same way: each work is exhausted in itself insofar as we are capable of projecting ourselves in it. And how does this come about? By seeking in the work what we are impelled to project in it. If we have no projective overlap, the work also goes on having a value: it’s an ingenious piece of work for some, a disaster for others; there are those who find in it an economic investment, or a social pamphlet, or nothing—who are, for now, most observers. On the other hand we know that the author, Tàpies, has created each work in pursuit, and as an investigation, of a peace he needed with regard to a conflictive environment; certainly for him. Or for those—once again—who might identify with it: Nuat (Knotted) (1997).

Geometry and the Tao Te Ching are the same. The first is arrived at through reflection, active disquiet. The second through the investigation of a solution that soothes, that balances the physical and moral sensations the environment produces in us, given that all is transitory and elusive, both the jewel and the pain. [Even so it’s not necessary to go to the East to come across this liquid reality; Heraclitus had warned us about it in terms of the solidity of rationality].

We contemplate the masterworks: the Monument Homenatge a Picasso (Monument Homage to Picasso) (1983). Sala de reflexió (Reflection Room) (1996), in the Universitat Pompeu Fabra.Complement miraculós (Miraculous Complement ) (2004-07) in Herzog & de Meuron’s Forum of Cultures. Rinzen, mentioned above, in the MACBA entrance. But also contemplate the grandes machines and the little plastic witnesses (in museums, in directors’ boardrooms and/or policy or economic management boardrooms, and in the intimate rooms of private homes: Matèria amb cordes (Matter with Ropes) [1998]). These works strike us, or they’re a luxury ornament, or they tell us nothing. But they do prove, in a nutshell, to be a call for creative and innovatory combat, a fight against the established; also a lonely path towards Nirvana or a possibility to ingratiate oneself: Peu i espiral (Foot and Spiral) (1986). There is, in short, a pain which is universal.

Even so, over the years and the moments in which each of the works responded exactly to a precise circumstance or to a particular state of mind caused by the joy of unrepentant combat, by a polemic about the professional non-alignment of procedures, by disillusionment in a concrete situation, or by the collapse of certain ideals (the rationalist, the ground-breaking revolutionary or the quietism of a peace that may stem from existential disgust as well as disaffection with a specific actuality, be this due to an excessively comfortable life or to the embarrassment of having become exceptional within a set of ideals of asceticism), one goes on asking the question: What might the overall message of Tàpies’s work be today?

Observing the body of work, it has to be said that it has been unfailingly rebellious, revulsive and provocative, therefore a spearheading or a lagging behind, but what seems to me to be difficult to annul is the impression—after turning into a materic artist—of an inveterate solipsistic mysticism: the solitude of that which he has seceded from. And this, setting aside the fact that each observer will be able to grasp, understand or sense, when faced with the artist’s different intentional works, those works as the expression of his ideals or of his struggles, ongoing or already lost. Tàpies’s work is the work of incertitude.

If someone wishes to think some other way, they can also do so. Current science, with its indications about a world, rather than knowledge, guesswork, permits it.

Image: Forats i Claus sobre blanc (1968)

Mixxed media and assemblahe on wood

60 x 73 cm

Published in Tàpies, today. Barcelona, 2019. Mayoral. p. 16 – 25

Picture by Jean-Marie del Moral. Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, 1990