Interviews with the ‘Fundació Antoni Tàpies’ former and current directors | Carles Guerra

Interviews with the ‘Fundació Antoni Tàpies’ former and current directors by Llucià Homs


An Interview with Carles Guerra
Director of the Fundació Antoni Tàpies since 2015 Barcelona, 25 July 2018


Llucià Homs: Carles, what has your personal experience been like during the three years you’ve been directing the Fundació?

Carles Guerra: The Fundació is an institution with a strong and extraordinary history, which gets going in public terms in 1990, and which brings together, as you can see on this wall [referring to two of the walls of the Fundació’s meeting room, where the posters of all the exhibition projects that have been mounted during those twenty-five years hang], an itinerary and a programme model that is very specific in terms of the city. A model that links the diffusion and presentation of Tàpies’s work accompanied by a twentieth-century critical paradigm. A programme without concessions that understands history not as a series of names but as exercises in successive critiques of the art institution, the economy of art, the function that art has to have socially. And it does this in a moment in which it was very difficult to articulate a critical position. Accordingly, I encounter an institution that has generated a completely unorthodox discourse of the century, situated in the concrete perspective that is the experience of modernity represented by Tàpies.

I also encounter a Tapies who begins to be absent from the discourses of the new museums of the twenty-first century and this leads me to think that there is a task ahead to make him be read again. One cannot repeat what has already been said. It’s necessary to make him meaningful from our current perspective. We have to prepare the ground for being able to make a reading of Tàpies from the twenty-first century, from a moment in which the very idea of modernity has disappeared from the predominant discourses of contemporary museums. This gives us the chance to revisit a type of art experience, a concept of art that I myself had very much criticized for being excessively centred on the figure of the author; in essence, on the Abstract Expressionist ego, as Caroline A. Jones would say. And, suddenly, revisiting Tàpies today, in the twenty-first century, enables us to understand and once again valorize what the experience is of having contact with the art object. This opens up the possibility of the work having different lives at different moments in history and discharging different meanings in each historical moment. Hence, what I encounter in the Fundació is, on the one hand, an institution with this very exciting mission, with some fantastic tensions of great value, but I also encounter an institution that needs to be consolidated, because the artist is no longer present. Let’s not forget that the artist founds and accompanies it during the greater part of its history, until 2012, the year of his death. It’s necessary to rethink its anatomy.

LH: Manuel initiates the institution and gives it a very particular character, laying down a series of practices, especially in the city, which will end up shaping a whole ideological line, one that flourishes and consolidates itself at present. Do these beginnings of the Fundació mark you when you take over the direction?

CG: Yes, they do mark me because they are remote but essential beginnings. They’re beginnings I’ve felt involved in too. In fact I did the final exhibition of the Borja-Villel period, devoted to Art & Language, and before that we’d embarked on a project with a collective called madeinbarcelona, with its seat in the Fundació, to ask what the effect was of the new urbanism in the Barcelona of the late-1990s, between the Olympic Games and the Forum, and also to analyse what effect they had on cultural institutions and on cultural practice. That, for me, was extraordinary and for Manuel Borja-Villel it involved a laboratory that he’d relocate to the MACBA, it being understood that public space is not confined to the encounter within the museum but feeds into all the conflicts involved in a metropolis like Barcelona. They are, then, beginnings that I too live in the first person, although we now find ourselves with another set of priorities: a city that’s given itself over, crazily so, to the monoculture of tourism, that’s believed it depends exclusively on the tertiary economy, of services, and that culture must have, at best, an entertainment role, almost, as an accompaniment. But, alas, we are far from understanding the productivity of cultural institutions in these economies as institutions that add value to the city, whose profitability often cannot be rendered in figures, but which are important, necessary and productive, despite the fact that we still don’t have a way of explaining and justifying this.

Thus, the beginnings you were referring to are very important, they’ve provided this institution with its DNA. But now we have a scenario in which it’s necessary to redefine its function. The Tàpies is an institution which, even though it’s a private foundation, has always had a public vocation. In fact, when it opened in the 1990s the MACBA didn’t exist and the MNAC wasn’t operating the way it does now. So the Fundació Antoni Tàpies was the institution which, along with the Fundació La Caixa, spearheaded the panorama of contemporary and modern art in Barcelona.

Today the map has radically changed, and now it’s necessary that we allot ourselves a more specific role within the city, which isn’t that of the MACBA, which isn’t that of the MNAC, but which we have very, very clear: it entails continuing to read the twentieth century and contemporaneity from the perspective of Tàpies. But never by turning the Fundació into a mausoleum, as Tàpies himself had warned in the first redaction of our mission: “I don’t want this to be a mausoleum,” he said. And I think that Manuel, and here we have to give him credit, understands that the best way of making Tàpies’s way of thinking public is to do so in a dialogical manner, because one understands Tàpies better when he’s alongside other twentieth-century artists. From this relationship Tàpies’s profile emerges via a dialectical history. This function leads us to rethink what the programme can be, what the impact of this institution on Barcelona can be, situated as it is in the epicentre of its touristification, in a shopping area. And it’s up to us to play a role of containment in the face of this model, it’s up to us to play a role of public control. The Tàpies is in an early-Modernista building that represents the initiative of the knowledge industry of the end of the nineteenth century, with a publishing house like Montaner i Simon, which personifies the Catalan entrepreneurial class, with its global ambitions. It’s a business that in the 1960s becomes the publisher that will distribute the Latin American boom all over the world. I mean these are aspects of the building, of the stone, that remind us of the outreach we can have. And so the programme has to go on being a cosmopolitan programme, based on the figures who represent the critical paradigm right now.

What does this mean? Well, it means that the Tàpies has to look for authors and examples that with their work foreground the fact that art is an exception within the economies of contemporary capital, that the museum-institution is an institution that—although it participates in the economies of service society—has to represent a place in which to understand how society can be productive. That is to say, it should not only be understood in the pure realm of the economy and of work but rather that the realm of the museum has been constituted in a point of reference for the future of urban economies. We see this very clearly because in the last few decades cities have committed themselves to huge museum infrastructures. There is not one city given over to the new economy that hasn’t made a huge investment in a big museum and that doesn’t understand that this is to contribute to the economy of the city. Today this is an undeniable truth.

We’re also involved in these battles. And the interesting thing is that we are a medium-sized institution that has to dialogue with what the city’s big institutions do. The big institutions have a tendency to homogenize their anatomy, their model, and it’s we medium-sized institutions who have an extraordinary margin for inventing singularity.

LH: Nuria Enguita was talking to me about understanding the Tàpies as a space for
the investigation and development of contemporary art. When he redacted the Statutes in 1894 Tàpies was already speaking, as part of the founding objectives, of “putting impossible projects into practice.” Do you think this is being fulfilled?

CG: Totally. I entirely agree about this idea of impossibility, which I would express, rather, in the fact of seeking after the exception, in seeking after what is not being done in the city, in harnessing it and adopting it as a work space. In that respect we can say that of late we are not doing exhibitions but projects, and for this reason we have slowed the programme down, passing from three or four exhibitions a year to two big projects. This season we’ve presented one big project, Allora and Calzadilla’s, and now we have Antoni Tàpies: Political Biography, in which we examine Tàpies’s trajectory between 1946 and 1977, with a very precise cut-off point. In order to see that, in order to do politics, there’s no need to instrumentalize the work but instead to have an equation of tensions in relation to the viewers, to the form of communication that’s specific to the work. Our line is precisely to see how we can do politics from within art institutions. Not in the literal sense but simply the politics that it’s not possible to do in public space, in the spaces regulated by hegemonic politics. This is the politics we must explore from here in order to offer society these alternatives.

LH: How do you visualize the relationship of the Fundació with academia?

CG: I think Tàpies is due to be researched in depth. It’s true he’s been the object of an enormous historiographical production, with critics of incredible stature, but now we need Tàpies to cease being only the artist of our parents’ generation and to be an artist who also responds to the issues preoccupying us today. I think the work is ready for this. Right now we’re presenting an exhibition like Political Biography, with a section that extends from 1966 to 1977, in which the events surrounding the production of those works are occurrences like the Caputxinada, the constitution of the Assemblea de Catalunya, or horrible facts like the execution of Salvador Puig Antich, the death of a militant like Oriol Solé Sugranyes, but these paintings which were echoing those events, seen right now in the Catalonia of today, are paintings that still have the power to grab the viewer. And I say they grab the viewer because their capacity to endure across time and to continue evoking these tensions surprises you. Then, if we’re speaking of the Fundació’s relationship with academia, I’d like to be able to be more ambitious and to get the Tàpies to also become the space for setting up a study centre, as all the museums and all the art institutions are doing the world over. Here we have the model of the PEI (Programme of Independent Studies), led by the MACBA, a very valuable model that’s been internationally recognized, but which, as a medium-sized institution, is beyond our reach.

And so, I’ve transformed this relationship with academia into an opening up of the institution to professional collectives which, bearing in mind the precarization that surrounds us, has taken shape with an invitation for them to come and share the actual infrastructure of the institution. For three years now we’ve generated a cluster of residential projects which range from collectives like Bar Project or Green Parrot to independent curators. The Fundació Catalunya Cultura, which works to bring businesses and cultural institutions together, has also been added to this project. We’ve conceived this academy as a kind of intrinsic, internal space of informal cooperation for showcasing what we would call human infrastructure. In other words, we institutions as a whole do not have money and have lost the ability to redistribute public capital. But once you’ve cried about it, once you’ve done your complaining, you say, “Now, what can I do?” Well, muster the potential, the intelligence we have, the initiatives that exist in precarious environments and give them a shared space so they can maximize the shared resources and the opportunities which arise. So the relationship with the academy has, on the one hand, the aim of attempting to revitalize research on Tàpies and, on the other, of attempting to set up our own academy in the specific and appropriate conditions of the present.

LH: Regarding the figure of Tàpies, how do you see his critical trajectory today? In other words, how do you think this is evolving?

CG: From a critical reading point of view, Tàpies has disappeared from the interests of academia itself. And he’s disappeared because right now he’s seen as an artist from another world, an artist of the modernity that enters into crisis in the 1970s, despite the fact that he goes on being a very valid representative of that era. Since we rehabilitate not only the reading of Tàpies but also the reading of the modernity he represents, we have to understand that this involves a modernity which is singular because it emerges in a fascist context that renders critical modernity impossible. Tàpies is the perfect example of a way of thinking, of an ethical and critical intellectual commitment that, notwithstanding local circumstances, has a global impact. I wish to reiterate that in 1951 and 1953 he is already a successful figure in the United States, and later on will be so too in Europe through the Galerie Stadler, his gallery in Paris.

Tàpies emerges after the Second World War, when humanity is licking its wounds, and so forms part of a process of reconstruction of humanist culture in which he has the possibility to criticize and to become a representative of a civil society through the practice of art when the state itself did not guarantee this. Tàpies represents a critical value when this value emerges in a context of adversity. So the fascination of Tàpies is enormous because despite everything he will represent this modernity come what may. But from the perspective of the twenty-first century, which is a century that has converted the twentieth century into a sequence of moments in which some moments eliminate others, it now behoves us to look at Tàpies once more and to recoup the contexts that gave him his unique profile. I think there’s still a lot of road to travel because his work has a talismanic quality. In other words, you contemplate it in the present and it goes on evoking and creating singular events when the viewer stands in front of it. This is an inducement to go on studying it, but an effort of intellectual imagination is called for, one has to have the courage not to feel bound by the discourses that have preceded the exegesis of Tàpies, it is necessary to forget Tàpies in order to be able to come back to him. I feel intellectually fascinated by this exercise.

Moreover, Tàpies not only leaves a legacy of work, as understood in modernity, he also leaves a written corpus of opinion. He is a privileged reader of the intellectual movements of the twentieth century. At the end of the 1960s he already deploys an extensive political culture, so it’s not surprising that in 1971, when he creates The Catalan Spirit, in the midst of those four bars he introduces notions like “right to the Usages,” “culture,” “democracy,” “education,” “too many laws stifle freedom,” and in one corner he writes “right to tyrannicide,” and it’s because he’s read the treatise De rege et regis institutione (On the King and the Royal Institution) by Father Juan de Mariana, a Jesuit who in 1599 elaborates “the right to tyrannicide.” And note that this figure will have an influence, for it is he who will give his name to the Marianne of the French Revolution, which wished to eliminate tyranny. Tàpies has this book in his personal library. The political culture he reflects in his works of the 1970s has much to teach us right now.

LH: And how do you think the new generations of critics and curators read Tàpies today?

CG: The new generations start to be interested in Tàpies, and they do that because he’s a figure who, although at this or that moment he can seem ambiguous, one can ask various questions about: how is possible that he was successful in a fascist context? How come he was the representative of Spain in the Venice Biennale in 1958? But it also has to be said—and it’s documentarily proven—that the following year he tells the Spanish Government he doesn’t want to be part of its international exhibitions in Paris and London, exhibitions he considers to be acts of propaganda by the regime. How can an artist with a predominantly modern oeuvre, which calls for sensory perception, do politics and, in fact, do so while managing to turn himself into an icon of commitment? When democracy arrives this commitment will bring him a certain canonization, not only on the part of the government of the Generalitat, but prior to that via the Ajuntament, or City Council, of Barcelona inasmuch as Tàpies represents the link with the modernity of Picasso and Miró. It’s mainly the Ajuntament of Barcelona that will privilege the Tàpies-Picasso link.

He’s a nexus, then, between the great men of modernity, Picasso and Miró, and the conceptual art generation of the 1970s, with other artistic practices and another ideological framework. Due to this, such figures, lost between one paradigm and another, as is the case with Tàpies, who move between these two great tectonic plates and who belong to neither the grand tradition of the avant-garde nor the generation of the new avant-gardes, remain trapped somewhere in between. So, I think that this is giving the new generations of historians different ingredients that are most attractive when it comes to research. It’s what researchers look for, detecting those moments in the history of art in which someone’s production doesn’t fit with the templates or the prejudices of the historians that have preceded them.

Interesting analyses are beginning to emerge, we find, analyses that posit the meaning of Tàpies’s work in terms of its circulation, of the contexts it ends up in. This means that Tàpies responds to a very modern and sophisticated model of signification that is not ambiguous in the least; it’s polysemic. Fascinating lines of work are emerging apropos of Tàpies.

LH: Is the Fundació, then, tasked with updating the vision of Tàpies for the new generations?

CG: This is my commitment. The presentations we do of the collection, or the one we have right now, attempt to shake up the reading of Tàpies, putting us once again before the work with the opportunity to connect with the present, with the desire to discover some layers of the meaning that had been debilitated by lost circumstantial causes. We were speaking of the three works we are presenting that were in documenta III in 1964, the final one organized by its founder, Arnold Bode. That instalment coincided with the celebration in Spain of twenty-five years of peace, an infamous campaign waged by the Franco government just after they’d executed Granado and Grimau. In light of this, we might ask ourselves how Tàpies negotiates his image abroad, taking the floor in a setting as relevant as documenta.

And we see that he opts for a muted aesthetic that seems to us today to be an improbable way of doing politics.

These are three extraordinary works that Tàpies never brought together again in his life. And fifty-four years later we have them all together, one next to the other and in the same order the artist hung them in that documenta. Bringing one work from a museum in Denmark, the Louisiana Museum, another from the Beyeler Collection in Basel, and a third from a Basque museum, the Artium in Vitoria, we’ve carried out a strictly material gesture but one with quite relevant consequences. We are trying, as I’ve said, to analyse historical micro-periods, doing so in the light of the present day, in order not to restore certainties or hidden meanings but in order to restore the tensions of the moment and to show that this is an oeuvre capable of navigating them, which is what still makes it attractive and solid today.

LH: Many thanks, Carles, for your collaboration.

CG: A pleasure, Llucià.