Interviews with the ‘Fundació Antoni Tàpies’ former and current directors by Llucià Homs
An Interview with Manuel Borja-Villel
Director of the Fundació Antoni Tàpies 1990-98 Madrid, MNCARS, 13 September 2018
Llucià Homs: After these twenty-five years of the Fundació, how do you evaluate your experience as its director?
Manuel Borja-Villel: I was really young when I left Spain and in fact I came back with the Tàpieses, who were like my family; and I always took Miquel to be a brother. I’d recently finished my degree and the Fundació was a project that was starting from scratch and was still largely undefined. Antoni’s view of the world and of culture was very humanist and had to do with a very particular generation. His idea of the Fundació was that of a place of contemplation, and although it ended up being something else we always relied on his support and his complicity. I remember that we wanted to do lots of things, from devising labels for the folders or defining categories at a very precise level to forming a team, seeing what the necessities were, how it had to be organized. It was a handson learning process, there were even tensions with the architects, who complained that we were changing the idea they’d foreseen. I remember it was a very intense time in which everything was carried out with an incredible involvement on the part of Antoni and Teresa, at every level. I always say that in the States my training had been a hundred per cent academic, and in fact I learned to mount exhibitions with Teresa. It was a moment in which one was doing absolutely everything, from the “micro micro” to what the role of the Fundació was to be in a given context like Barcelona. And if you look at the evolution of the programming during the years I was there, it was all very rap id, based on testing and trying things out. It was evolving rapidly in a certain direction.
First we exhibited the collection, as was normal, but the second exhibition was Louise Bourgeois, the idea being that things were to be explained around the figure of Tàpies. After a couple of years the Fundació began to take shape and in 1992 we did Krzysztof Wodiczko, which was a kind of an‑ti-Olympiad. In 1996 would come The City of the People, which was seen as a bit odd at the time and positioned the Fundació at quite a distance from what a place of contemplation ought to be. We’d just done Hans Haacke and after that would come
Lygia Clark. And so we went on building, from day to day, at great speed. Nothing to do with a nation‑al museum, which is much slower, the changes are always planned in the medium or long term. Or in Barcelona, at the MACBA, where it’s the City Council, the Generalitat… and you generate anomalous structures, like the project “Agencias.” There, no. In the Tàpies everything was done in-house.
LH: In the Fundació’s boardroom there are the posters of all the exhibitions that have been held since the start. What do you think when you see this trajectory?
MBV: In a country which is very Adamite, which is “After me the deluge and before me, nothing,” the Fundació has not been an Adamite institution at all, everyone has been contributing their experience. Admittedly, it was a very different context; the situation now is very different, Antoni and Miquel are no longer around. The trajectories of Núria Enguita, Laurence Rassel and Carles Guerra have been adding layers of knowledge. The crisis of the country, the economic crisis, the crisis across the board have been marking the different phases.
For me there are three important things that have been done. One: the creating of an institution that has an important place in Barcelona and that helps to create a cultural fabric in the city that is—we’ve sometimes spoken of this—very different from Madrid, for instance. In Madrid you have state structures; in Barcelona you have smaller structures, many, like the Miró or the Tàpies, based on the initiatives of artists, with or without public aid. It’s a more fragile structure, a structure in which the collections are fragmentary, because each has what it has, but which somehow define an individual cultural fabric.
Two: I think that during those years the Fundació Tàpies contributed to Barcelona becoming an artistic centre of quality. For a long time people were looking towards Barcelona, and in fact if you read articles or magazines of the time there’s a series of events that occurred in Barcelona which were discussed more outside the city than in it: it was a city in which institutional critique and certain kinds of artistic practice were very deep-rooted. And I think the Fundació contributed quite a lot to a certain line.
And thirdly, Tàpies. We’re all in agreement, he’s the great artist of the second half of the century, but the reading of him has been the result of all sorts of myth-making, and I think the Fundació contributed to readings of another kind being made. It’s there that there’s still a lot of work to be done. Things are never static. It’s nobody’s fault but it’s a fact that right now the figure and the work of Tàpies are not at the level he deserves, given his importance. And not only him. It’s something that happens to many artists of his generation.
In the Fundació a work of defetishization was done, of reconsidering Tàpies’s oeuvre, but then, very quickly, a single line has been taking shape in recent years in the art world and Tàpies and a whole generation have disappeared. I think that this work should continue: Tàpies as a symbol of a whole generation.
LH: One last question about the Fundació. Nuria Enguita defined it as a space of research and development about contemporary art, and rehabilitating the original objectives, Antoni spoke of “putting impossible ideas into practice.” Did you have the freedom to be able to do so when you said you were constantly fighting with him?
MBV: Yes! At times we argued because we were able to argue. Moreover, Antoni and Teresa were very polite. Now I don’t fight with ministers [he smiles]. When we did his retrospective in the MACBA, Xavier Antich, Pedro G. Romero, Toni Llena, Mercader and I had a conversation. We began the conversation by saying that Antoni’s oeuvre had been fetishized and that it had to be exorcized, to which he reacted by saying, “What do you think I am, the devil?” The point is that you were bickering but the next day you went back to being equal. When there’s so much trust you can say what you want.
Coming back to Barcelona: until the mid1990s—the MACBA opened in 1995—the only museum there was apart from what the Miró was doing was to some extent the Tàpies. When the MACBA began to get going the Tàpies could no longer have that function and turned into an R+D place, a place where you can do other kinds of things. And this too we’ve discussed. The situation today is different; the economic situation has also changed, so that now it has another function. But this line has been continuing. On the one hand, freedom and risk-taking, always! Look at what we managed to do! In fact I remember that when we invited Haacke, he questioned the role of La Caixa, and these are big words now and then. Antoni said to me “Well, I don’t know if we should, but you, do what you like.” He didn’t know Broodthaers very well; I’m sure he didn’t know Coleman; Haacke he did know, but he didn’t interest him very much because it’s another world. That said, he always came to all the openings, he was super friendly, above all with some artists. With the Broodthaers exhibition or Coleman’s, for example, I know he was thrilled. While I was at the Tàpies I had a couple of offers—one from the MACBA—and he always said, “Do what you want, problems of money you won’t have; if you want to do big projects we’ll do them here.”
Tàpies possessed absolute generosity. And this also has to do with the fact that often we addressed the issue of institutional critique, since we were questioning the very idea of the monographic museum and trying to modulate it, to do other kinds of things. With all this—and despite the fact that maybe he, being from another generation, had a more humanist vision—Tàpies wanted it to be place of experimentation, a place where there was no disciplinary rigidity. There was political commitment present in what he wanted. So, under each of the four directors things have been shaped in a very different way, because the times were different, but I think they’ve always been appropriate.
LH: We were talking a few months back of the shortcomings of the Fundació. Would one of these shortcomings be its relationship with academia?
MBV: The relationship with the academic world is a shortcoming of the Tàpies and of all museums in general. At the entrance to the Fundació there’s the library and the fact that, visually, it was the first thing you saw, was a statement. One spoke of a museum and a library. Do you remember the publications and the lecture programmes at the beginning? For me it had always been a concern; in fact at the MACBA we ended up doing the PEI [Programme of Independent Studies], a non-normative academic programme. I think the problem has more to do with a perhaps overly rigid, overly static structure of the Spanish university. The relationship should be more fluid. Formal education is very rigid and this prevents certain relationships from being generated.
We are living at a time in which the market is hegemonic. The market these days isn’t that of a more horizontal kind, of smaller galleries, where the gallery was the intermediary, in which the critic had a role to play. Today, the market is dominated by a relatively small number of collectors and galleries, with a quite aggressive policy of speculation. And if you combine this with the fact that Spain is not peripheral or central, things add up. If, moreover, every generation has to kill the father, you find yourself with what is happening now in this generation from the 1950s; and, I repeat, it doesn’t happen with Tàpies, but practically with all of them barring Pollock and Rothko, Newman, etc., and a few more of the Abstract Expressionists, who’re almost in the category of Picasso. It’s like the swansong of a certain kind of modernity. I think there’s been enough killing. This whole generation, with a certain idea of painting, of technique, had so much presence that in some way it’s been necessary to counterattack. Now is the moment to go back to these artists. Do you remember that Antoni—Antoni and all of them— hated anything that wasn’t painting? In spite of this, we did Broodthaers, Coleman, Haacke, etc., etc. Nowadays that discussion doesn’t exist, it’s irrelevant. It’s of no importance whether you have to paint frescoes or in oils today, you can be interested in Giotto or Leonardo independently of technique. I get the impression it’ll happen soon, that this is the moment to reclaim that whole period, which, furthermore, is very interesting at every level, political as well as artistic. I hope the work of Tàpies and other artists will again have the role it has to have.
LH: What role did the Fundació play, during your time, in the Barcelona system? What involvement did it have in the emergence of the city? Reading Marcelo Expósito’s book, Conversación con Manuel Borja-Villel, one gets the feeling that it was there that the beginnings were prepared of what came to be a whole series of very strategic social movements at the citizens’ level and at the state level.
MBV: This, again, is something one would have to thank Antoni for, because to some extent many things emerged in part from the Fundació. I always speak in the plural because it was, and is, a group of people, many of them with names and surnames, who have gone on, including Marcelo Expósito, Jorge Ribalta and others. The role of the institution in a city like Barcelona was questioned, and this continued at the MACBA, at the Reina Sofía. Afterwards, many projects are bound to fail because at times neither the institutions nor society are prepared.
LH: Was all of this very rapid?
MBV: Yes, sometimes things happen very fast. I think this was important, because it doesn’t spring up overnight, it emerges because there was a very strong tradition in Barcelona of associationism. The virtue of that moment in the Tàpies was knowing how to connect with a tradition that was out there, but more or less dormant, or more or less latent, with a tradition of avant-garde art, or of culture, or of high culture, in a questioning of the actual cultural institution, in thinking about what you’re implementing.
Certain sectors were speaking of Barcelona, of the city’s image, of the Olympic Games. There existed the associationist element and an irregular, strange, institution, which is a monographic institution, which emanates from the deficiencies of a country that doesn’t have a museum of modern art; hence an artist has to leave, just as Miró left. Added to which, those deficiencies also bring deficiencies, for a monographic museum has something of the mausoleum about it; whether you like it not, it monumentalizes, which is also bad for the artist. Taking off from those contradictions I think discussion groups were set up. We did The City of the People first, with Jean-François Chevrier and Craigie Horsfield, and we immediately made contact with Miren Etxezarreta, with groups who were working in Nou Barris, and continue to do so, with Pedro Madueño, who, although he was publishing in La Vanguardia, worked a lot in local neighbourhoods, and afterwards we began contacting people from outside. David Harvey came, he organized a seminar in which Jorge Ribalta, Xavier Antich, Claudio Zulian and many other people took part, people who have since remained in contact, forming part of an entire structure. Afterwards we invited John Beverley and Brian Holmes. In fact, when I arrived at the MACBA, in 1998, we prepared the 1999 seminar, Direct Action as One of the Fine Arts, in which many of those who were working in this vein participated, and they collaborated with anti-globalization movements. The first time I saw Allan Sekula was in the Tàpies, an Allan Sekula who was coming quite often to Barcelona, which meant that he was very attentive to what was going on. Yes, I reckon that to some extent the Fundació works with at least part of the important cultural fabric of Barcelona.
There’s another aspect I think was also influential. There were all sorts of artists to take into account in Barcelona as well as in the rest of the country: the generation of Tàpies, Saura, Arroyo, Equipo Crónica… Their space was a very powerful one because they were “position and opposition,” they were absolutely everything, everything in a very strong artistic and historical sense. Afterwards reactions sprung up like the Grupo de Trabajo, the Centro de Cálculo and the Pamplona Encounters. But the fact is that there was an extraordinary generation of Latin American and European artists who hadn’t been seen here (and not that much abroad either). The 1992 exhibition of Hélio Oiticica was much criticized in Barcelona, which means it’s just as bad doing it too soon as it is too late. The same with Lygia Clark and Ana Mendieta. Although the Reina Sofía brought Latin American projects to the capital, I think the Tàpies was one of the first that showed not only Latin American art in general, which is very broad, but that of a very specific generation that has afterwards been key. Nowadays you can’t understand contemporary art without the role artists like Lygia Clark or Hélio Oiticica have played. In a way one has continued since then in that same line, with a type of art like expanded cinema, like Broodthaers’s, or institutional critique of the Haacke kind.
LH: I would like to reflect on the trajectory of Tàpies. Do you think the international perception of him has varied during these last few years? And do you think it can change in some way?
MBV: I think Tàpies has had various phases. At one stage, in the early 1960s, when he was given the exhibition at the Guggenheim, he was spoken of in the States as the “Black Prince,” on account of the dark palette he used. He really had his moment, he participated in Documenta, he was undoubtedly the major Spanish figure, and one of the major international figures to boot. Afterwards, other sorts of practices came along and to some extent this type of art got rather shunted aside. He was still very important in some contexts, because the historiography, the literature about Tàpies, let’s say, had remained a bit antiquated since it involved the somewhat romantic idea of the genius artist that, obviously, in the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was out of place.
LH: Does he speak to young critics, artists and curators today?
MBV: Today, no. The historiography on him doesn’t interest people, but Tàpies’ work does. His work has two important features: it’s very poetic and it’s political, and I would add that Antoni was a virtuoso. This virtuosity, above all in the more Anglo-American world, grated, and in addition
the modernist idea, in the English sense, of the disciplines, that the painter has to be a painter, the sculptor a sculptor, has run its course nowadays. In fact there’s a transversality that exists in painters, that exists in artists, in curators.
But in the case of Antoni—maybe that’s one of the characteristics of the spirit the Fundació acquires—he was continually questioning things, so this tension between the mastery he possesses means he ends up creating something else, and that something else means that there’s a sudden leap and a painting is transformed into an object which may be a figure or simply matter, you just don’t know. Tàpies’s work possesses this enigma. He was aware of his virtuosity, but at the same time he was, like his painting, angel and devil, spirit and earth, matter. Gilbaut spoke of varnishes as if they were almost like diarrhoea, something dirty. And, what’s more, he’s political, in the sense that, if you pay attention, most of his great exhibitions are discursive.
LH: What does Tàpies need in order to reposition himself? To enter some of these great galleries, or do you think this means taking a different tack?
MBV: Maybe, at a certain level, but I’m not sure I’m all that interested. What I do think is that the work is pertinent and would have to enter into a context in which it could be debated, in which one could speak of it. History isn’t memorialism, it’s not about speaking in the sense of a “great figure,” which Tàpies is, but doing so about a very great painter that, moreover, explains many things about this country. Tàpies is very much an artist from here, he’s part of the generation who wanted to be super Spaniards yet international too, who wanted to be Americans; and so they produce this highly gestural painting, but at the same time they have this thing—which is a fiction, like everything else—to do with Iberian painting being dark. In any case it’s been dark since the seventeenth century, before that it wasn’t. Even with those contradictions, it makes him a very revealing artist in terms of understanding this country. Just as thanks to Velázquez one understands the Baroque, but also the world of today. With Tàpies it’s worth thinking about him at length, rethinking him. It’s as you were saying, we must grab people at the level of publications, at the level of projects in the universities.
LH: That’s what we’re doing.
MBV: Sure. In addition we’re all very fond of him. I think he’s a very important figure for Barcelona, and for the whole country. Furthermore, one would have to consider, as also occurred with Miró, for example, that they are artists or intellectuals who have an ethical sense, a civic sense. Look how those two created a foundation and have a strong involvement with the city. He was a cultured artist. We are faced with a complex figure.
LH: Who has many readings…
MBV: Yes, he does.
LH: Many thanks for these reflections.
MBV: Thank you.