Visual Arts

Antoni Tàpies elevates consciousness and conscience in PAMM exhibit

‘Composition with Figures,’ 1945,Oil on canvas,24 x 24inches, Fundació Antoni Tàpies,
‘Composition with Figures,’ 1945,Oil on canvas,24 x 24inches, Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Fundació Antoni Tàpies/VEGAP, 2013

During a career that spanned 70 years, Barcelona-born Antoni Tàpies created pioneering experiments in mixed media that are not facile, conventionally beautiful, or easy to penetrate. But they richly reward open-minded engagement. He called his works “experimental fields of battle,” and they embody themes and processes central to mankind’s struggle for meaning and the reconciliation of paradoxes. The exhibition Tàpies: From Within at the Pérez Art Museum Miami encompasses works from the artist’s youth during World War II to the year before his death in 2012. It was curated by former Tate Modern director Vicente Todolí.

Soon after leaving the Tate, Todolí was invited by the Tàpies Foundation to curate an exhibition — as a non-specialist — for a fresh view of the artist’s work. He readily accepted the challenge, plunging into sessions of viewing the work itself, rather than first doing research on other exhibitions. “I need to start by seeing everything, to know if something will come out of it or not.”

Something did, indeed, come out. The exhibition rewards on its own terms and offers insight into one of Spain’s most prominent and influential 20th-century artists. The exhibition assembles works that the artist had held back for his own collection or donated to the foundation that he and his wife initiated in 1984. These pieces were of great personal significance and will create strong impressions on both new audiences and those familiar with Tàpies’ work. For this exclusive U.S. presentation, selections were made by PAMM chief curator Tobias Ostrander.

The traumas of the Spanish Revolution, followed by World War II — and in particular the dropping of the atom bomb — led many artists and writers to question the religious and philosophical values with which they had grown up. Tàpies, too, questioned the role of art and rebelled against narrow views of beauty. His early works were influenced by Miró, Klee and the Surrealists, although the exhibition excludes the Surrealist period, which Tàpies himself found too academic. Both his 1945 Composition with Figures and Man show Van Gogh-like brush strokes, and Todolí also cites a kinship with Munch that Tàpies had acknowledged. But rather than picturing war, for example, like Picasso’s Guernica, we see in the painting Gray with Two Black Marks a surface that appears itself to have received shell and shrapnel impacts.

Since childhood, the family’s publishing and book-selling business provided Tàpies an intellectual orientation, but a series of grave illnesses gave him a visceral recognition of the inevitability of death. He probed both the Catholic spiritual tradition that he eventually rejected and Asian views of mortality and interconnectedness that he embraced. Also, scientific writings and close observations of even the most refined realist painters, like Velásquez, revealed that so-called visual reality is a shifting and illusory phenomenon.

‘Matter paintings’

His focus shifted to the surface of the canvas, which no longer needed to depict something. Tàpies explored the fundamental matter that composes our world. Both intrigued and horrified that the tiniest of particles — the atom — could be manipulated to cause immense carnage, he began using nonconventional materials, creating “matter paintings,” in which he mixed paint or varnish with dirt, marble powder and other earthy substances. He disdained everything pretentious and self-consciously important, while believing — through his own work and in the mission statement of his foundation — that contemporary art has the responsibility to elevate mankind’s consciousness and conscience.

Viewing Tàpies’ working method in a 2009 video, a connection is evident with Jackson Pollock and subsequent generations of artists “attacking” their canvases with hoses, rakes and heat guns. Tàpies might begin by sprinkling powdered marble through a sieve onto a dry canvas, then pour varnish on it, then add another layer of powder. There’s an element of Surrealist automatism — expressing the subconscious — and an embrace of the accidental in his technique. He uses brooms and broken sticks to move materials around or scratch through them. Gummy paint is applied with narrow brushes to create and alter small hearts and crosses. Scanning the work in progress, he masks an area with one hand, then makes “practice strokes” in the air before bending over to use a scraper and create an S-curve, pulling up paint to reveal the canvas below.

Eventually, this impulse to gather, stack, wrap, spray and glue diverse materials led to his incorporating modern commercial and domestic materials into the mix, as in the folded sailcloth of Glued Fabric (1961), Ascending Descending’s pot and lid and the even more intimate Folded Napkins of 1973.

‘Ying and yang’

“There’s always these binaries in his work,” said Ostrander. “He’s interested in the material and the immaterial; destruction and creation; ying and yang. He’s an artist who’s always interested in spiritual art.” Tàpies studied the Romanesque churches in Barcelona but also Hindu and Buddhist art traditions that reflect the notion of material being in constant transformation.

The human figure may be alluded to without being specifically represented. His Wrapping from 1994 contains a bound central form that’s quite evocative of the rough shroud of a mummy — or possibly a murder victim. Other works incorporate isolated body parts — sometimes burdened, damaged or distorted, like Pink Material. Reference to the brutality of war and political repression were not limited to his youth, as the artist remained engaged in successive waves of social protest and active through his multimedia artwork as well as in writing and graphic art.

Layered themes of birth and death, images of shrouds, beds and crosses permeate Tàpies’ work. Ostrander refers to them as “transformative objects,” with the potential to lead us toward spiritual questions. A centerpiece of the exhibition is the arrangement of rough, stained garments and a towel, piled on an old chair. In a 1967 essay, the artist wrote: “Even the most worn down of chairs carries inside the initial force of the sap climbing from the earth, out there in the forest, and will still be useful the day when, broken into kindling, it burns in some fireplace.”

Tàpies has adhered these objects with varnish to create a sculpture, and while elevating such humble, discarded objects, he subtly echoes the classic pyramidal composition of countless artworks from the history books. Moreover, he gives center stage to draperies and furniture that usually play a secondary role to the “important” subject of traditional paintings and sculpture. “He’s tying this very kind of informal look to a European art history,” said Ostrander.

But Tàpies didn’t follow the Western conception of a timeline leading from birth to death and some hereafter, Todolí explained. “He was zigzag, spirals, forth and back, ascending, descending — the reconciliation of opposites in order to find this balance that really creates a depth with no bottom.”

‘From dust to stardust’

His attitude was exploratory and nonhierarchical — more about questions than declarations.

He takes rubbish, Todolí continued, “transforming it in an alchemical way into gold — from dust to stardust.” His Green-Blue Straw is an example. Adopting an organic waste material — only good enough for animal bedding — he uses it as “gold” pigment and renders it “permanent” by fixing it with paint or glue. Permanence is illusory, however. That straw, “little by little, in 50, 60, 100 years, that probably will disappear — crumble to dust, again, incorporating it into the cycles that he believed in,” concluded Todolí.

Tàpies always retained a rebellious spirit and affinity for the avant-garde. His gestural markings and often-inscrutable words echoed the anti-Franco graffiti of his youth, the Catalan independence movement but also today’s street art and graffiti scrawls. Ostrander orchestrated the juxtaposition of Tàpies’ “grody” materials as something of a reproof to Miamians’ affection for sleek, costly design surfaces. “In Miami,” said Ostrander, “we like to show off shiny things, and Tàpies was very much looking at the other side.”

During his long career, mutual influence can be traced with arte povera of the late ’60s and the post-minimalist renewal of painterly, expressionistic, highly textured painting and assemblage. Tàpies’ anti-formalism and de-emphasis of the “commodity” aspect of artwork connect him to conceptualists’ valuing of inquiry and breach of boundaries.

There’s further resonance with contemporary artists’ repurposing of discarded materials — a topic PAMM has explored recently. Buenos Aires-based Diego Bianchi has created a large-scale installation now on display “also elevating trash to art and thinking about waste and the discards of commodity culture,” said Ostrander. Geoffrey Brown’s recent theatric-mechanical sound and light installation shares a kindred aesthetic, as does Nicole Cherubini’s current project, which stretches the language of ceramics. She capitalizes on clay’s innate material characteristics and historical traditions, while defying those same qualities.

Inviting newcomers to view Tàpies: From Within, Todolí said, “I would advise first to leave any baggage outside. Approach it with all your senses — with your mind and with your body.

“Many of these works are kind of empathic self-portraits, an extension of the body but also a projection of the soul. ...

“And then it's up to the viewer. Some people will think it’s sh-t, but for him [Tàpies], sh-t was also gold.”

Listen to curator commentaries at

If you go

What: ‘Tàpies: From Within’

Where: Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

When: Through May 3

Info: Open Tuesday through Sunday; and and 305-375-3000.