Capgirat, 2005; Mixed media and collage on wood, 224.9 x 200 x 4 cm
© Comissió Tàpies / VEGAP, Courtesy Timothy Taylor
Photo: Sylvain Deleu / Image Courtesy Timothy Taylor
Watching footage of the Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies (1923–2012) at work, patrolling the limits of his large wooden panels laid flat on the studio floor before making occasional decisive lunges with brush or paint pot, we witness that very twentieth century model of an artist – one commanded by intuitive mark making, and as much led by their medium as leading it. The idea of the artist as an agent of aesthetic forces remains an intoxicating one today, but also one in which it is now harder for an artist to actively indulge. For painters working today, the marks they make and the placement of those marks on a surface are contingent on an acknowledgement that they may already have been enacted elsewhere with the same intent, and as a consequence, may never be viewed as unique. In short, a painter working today will often find themselves pausing to look over their shoulder.
There was no such equivocation in Tàpies’ mind. His style, like that of so many of his contemporaries, took shape in a highly intuitive way through a series of straight choices the artist made around colour, medium, motif, and scale. Tàpies’ self-professed – contempt for everything pretentious, grandiloquent – not only informed his stark approach to subject matter and iconography, but is also supported by the evidence of his roughed-up surfaces of varnish, paint, marble dust, and other bas relief accretions. It is easy to imagine Tàpies thrashing out ideas directly onto the final surface of plywood or canvas with minimal reverence for his medium, and enlisting into his repertoire of marks and motifs, for perpetuity, all the results that pleased him.
Antoni Tàpies, Matèria sinuosa, 2010, Mixed media on wood, 160 x 160 x 4.4 cm, © Comissió Tàpies / VEGAP, Courtesy Timothy Taylor
Much is made of the uncompromising directness of Tàpies’ motifs, especially the brutal frankness of his treatment of the human figure, often splayed across the naked plywood surface like a pair of wet tights. Of all the explorations of base materialism* which many artists engaged in throughout the twentieth century, Tàpies’ is by no means the most shocking. The power of the painted human form to surprise us has diminished and we are more likely to register as beautiful the way in which Tàpies marries the chunky inelegance of his impasto figures with the equivalent rawness of untreated plywood. Some of the most striking of the artist’s figures sit, squat, or recline against a sparse plywood background with the minimum of extraneous motifs to draw the attention away. Body parts seem to float on the dull surfaces without spatial reference points; the muted pinks and light ochres of the artist’s reduced palette broken here and there by a splash of white or a scrawled black inscription.
Amongst the range of influences on the artist, the graffiti Tàpies saw as he walked through Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter had a lasting effect on his work in both the use of text itself and, perhaps more significantly, on the nature of his painted marks and the way he handled his medium. As with graffiti, the marks in Tàpies’ paintings are simultaneously reduced and excessive gestures. A large syrupy splash of resin and paint becomes analogous to a human thigh with the same economy as that with which a raw flourish of graffiti might articulate a complex message.
Antoni Tàpies, Cames i diari, 2005, Mixed media and collage on wood, 54 x 64.9 x 7.9 cm, © Comissió Tàpies / VEGAP, Courtesy Timothy Taylor
In a way, it is more rewarding to view Tàpies’ work – particularly the later paintings – without the requirement that we be shocked before the brutality of the surfaces. For the larger part of Tàpies’ career, his disgust at the events of the Spanish Civil War, combined with an anarchic impulse – an attempt even to elicit from us the revulsion of the current exhibition’s title – were significant influences on the artist’s choices of materials and ultimately on the look of the paintings. Yet there is a more slow-burning aspect to this mature work. The restraint with which Tàpies fills these later panels shows great discipline with his medium and economy with his message; more reduction, less excess.
*This is a reference to the idea of base materialism as presented by Yve-Alain Bois & Rosalind E. Krauss in the 1996 exhibition and book – L’Informe: mode d’emploi (Formless: A User’s Guide), (which takes as its starting point Georges Bataille’s Critical Dictionary). I am not suggesting that Tàpies would have considered himself an active participant in the scenario Bois and Krauss sketch out in their book, but more that much of Tàpies’ work does appear to share characteristics with a strand of activity that they identify in much twentieth century art.