Antoni Tàpies, Great Painting (1958), oil with sand on canvas, 78-1/2″ x 103″; courtesy The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
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If there are artists whose work is incapable of crossing the borders of international taste, then the Spanish painter Antoni Tàpies is not one of them. Based in Barcelona, Tàpies (b. 1923) has been cited along with Picasso and Miró as one of his country’s premier modernists. He has achieved a worldwide recognition that few living artists can claim, and his work is not unknown in New York, where he has exhibited regularly since his 1953 debut at the Martha Jackson Gallery. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the art world will find his work familiar and, perhaps, prescient. Tàpies’s paintings of the Fifties and Sixties, for instance, can bring to mind the Neo-Expressionism of the Eighties. A case can be made for Tàpies being ahead of his time. Taking into account the nature of his influence, however, one wonders just how much such an accolade is worth.
For although there are fifty-six objects spanning almost fifty years in Tàpies, the first full-scale presentation of his work seen in the United States since 1977, it is not so much an exhibition of art as a display of ego. There have always been painters and sculptors who have thought highly of their own talents, of course, and not a few were great artists—one shudders at the thought of a civilization bereft of them. It is one thing, however, to be an artist like, say, Picasso, whose sizable ego was occasioned—and, more often than not, surpassed— by similarly proportioned gifts. It is quite another to believe one’s own press releases. I doubt very much that Tàpies reads his press releases at this date, but anyone leaving Tàpies will be convinced of the certitude he has in his own artistic prowess, a certitude that is not borne out by the work on view.
Tàpies garnered notoriety in the Fifties with his “matter” paintings. Large and emphatically physical canvases, they are layered with paint, sand, and marble dust and then incised, scraped, and pierced. Tàpies scratches into these surfaces forms that recall hieroglyphics, calligraphy, and graffiti. These works can border on relief sculpture, and their colors are dry and gritty—blacks, browns, grays, and rusts predominate. The matter paintings share affinities with other art of the time, particularly Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel. But the strongest influence on Tàpies may have been the art brut of Jean Dubuffet. Tàpies shares the Frenchman’s fascination with the untutored vitality of graffiti, as well as with the weathered surfaces of the city; Tàpies has referred to his paintings as “walls.” But he has neither Dubuffet’s sensitivity for surface nor his sense of humor. A Dubuffet-ish work like Nude (1966)—a mottled blot of a woman riddled with marks, letters, and smudges—has a lot going on in it, but it doesn’t add up to much. Tàpies’s scribbles seem arbitrary—there’s no pictorial reasoning to them. Dubuffet defined the ground of his paintings with a crotchety line and an all-over surface texture. In comparison, Tàpies merely scrawls on his canvases with the hope that something worthwhile will emerge.
Despite their gestural brutality and buckled surfaces, however, the matter paintings are tepid; their ferocity is secondhand. Attempting to evoke the rawness of graffiti found on city walls, Tàpies copies the wall instead of embodying the unhewn energy that attracted him to it in the first place. There’s no intrinsic life to his work; Tàpies is so in thrall to the idea of art that he cannot get beyond literal transcription. When he wants us to feel the weight of history, for instance, he scratches a triangle and some hasty glyphs into an encrusted canvas, titles it Pyramid, and thus, presumably, summons us before the glories of ancient Egypt. Tàpies trades in romantic banalities. In a sense, he’s too polite for his own good, and Dubuffet, at his best, was scarcely that.
The chief liability of Tàpies’s work relates to the idea of the “wall” in another way. For Tàpies, the flat surface of the canvas is just that: flat. He is too much of a materialist to believe in painting as a vehicle for metaphor achieved through illusion. Tàpies never sees into his canvases and there is little space or light to speak of in his work. Consequently, Tàpies abjures painting for its (to borrow that burnished buzzword of the times) simulacrum. Of course, this is not a characteristic unique to Tàpies. Artists such as Robert Ryman and Cy Twombly practice what could best be termed “ersatz painting”—they offer the look of painting, if not its actuality. And so it is with Tàpies. For whatever else it may be, his work—with its scale, physicality, and expressionist agitation—looks like it should be art. This may be the reason why otherwise sensible people, like catalogue essayist Dore Ashton, admire his work: it has the appearance of significance.
The surfaces of Tàpies’s canvases, then, serve solely as a base on which to pile detritus. And pile it on he does. By the late Sixties and early Seventies, Tàpies began affixing buckets, bags of hay, rope, belt buckles, hooks, and a variety of other objects to his paintings. One fancies that this was done in the hope of transcending (as the artist put it) “the excesses of abstract art,” as if pasting on tangible objects did not risk its own variety of overkill. Yet, Tàpies is also something of a mystic and has stated that his aim is to induce a meditative state in the viewer. In other words, he’s a materialist, but he wants his spirituality (or anti-tangibility) too. But there’s no magic to Tàpies’s work; his objects sit dumbly on the surface of the canvas. His painting is slapdash stuff and, boy, is it serious. (At least Robert Rauschenberg, whatever his merits as an artist, had fun putting his assemblages together.) Yet, it’s hard to tell what Tàpies is so serious about.
Or maybe it’s too easy. Painting with an Ironing Board (1970) combines an ironing board, a piece of cloth, and a small mirror on a ground splattered with paint and sand. Tàpies arranges these items in a vaguely iconic manner, but there’s no sense of transformation to it. He doesn’t—or can’t—let his objects carry their own metaphorical weight. Tàpies has no faith in their allusive capabilities, and how compelling is a mystic who doesn’t have faith in something larger than himself? One suspects that these works are intended to connect by force of will, what Tàpies calls the “artist’s magic prestige.” But will alone never put rubbish over on its own terms and Tàpies attempts at transcendence are woefully earthbound.
If Tàpies’s early work was ahead of its time, then his paintings of the Eighties and Nineties poke along behind it. They are reminiscent, in no small way, of Miró’s misguided attempts at outdoing the Abstract Expressionists. In Tàpies’s case, it’s depressing seeing him trying to catch up with, of all people, Julian Schnabel. (Talk about cultural de-evolution.) Immense in scale—woe to the museum having to store these mammoths!—the recent work is reliably bombastic but it does ease up a bit; it provides more to look at if only because there isn’t as much stuff in the way. Here Tàpies’s use of materials becomes less monotonous as does the oppressive physicality of the paintings. (The vacuum-like sweep of the SoHo Guggenheim’s galleries helps the work along as well.) The paintings are still hodgepodges of stains, scribbles, objects, and graffiti, but better sloppy vulgarity than portentous gravitas, if not by much.
The finest pieces on view in Tàpies predate the matter paintings. Silver Paper Collage and Figure of Newsprint and Threads, both from 1946, are somewhat pedestrian neo-Surrealist collages that nevertheless engage the viewer by inviting him to look closely. Silver Paper Collage, in particular, with its tracery of threads, reveals Tàpies’s debt to Miró in a way that is affecting. Even so, its memory all but pales in the face of what I consider the quintessential Tàpies painting. Infinity (1988) is a gray and grainy surface with the word “INFINIT” incised in layers along all four edges of the painting, as if simplistic scrawls could conjure up an endless horizon of spiritual inquiry. Here, Tàpies relies on chutzpah and chutzpah alone, and it isn’t enough. He’s playing the artist as seer, presenting us with a philosopher’s stone predigested for easy consumption and, much to his unimagined chagrin, easy to disregard. Tàpies’s work may not be conceptual art as we have come to know it, but its limitations are related and no amount of “magic prestige” will save it from being overheated and facile. If, indeed, Picasso, Miró, and Tàpies form the holy trinity of Spanish modernism, then Tàpies reveals that some artists are holier than others.
© 1995 Mario Naves
Originally published in the April 1995 edition of The New Criterion.