The death of Barcelonan artist Antoni Tàpies on 6 February 2012 may be seen as something of a watershed moment. He may not have the legendary status of Picasso, Dalí or Miró, but over the days following his death thousands have flocked, along with the TV cameras, to the Fundació Antoni Tàpies to pay their respects to one of the most famous, if controversial, artists in Europe.
Having won the Velázquez prize, Spain’s most prestigious art award, in 2003, Tàpies was widely seen as the preeminent Spanish artist of the second half of the 20th century. Even if it’s too early to properly assess his legacy, now seems a good moment to ask – why is this often cryptic artist so popular?
An unconventional approach
Comparison with other artists doesn’t quite explain it. Tàpies’ opus is characterised by lacerated surfaces, palettes of browns and greys and dislocated motifs. Where Picasso morphed and simplified and Miró indulged in playful creativity, an artist like Tàpies destroyed. He advocated a form of art that he described as ‘matter painting’, applying a relentless Catalan rebelliousness and fierce intellect. In fact, this technique seemed to break down the art of painting entirely.
Tàpies would varnish a canvas and cover it with unconventional materials, such as marble dust or sand. He would then scrape and tease figures and textures out of the surface alongside the fissures and cracks that would emerge of their own accord. Heavily influenced by scientific developments in the nuclear age, the artist was questioning the very idea of substance – rather than using materials to portray an idea, the material itself is the central subject.
But his art isn’t for the faint hearted or easily offended. Tàpies gained notoriety for focusing on unpalatable subjects such as a defecating anus, an old sock or a discarded shoe.
The current exhibition
To assess the artist’s legacy for yourself, head to the Antoni Tàpies Foundation on Carrer de Aragó. Set in a renovated Modernista publishing house, the building is dedicated to the study of modern art, and is as much an exhibition space for other artists as it is for the work of Tàpies himself. It’s currently showing ‘Antoni Tàpies. The Collection #2’ which displays a selection of some of his best works. Walk around this exhibition and you’ll quickly realise the complexity of his legacy.
From early experiments with surrealism to his most iconic paintings, Tàpies’ work is full of drama and is thoroughly absorbing. Having said that, you might at times be struggling to describe what you’re viewing. His ‘found art’ sculpture of a wooden chair may push his mantra to the extreme but the sheer range of work, from a career spanning seven decades, more than makes up for this.
Above all, firm political commitment pervades Tàpies’ output. A great example in the current exhibition is the exquisite Indian ink ‘Natural History’ series – a collection of 30 exceptionally fine drawings from the 1950s that fuse human, animal and plant forms with explicitly political imagery. His involvement with the underground artistic movement during the Franco years means that his subversive credentials, much like Barcelona itself, are a crucial part of his identity.
The sprawling Gran Nus, ‘large knot’, dominates one wall of the exhibition space and is easily the most definitive work here. With its refusal to distinguish between nature and culture, you’ll see numerals and crosses spliced with abstract forms and realise that Tàpies’ work is ultimately about creativity itself. Perhaps this is the reason why so many Barcelonans mourned his passing.