Spanish Artist Antoni Tàpies Is Still Present in His Paintings

Ascens-Descens (Ascent-Descent), 1997
Ascens-Descens (Ascent-Descent), 1997
© Fundació Antoni Tàpies/VEGAP, 2013

Pérez Art Museum Miami's latest exhibition, "Tàpies: From Within," is a major historical survey of Barcelona-born artist Antoni Tàpies, whose life was dedicated to an exploration of spirituality and humility. In partnership with Fundació Tàpies and curated by former Tate Modern director Vicente Todolí, "From Within" is a reconfigured retrospective of the artist's oeuvre, featuring 50 works, some never before seen, that spans Tàpies' 70-year career.

PAMM chief curator Tobias Ostrander worked closely with Todolí to condense the exhibition to 50 objects. "From Within" refers to the intimacy of the collection of paintings from which Todolí and Ostrander selected Tàpies' work, drawn from the artist's own collection and the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona.

"Tpies: From Within"

Through July 26 at Prez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; pamm.org. Museum admission costs $16 for adults and $12 for seniors, students, and children ages 7 to 18; children under 6 get in free. Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

"Once he began having major gallery exhibitions, Tàpies and his wife would choose one work that he particularly loved for themselves, on top of the works that were stored because they didn't sell, whether it's because they were too good or too bad or too fancy, so there's a really interesting combinations of works we chose from," Ostrander says.

The works in the exhibition illustrate the progression of Tàpies' artistic vision, which throughout the years remained a personal expression of his self-realization as both artist and humanist, as well as an important critique of contemporary art. The works are displayed chronologically to showcase the evolution of his work while also offering a window into the most significant social developments from the 1940s onward, from postwar Europe to the Gulf War to the Bosnian genocide. Likewise, Tàpies' long life — he passed away in 2012 at age 88 — put the artist in dialogue with the shifting aesthetics of the art world. He produced works both surrealist and conceptual in nature throughout the 1960s and '70s, returned to an emphasis on painting in the '80s, and shifted to Asian-influenced graffiti art in the '90s and early 2000s.

Ostrander specifically chose to exhibit this work as a direct contrast to the overtly artificial surfaces that often seem to permeate Miami. "In the context of Miami, which tends to be shiny and clean and glass and bling," Ostrander says, "Tàpies offers something more organic and earthy, and elevating those things was sort of a provocation." To take it a step further, the exhibition could provoke a self-reflective dialogue, one that forces a kind of reevaluation of spiritual turmoil.

Tàpies himself was deeply interested in spirituality and religion. He explored themes central to a spiritual life — humility, piety, and poverty — and dabbled with Judeo-Christian mysticism and Buddhist principles. The artist sought to illustrate his own spiritual quest in his work, calling his early amateur paintings "psychological self-portraits." The paintings reveal nondescript male forms walking toward the proverbial shining light, suggesting his own awakening to find his artistic identity.

"Once Tàpies becomes more solid in his work, he presents a critically interesting idea by creating paintings that aren't about anything other than their materiality," Ostrander notes. "The images, the material, the meaning are all the same."

In Gris Amb Dues Taques Negres (Gray With Two Black Marks) from 1959, one of Tàpies' "matter paintings," he mixed marble dust, paint, and glue to create surfaces that look like walls, using gestural markings that would become his hallmark. With this work, Tàpies presents the materials as subject while also referencing the destruction after World War II and playing with his own name (in Catalan, Tàpies means "wall"). The notion that there was no separation between artist and canvas is a theme that would remain consistent in his paintings — this idea that Tàpies was giving a piece of himself to his work, somewhat of an offering to the spiritual act of painting.

It was the matter paintings, produced throughout the 1950s and '60s, that earned Tàpies international acclaim. In later works throughout the '70s, he concentrated on rudimentary, primitive symbols cloaked with meaning. For example, his use of crosses could be interpreted simply as a religious or spiritual symbol but could also be construed as an X, a symbol used to mark a spot or sign a name. Or a T could be interpreted as a stand-in for the artist's name, another characteristic offering of himself in his work.

This element of Tàpies' work unfolds dramatically throughout the years. His physical presence in his pieces becomes increasingly visible — from the artist's initial additions of T to eventual footprints and later material from his studio, such as clothes, slippers, and his own hair. He left pieces of himself within his work, a symbolic gesture of the experience of art-making.

Tàpies began working with found objects in the '70s, not as an ironic statement of mass production or consumerism like many of his contemporaries, but to emphasize the humility of everyday objects. He used the materials around him, manipulating them to place the focus on his own existential search while adding to the conversation created by other relevant artists. In Cadira i Roba (Chair and Clothes) from 1970, Tàpies took a chair from his studio, covered it with his own towels and clothes, and sealed the piece with resin to present the work as sculpture. It's a witty nod to both Marcel Duchamp and classical European sculpture, in which the elegance of drapery is a characteristic element.

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He continued to build on these themes later in his career but also began to experiment with graffiti and other forms of symbolism to elevate the physical and spiritual pain he believed was a natural part of life. In Atman (1996), a brooding work rendered with pencil and paint on wood, a dark form that resembles both a death bed and an infant's cradle is marked with illegible symbols. A and O are scribbled haphazardly on the wood frame. It reminds viewers of their mortality, of the necessary balance of alpha and omega, youth and old age, life and death. A pair of pants and a slipper characteristically cling to the surface of the painting.

In conjunction with the Tàpies exhibition, a specially commissioned large-scale installation by Argentine artist Diego Bianchi is on view in the museum's Project Gallery — a sort of modern-day version of the use of found objects in contemporary art. Bianchi's installation, a much more brutal interpretation, tells of the artist's experience coming of age during the peso-devaluation crisis in Buenos Aires in the early millennium.

In Bianchi's interpretation, discarded materials such as trash bags, TV sets, and old T-shirts fill an entire room in a tornado-like pattern that suggests our destructive commodity culture is swallowing us whole. Cut-up mannequins, blacked-out windows like those of abandoned storefronts, and an old radio playing bad Argentine rock music conjures the panic of imminent demise.

It's useful to observe these two artists' works as a whole to better understand and appreciate the spiritual tranquility inherent in Tàpies' oeuvre. Both artists work within the same mode, using similar found materials to draw radically different conclusions. Bianchi's pieces provocatively draw the viewer toward a hedonistic commodity culture by playing on themes of eroticism and the downfalls of technology. Tàpies' works, however, take care to show the observer that while he is contemplating all that is wrong with the world, his ultimate message, in spite of the chaos, is finding peace from within.

"Tàpies: From Within" is open until May 3. PAMM is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am-6pm and Thursday 10am-9pm. For more information visit pamm.org

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Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM)

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