Artist in focus

Antoni Tàpies
Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies, born in 1923, conceived of his work as a form of meditation on ‘the void’ – more specifically, “that play of emptiness and fullness which composes everything and which reveals the meaning of nature”. He expressed this esoteric philosophy, partly inspired by Zen Buddhism, through a multiplicity of potent, often paradoxical, objects. Tàpies’s achievement was to create highly intuitive, enigmatic images that have the potential to change our perception of reality, but defy reduction into a few lines of analysis. One of his earliest collages, from 1946-47, consisted of a cross made from paper torn out of a Catholic journal’s obituaries page. He obviously did not have much respect for the genre.

Despite this elusiveness, it is still possible to outline a variety of themes and influences: leftwing politics and humanitarianism; the practices of Zen meditation, in which contemplation of a wall or a garden of sand can lead to enlightenment; the Christian concept of incarnation; and a conviction that art was a kind of alchemy or magic that could transform the basest materials. Born in Barcelona, Tàpies came from the Catalan intellectual elite. His father, Josep Tàpies i Mestres, was a lawyer with secular, nationalist sympathies who worked for the republican Catalan government during the Spanish civil war of 1936-39. In contrast, his mother, María Puig i Guerra, was a devout Catholic, the daughter of a prominent rightwing separatist, who insisted on a religious education for her son throughout the upheavals of the period.

Tàpies’s schooling did not have quite the desired effect. Apart from gaining a fear of nuns, he developed an idiosyncratic spirituality that was to influence his later work, although not in ways that were appreciated by the church. Even more important were the two years that he spent recovering from a lung infection contracted in 1940. During this period, he made copies of Van Gogh and Picasso, and read Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, as well as the Japanese Buddhist Okakura Kakuzo – a varied list that weaned him from the conventional classicism admired by many older Catalan artists.
Compelled by his father to begin a law degree, in 1944 Tapies also attended a drawing course at the Academia Valls in Barcelona, where his artistic aspirations were encouraged by the poet and critic Josep M Junoy. He spent the 1940s developing an idiom that was inspired partly by the “primitive” art of children and, more obviously, by Paul Klee and the surrealists. At times, he used Max Ernst’s grattage (or scraping) technique, and he was also influenced by his friend Joan Miró, whom he met in 1948. In the same year, Tàpies co-founded the avant-garde Dau al Set group with, among others, the surrealist poet Joan Brossa.Many of Tàpies’s early drawings and paintings were self-portraits, which varied significantly in the liberties they took with his actual features. By 1946, however, he was already using one of the motifs that would become familiar: he began to create collages with crosses, using not just newsprint but scraps of toilet paper.

Tàpies’s development was stimulated in 1950-51 by a French government scholarship to Paris, where he had a memorable encounter with Picasso and also briefly became interested in social realism. Despite these experiences, Tàpies was swiftly drawn to the lyrical abstraction known as art informel, especially after 1953, when he experienced the American equivalent, abstract expressionism, at the time of his first one-man show in New York.
While Tàpies’s exhilarating new style of “gashes, blows [and] scars” was undoubtedly very successful, eventually it evolved into something more serene and profound: “One day I tried to arrive at silence … Those millions of furious clawings were transformed into millions of grains of dust, of sand … A whole new landscape, as in the story of one who goes through the looking glass, opened before me as if to communicate the most secret innerness of things … And the most sensational surprise was to discover one day, suddenly, that my paintings, for the first time in history, had turned into walls.”

In his later years, Tàpies’s art remained as subtle and diverse as ever. He felt no need to divide his career into neat, marketable phases, but continued to experiment with a range of imagery and media. His figurative work included sculptures in terracotta, bronze and even repoussé metal, as in the eerie Metallic Profile of 1993. In 2000 he contributed to Encounters: New Art from Old, a group exhibition at the National Gallery in London that offered radical responses to the old masters. His offering was a characteristically earthy painting of the female body, giving particular emphasis to parts, such as the soles of the feet, that are usually ignored or even despised.

In 2010 he was awarded the hereditary title of Marqués de Tàpies by King Juan Carlos. He died on 6 February 2012.