EXHIBITIONS / At the heart of the matter: Not many painters can conjure metaphysics out of a box. But Antoni Tapies's new work does just that

Tim Hilton
Saturday 09 April 1994 23:02

FOR MANY years Antoni Tapies has been seen as Spain's leading painter. He represented Spain his country at the Venice Biennale in 1952, therefore at a very low point in the fortunes of the Spanish avant-garde. At the Biennale last year he was once again chosen to represent his country. Surprisingly,again, and he showed sculptures that were quite as challenging as anything produced by newer generations. One of them was a heap of chairs. Tapies is experienced, clever at knowing exactly what will work, and in some ways respects an habitual artist. But with what dash he possesses.

Now in his 70th year, Tapies he still comes up with fresh and apparently effortless work. His latest exhibition fills the various Waddington galleries in Cork Street and includes paintings;, sculpture, prints and other works on paper. All were made last summer after Tapies finished work on his Rinzen ('Sudden Awakening') for the Spanish pavilion in Venice. This Rinzen is a Japanese word and is used as a metaphor. The idea in is that a person of a contemplative nature can occasionally see everyday reality in a flash, with superior and spiritual understanding. Tapies is attracted to such notions and often refers to oriental and Zen philosophies by inscribing words and symbols on the surface of his paintings.

Prajna=Dhyana has these words written boldly across the top of a pointing painting of a woman. I love this picture and it reminds me how seldom these days we see a real, new nude. By real I mean painted as though the artist relished nudity and by new I mean painted as though the artist had grasped his subject for the first time. So it is with This painting , with its eagor has an eager love of reality. Tapies has used an interesting mixture of media. The support is of wood and the quite thick surfaces are built up from marble dust, varnish and acrylic. And of course the hair is real hair, both luscious? and crinkly. In such ways the very materials of the picture suggest Tapies' concerns. The marble dust recalls the ancient world, paint demonstrates Tapies' own eloquence, the hair represents the living actuality of other beings.

He's always been a painter of texture. Tapies He came into prominene prominence in the post-war years as the maestro of 'matter painting', abstraction with formidably dense layers of pigment that was mixed with sand or other grainy matter. This meant that the artist could gouge out parts of the picture, incise with the wooden end of the brush or stick alien things such as like leaves and porcelain into its surface. Tapies still does all this, though nowadays with a less ponderous and gloomy hand, and . He is still the heir of to matter painting in another way. Thick texture could never be made to work with effulgent colour. From that day to this, Tapies is most at home with blacks, ochres, earthy colours, chalky whites and very occasional splashes of red or blue.

This red mustn't be too prominent. The excellent Banda Roig ('Red Ribbon') subdues the colour as though it had long been dried and bleached by exposure to the Spanish sun. And Tapies is indeed a 'dry' painter, not at ease with liquid application. He still pushes paint around, however, so we get a sensation of parched rivulets in open and broken country. No doubt this is a highly Spanish characteristic, not peculiar to Tapies.' art. But he is the grand exponent of such effects, nowhere more so than in the enormous work Diptic Nocturne, in which two large and complementary paintings are joined together by an up-ended bedstead.

Beds appear frequently in Tapies' paintings and there has been is no shortage of theories to account for their presence. The most plausible is that he was confined to bed for long periods of his childhood and youth, both at home and in a sanatorium. He was the son of a liberal Catalan family, and his adolescence coincided with they years of Civil War. The young man learnt about modern art while helplessly resting. Around him was political warfare. Within him was the solitary and sensitive awakening of an the invalid who sees both art and life from a distance but hopes to see them more clearly with the recovery of physical energy.

Tapies was converted to Hindu philosophy (by reading, the magic life of all young invalids) while convalescing in the highly Catholic Sanatorium de Puig d'Olena in Barcelona. Perhaps his mysticism made life more bearable under Franco. In his work I find many suggestions of a wounded country, but more of a fragile personal existence. In art-historical terms Primitivism and Surrealism helped Tapies to find his own style in the late 1940s, but . In closer terms he was surely influenced by the experience of his pulmonary illness. He clings to the ordinariness and tangibility of things that help one through existence: beds, old tin baths (another recurrent theme), blankets, sacking, straw, boxes, plates.

Thus he has never been totally committed to abstract art, even though abstract paintings are among his best. Perhaps the most perfect work at Waddington here is Gat, which doesn't actually represent a cat but is endworked out in a way that resembles a furry, curled and sleeping creature. It looks as though the picture was initiated by the means the French used to call eclatboussage, dropping ink or paint from a height to give a splatter. Tapies has developed this jolly Surrealist non-technique, densening making the central pool of pigment denser, then excavating the surface with signs that might be old wall graffiti or , equally likely, eternal Zen signs.

A personal picture, yet within the language of a certain kind of modern abstraction. Miro would have recognised it. So would that lover of Spanish art Robert Motherwell. Far more problematic and, I guess, closer to a private part of Tapies' mind are his sculptures. In the main they are composed of found objects. Tapies hasn't worked on them very much, in the sense of hammering or cutting their materials to get a change of shape or volume. So they remain boxes, baskets, chairs, piles of blankets and the like. lilo. Yet part of their mystery is that they do have sculptural prosence. presence. They are not like the anti-art objects of Duchamp, which were introduced to the gallery to overturn ideas of art. Tapies' object-sculptures are aesthetic. They reinforced what we already knew about his painting. Tapies has been adding objects to canvases for many years. Only recently, it seems, has he decided to let such things stand by themselves. All the same, they stand only by permission of the artist who sought them out. And It is clear that they have been chosen by a painter's eye. Their colour and textural feel are akin to the principles of Tapies' two-dimensional work. Furthermore Their structures echo his type of pictorial composition. They are that rare thing, a combination of found object and heartfelt artistic purpose. I don't think they are completely self-sufficient sculptures, though they have beauty and something more than charm. Their effect is to send one back to a renewed appetite for Tapies' painting. Capsa ('Box') is a picture of monumental dimensions and effect. It depends on American abstraction of the Seventies, yet is an elegy to old Spanishness. The painting is tall, black yet with ghostly vapours of a white sandy colour. , while Firmer signs in white are personal symbols. At the bottom of the picture is the box, just a domestic box opened to show that there's nothing in it, yet like a coffin and strangely and movingly aerial, as though floating through the Iberian night. Here is a truly metaphysical work of contemporary art.

Waddington, W1, 071-437 8611, to 7 May.

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