Antoni Tàpies: Art Between Void and Substance
On the 6th of February 2012, Catalan artist and art theorist Antoni Tàpies i Puig died in Barcelona at the age of 88. Following a heart attack at the young age of 17, Tàpies spent time recuperating in the mountains, which is where he first started pursuing his passion for art. He lived on and off in Barcelona and Paris, where the acclaimed critic and curator Michel Tapié enthusiastically supported his work. Initially influenced by Surrealism and Dada, in the 1950s, Tàpies started focusing on informal painting (pintura matèrica, or matter painting) using non-art materials such as textile rags, waste paper, clay, marble dust, string, in combination with mixed media. The idea was to produce something magical by means of the least obvious or appealing materials. His work came to be associated with Tachisme through the free reign he allowed his materials, their natural texture, colour and shape. Throughout his journey through, what we like to categorise as modern art trends, Tàpies seemed to be consistently drawn to a type of predominantly European lyrical abstraction. His attraction to organic abstraction as opposed to geometric angular forms was sparked especially after 1953, when he came into contact with the American equivalent of art informel, abstract expressionism, at the time of his first one-man show in New York.
Zen philosophy permeates Tàpies’ work, which can be seen as based on the yin-yang dichotomy; the artist claimed to have built a body of work in which he meditated on the concept of “the void” – “that play of emptiness and fullness which composes everything and which reveals the meaning of nature“. In his later works, even more so, Tàpies seems to relish in the interplay between surface and depth, hinting at something that lies beyond the material world but can only be perceived in its absence. His creations embrace ambiguity of form and meaning. They often appear like walls, with various materials pasted on and a seemingly predominant concern with surface texture. Yet, from behind the layers, a glimmer of meaning is waiting to be inferred by the viewer. The son of a devout Catholic mother, outlines of crucifixes often emerge from his minimal smeared, smudged or torn works, sometimes formed from base materials such as toilet paper; in spite of this, the artist’s spirituality does not respect any specific religion.
Tàpies left his mark on the work of various European and American artists. One noteworthy English artist who developed a career in Cornwall in a similar style was Sandra Blow. Her art was strongly influenced by the hands-on approach of Tàpies, and mainly Alberto Burri, associated with Art Informel (Unformed Art) and precursor of Arte Povera. From such painters, Blow learned that an object literally made is as basic as a primitive artefact and can much more directly translate the artist’s perception of the surrounding world, than a traditional painting or any work of art in the conventional sense. Blow remembered “an extraordinary sense of shedding everything, of leaving all known tracks. And then just looking for something that could be my own, of interpreting the actual structure of painting which seemed to connect with abstract art-structure and space and finding my own language in it.” (Blow at Bourn Art Gallery).
Sandra Blow was decidedly one of the first post-war British artists to introduce this type of painting into England, substituting paint for coarse, raw materials, such as earth, cement and sawdust, ash from her stove and used tea bags. She claimed, “I went through a time of being terribly hard up and I was being economical with my materials. As I was drinking tea I thought, well, I might as well use it, plus, of course, I liked the colour of the tea on the canvas.” Offering the first glance at what was later to become installation art, Art Informel pioneers such as Tàpies, Burri, Dubuffet, Fautrier, Wols were described by their supporting critic Michel Tapié in 1952 in Un Art autre (Art of Another Kind) as working with a new radical form of abstraction, lyrical and existentialist in nature, in which the artist was on his own, committed entirely to his practice, rejecting all past traditions except for Dada.