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Review by Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine. Photo courtesy of The Reykjavik Art Museum.
“Clara's Hands” (1979, mixed media on cloth).
The Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies (1923-2012) is proclaimed "the last great artist of the 20th century" in the text accompanying the exhibition “Tàpies – Image, Body, Pathos” at Kjarvalsstaðir – the Reykjavík Art Museum.
Famous for mixing marble dust with varnish on canvas or wood, his art is often called “material paintings” because of their physical characteristics, even though Tàpies did not paint in the traditional sense but worked with abstract masses of sand like a sculptor. Sometimes the artist incorporated found objects, or scribbled words and backward phrases.
The method is fast and energetic, coming straight from the sub-consciousness. The size of the canvasses he used is almost monumental.
Despite Tàpies's fame, this was my first encounter with his works. At a quick glance, I could not help but find a strong reminiscence with the primitive, tactile and grotesque art of the French artist Jean Dubuffet.
It turned out that the resemblance is of no coincidence as both Dubuffet and Tàpies were members of the “Art Brut” group (from French, meaning "raw art", but has also been labeled "outsider art"), which was founded in Paris in 1948 (Tàpies lived in Paris on a French government scholarship in the early 1950s and often returned), but the historic sources pinpoint Dubuffet as its original founder.
Dubuffet explains art brut as, "works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses—where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere—are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals."
Both Dubuffet and Tàpies were self-taught artists, who idolized art brut as immunity to the assimilating power of mainstream culture. Harshly mocked by the critics as "low art", the new bad boys were disillusioned by the grim post-World War II situation and rebelled against the failed promises of the past.
The cold geometric intellectualism of the earlier modernists was abandoned in favor of spontaneity, irrationality, freedom of form and energetic splashes of color.
In succession of art brut, Tàpies co-founded with the poet Joan Barossa the first group in Catalonia with post-war avant-garde orientation called “Dau al Set” (from Catalan, "the seventh face of the dice").
“Dau al Set” went on to publish a magazine by the same title, and popularized the new terms art informel (from French, "formless") which is used more or less interchangeably with art auter (from French, “other art“) and tachism (from “tache“ in French, “spot”) to describe the authentic children's, psychotic and non-Western art.
Apart for the first two years of his career, when Tàpies had painted photo-realistic self-portraits in the traditional oil medium, he remained faithful to the abstract and physical art brut style to the end of his days. The images in his works cannot be described as representational, but rather as generalized forms of symbolic objects.
“Sardana (Circle of Feet)” (1972, mixed media on wood).
Personally, I don't enjoy his collages with found objects in darker hues and more rigid compositions much, such as “Ochre and Black with Pasted-on Cloth” (1972, mixed media on wood), “Varnish and Bound Foam” (1986, paint, varnish, assemblage on canvass) and “Nude” (1995, mixed media on wood).
His latest works on white canvasses in minimal forms and transparent color have the refined elegance of an accomplished master and enchanting meditative quality, inspired by Eastern philosophy, as revealed in the documentary Tàpies Tea, included in the exhibition at Kjarvalsstaðir.
“Clara's Hands” (1979, mixed media on cloth), “Celebration of Honey” (1989, varnish and pencil on paper mounted on canvass), “Sun” (1998, paint and varnish on wood) are among my favorites with their light, watercolor-like quality and overwhelming conceptual clarity.
I failed to find the documentary online, but here you can watch a short promo of Tàpies Tea, which contains the essence of Tàpies's art as defined by himself: "If you look at the materials I use, it's full of grains of dust. This grain of dust may contain the entire Universe."
“Tàpies – Image, Body, Pathos” runs until May 20, 2012.
Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine – kremenan(at)gmail.com
Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine is a passionate collector of art books, dedicating every spare moment to learn more about art while dreaming about having an exhibition of her own. She studied graphic design at the School of Visual Arts in Akureyri from 1999 to 2002. In college she realized that she didn’t want to be a designer or commercial artist but rather an illustrator and writer. At the moment she’s experimenting with her first graphic novel.