I just visited Antoni Tapies, Alchemy, at Nahmad Projects, which opened at its Cork Street, Mayfair, venue, day before yesterday. It will run until 9 December.
A long time ago, I used to live in Barcelona for just under a year. During that time, I stopped by the museum, founded by the great man himself, at least once a month. I had fallen in love with Tapies’s art in secondary school. Back then, I simply enjoyed the mostly large-scale works for their textures, materials, colours and cool vibes. If anything, I found Tapies’s art decorative. In a similar way to how I find much of Anselm Kiefer’s, Joseph Beuys’s, or Alberto Giacometti’s work decorative.
“When we paint, a kind of magic happens. The simple materials we paint with become something else. From earth and dust, we extract an essence. Dreams become concrete. The ordinary is made sublime. We turn the crude into the ideal. This is the act of transmutation, intensely experienced. It can transform the spirit. In this sense, painting is the art of alchemy.” Antoni Tàpies
ANTONI TAPIES, ALCHEMY, NAHMAD PROJECTS – ‘DECORATIVE’ VERSUS ‘VISUALLY AND INTELLECTUALLY STIMULATING’
To many, this might sound a tad strange in view of much of Tapies’s work. Including much of what’s on display at the moment at Nahmad Projects. The majority of pieces there aren’t your typical, visually stunning, crowd-pleasers. At least to me, many of Tapies’s other works look more decorative. I’m thinking of works such as ‘Great Painting‘, ‘Croix sur gris‘, Matalas, or Dues formes.
A TOUGH START IN LIFE: NEAR-FATAL HEART ATTACK AT AGE 17
Tapies, who was born in 1923 and died ten years ago, is, by many, considered to be one of the greatest artists of his generation. At the age of 17, he suffered a near-fatal heart attack as a result of his tuberculosis. For two years, on his doctors’ advice, he relocated to a small village in the mountains. This is where he got a chance to pursue his interest for art, which he had held since his early teens.
HIROSHIMA AND NAGASAKI
Hiroshima and Nagasaki contributed to his interest in matter, the earth, dust, and other atomic particles that go into his paintings. In his mid-twenties, he co-founded Spain’s first post-war art movement, known as Dau al Set, which was heavily influenced by the Surrealist and Dadaist Movements. In 1950 the artist had his first solo exhibition in Barcelona, three years later solo exhibitions in the U.S. and other countries followed.
“I tend to live in a state of anxiety with the feeling that life is some kind of great catastrophe. Art should startle the viewer into thinking about the meaning of life.” Antoni Tàpies
INTERNATIONAL RECOGNITION BY HIS MID-THIRTIES
By the mid-1950s, in his mid-thirties, he had achieved wide international recognition. All the big names were exhibiting his work. In his early forties (1960s), he had found his own, unique style, which he stuck with until his death. It consists of the frequent use of heavily textured canvases, paper, marble dust, pigment, varnish, textile fabric, earth, sand, wire, and other rustic materials, often sizeable objects, usually in the colours black, grey, brown, beige, silver, and off-white, combined with iconographic elements (writing, signs, symbols, footprints, other anthropomorphic elements, etc.).
HORRORS OF THE FRANCO REGIME
His experience of the horrors of the Franco Regime (1938 to 1973), with hundreds of thousands of people killed, as well as his Catalan patriotism, influenced his art heavily. Tapies was strongly opposed to any form of oppression. As the catalogue to Alchemy puts it: his “work is one of arcane resistance and mystical transformation.”
“There is something evocative about the idea of destruction. This act of destruction is the expression of an idea that what we call reality is not real.” Antoni Tàpies
GOUGING, SCRATCHING, AND INCISING
“What became his signature technique of gouging, scratching, and incising enigmatic marks into the surface of his works, furthered this sense of his art as an unearthing of primal forms, with references to cave paintings and to the protest graffiti he saw on walls of his native Barcelona.” (Still quoting from the catalogue.)
‘TAPIES’ MEANS ‘WALL’
Tapies, which is his real surname, not a nom de plume, actually means ‘wall’ in Catalan. The artist often aimed to transform his canvasses into walls.
HIGHLY INTUITIVE, ENIGMATIC IMAGES AT ANTONI TAPIES, ALCHEMY, NAHMAD PROJECTS
In their obituary for the great man, The Guardian noted, that his “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.”
Alchemy spans the whole period during which the artist had fully developed the style that he is known for today. Roughly the period from 1960 onwards. Five decades.
ONE EXCEPTION AT ANTONI TAPIES, ALCHEMY, NAHMAD PROJECTS
There is one exception to the time frame. The very first work of the exhibition, right where you enter the small gallery (to your left). ‘Head of a Woman’ was created in 1952.
‘HEAD OF A WOMAN’ AND ‘COLOR APILLERA I FILFERROS’ (PIECES 1 & 2)
To ‘Head of a Woman’s right, you find ‘Color Apillera i Filferros’ (Burlap and Wires) from twenty years later, 1972. During the Chilean dictatorship, women sewed scenes of torture and other government crimes onto the bottoms of burlaps to spread the news and to fire up the resistance. The bags (or rather the artworks on the bags) were then sold abroad and the revenue went back to the resistance. We learn that the wires are a direct reference to Christ’s blood-soaked crown of thorns.
‘AZUL I GAFAS’ – MY FAVOURITE PIECE (11) OF THE EXHIBITION AT ANTONI TAPIES, ALCHEMY, NAHMAD PROJECTS
Around the corner to our left, we pass by ‘Circulos’ (1979) and ‘XIII’ (2005), to reach a piece, that I found easy on the eye: ‘Azul i Gafas’ (‘Blue and Glasses’, 1966). It is a giant set of blue-tinted glasses and has a lovely, pop-artsy touch to it. The last two decades of the artist’s work, which almost half the exhibits stem from, just don’t throw the same punch.
YOU GET WHAT IT SAYS ON THE TIN (PIECES 10 & 9)
‘Mancha Negra i Flechas’ (‘Black Spot and Arrows’, 1978) is literally what it says, plus a red horizontal line. Not really for me. ‘Handkerchief and Colours’ (1975) similarly excels in having a very descriptive title and being hard on the eye. Yes, despite being from the ‘right’ period, I know. No one produces masterpieces on a conveyor belt, not even the master himself.
SURPRISINGLY TOLERABLE (8)
Next up, ‘Escuma i Fustes’ (‘Foam and Wood’, 1986) is surprisingly tolerable, optically, despite the use of upholstery foam, a material not usually associated with aesthetic grandeur.
ALLURINGLY POP-ARTSY (7)
The last work on this wall, ‘Marro amb signe negre (2nd version)’ (‘Brown with Black Sign’, 1963-1990), again, manages to be alluringly pop-artsy. Not a winner, but equally, not a loser either.
“If one draws things in a manner which provides only the barest clue to their meaning, the viewer is forced to fill in the gaps by using his own imagination. He is compelled to participate in the creative act, which I consider very important.” Antoni Tàpies
MATTERS AND NEWSPAPERS (6) AT ANTONI TAPIES, ALCHEMY, NAHMAD PROJECTS
‘Materi i Diaris’ (‘Matters and Newspapers’, 2009), created almost another forty years later, is made of sand-covered canvas, superimposed with scattered newspaper sheets and etchings. From the catalogue, we learn that “the paper pieces, creased and humid, seem to be on the verge of disintegration. Their wet, partial discolouration transfers the impression of powerful natural forces moving through them. Rather than an abstract juxtaposition of forms, the work resembles a litter, blown by winds across a sandy coastline, turning the canvas into a sombre landscape.”
THIN LINE BETWEEN ACCIDENT AND INTENTION
Moreover, the catalogue informs us that “Tapies has long been known as a master of balancing the thin line between accident and intention. In fact, once we move closer to the canvas, what at first looked like a riotous mess of news fragments filled with market forecasts, cinema screening showtimes, and racing scores, begins to make way for a meticulous design. As time shows, and meditation settles, one obituary after another comes forth. Fittingly, the headings of several of these death notices contain a recurring symbol in the artist’s oeuvre: the cross.”
CYCLE OF LIFE, DECAY
Created just three years before the great man’s death, the piece is a meditation on the cycle of life. It investigates the process of decay of objects, the artist’s own body, the earth, and the passage of time, one grain of sand at a time.
“If I can’t change the world, at least I want to change the way people look at it.” Antoni Tàpies
MORE DECAY AND DECEASE (5)
When we continue our stroll around the gallery, ‘Jo parlo amb la mà’ (‘I speak with my hand’, 1999) greets us. The same metaphor. Awaiting impending death.
MORE USEFUL TITLES (4 & 3)
We pass by ‘Aixeta (Tap)’ (2003) and ‘Ovals i Objectes’ (2000), both works carrying very useful titles, on our way out.
Re-reading my review, I’m coming to the conclusion that I sound way too negative. For 35 years or so, I’ve had a bit of a love affair with Tapies. I guess I was expecting to be totally blown away by this exhibition. And I was not. That said, it is still an intellectually & visually stimulating, unexpected, and interesting exhibition. If you are into art and you are in London, chances are you’ll end up in or very near Cork Street sooner or later anyhow, so by all means, ring the bell at Nahmad’s. 4 out of 5 in my book.
Looking for more fun stuff to do in London? Check out my posts about Frieze London 2022, Frieze Sculpture 2022, Sculpture In The City 2022, Frameless, the immersive art experience, and Henry Moore Studios and Gardens.