What Painting Might Do: Antoni Tàpies at Nahmad Contemporary
Antoni Tàpies: Paintings, 1970-2003 at Nahmad Contemporary
March 20 to April 22, 2017
980 Madison Avenue, between 76th and 77th Streets
New York City, nahmadcontemporary.com
Though this exhibition of the Spanish artist Antoni Tàpies (1924 – 2012) spanning a thirty-year period of his career presents what seem to be ten randomly selected works: Neither a representative overview of his output, nor a chronology of his work’s development, the exhibition instead provokes close readings of individual works, and of the material and philosophical variations among them.
Noticeably excluded are the classic years of the 1950s – ’70s, a period during which Tàpies’s works negotiated the cultural abyss that World War II left in its wake. Those materially brutal works expressed both his experiences during the Spanish Civil War, and the postwar urban landscape. Bridging the ethos of the French Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism, works from that period are splattered with paint, inscribed with gestural marks, and incorporate found materials and objects.
My first impression was that this exhibition indicates how, by the ’70s, Tàpies’s primitivism and ferocity had been tamed: the tactility of his work had become refined, and his vocabulary of signs and symbols made more accessible. His use of found objects and low materials no longer represented a challenge to painting’s conventions—instead his use of household materials such as the gray woolen blanket that provides the ground for Black Mark and Arrows (1978) is formalist, and the earthy substance and water faucet in Aixeta (2003) appears marked by a faux naïveté. Gone is the correspondence between Tàpies’s work and the early neo-Dadaist works of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, which had made Tàpies of interest to painters in the 1980s, such as Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Yet, all is not lost. There is something here, which might have gone unnoticed if this show consisted of more classic works or were more tightly curated. Given this selection, it appears that by the ’70s, Tàpies was no longer seeking existential agony and beauty in the abject. This less familiar Tàpies seems to be engaged in the more Postmodern project of questioning: what does painting do, what might painting have the capacity to record? This doubtfulness is suggested by the slowness of these works. The gestural marks are no longer abrupt or spontaneous; instead they depict images. Their materiality is now a formal device as well as a sign. Subsequently, the effect of this is something akin to what happens in later works by Francis Bacon and Robert Motherwell—artists who, like Tàpies, had used gesture, earlier in their careers, to communicate urgency, intuitiveness, and intensity.
The earliest painting in the show, Door-Wall (1970), is almost a tabula rasa—a stripped-down version of his signature “matter paintings” from the ’50s. Unlike those, this one consists of a thin, lightly textured, beige rectangle made of paint mixed with sand and glue. Its edges are irregular and convey a sense that they might crumble at any moment. Anchored to the bottom edge, the rectangle is bound on three sides by a raw canvas border, its bottom edge also bearing a series of what might be read as scuff marks or fingerprints. Within the margins there are scratchy pencil lines that simultaneously re-enforce the door-ness of the image, and its provisionality.
There are two ways to read Door-Wall: literally, or as a metaphor—an image designed to call something else to mind. In contrast, Composition (1972) presents little to no ambiguity. It literally appears to be what it is: a composition consisting of a burlap weaving mounted slightly askew on a piece of dark cloth. Within the textured surface of the burlap is another composition, tripartite in structure. Its upper half is a tight, patterned weave; the lower half a looser, irregular weave, with fringe along the bottom edge. On either side of the burlap rectangle are bundles of twisted galvanized wire, individual strands of which are woven horizontally into the burlap. Of course we can read Composition as an illustration of figure-ground relationships, and as such, an analogy for painting itself. It has all the elements: line, surface, form… but, unlike in Door-Wall, these elements are presented without being indexical.
The painting Black Mark and Arrows (1978) seems to further elaborate Tàpies’s self-referentiality and formalist strategy. These concerns order three later painting as well: To Painting (1989), Base-Matter (1995), and Four Stripes (1998. The other works in the exhibition are more varied; there are two assemblages that include found objects and four late works from the early 2000s, which are image-based: a still-life, a landscape, and two paintings representing hands. Some of these latter works include written words as well.
From the diversity of works included in Paintings, 1970 – 2003, I conclude that over these thirty years, Tàpies became concerned with painting as a realm of representation. By alternating between the symbolic and formal, the works call attention to the artist’s evolving understanding of painting as both thing and analogy; and his appreciation over time of painting’s artificiality and theatrics, as well as its potential authenticity.