Soon after Spain’s most famous artist died, El Periódico, a newspaper in his native city of Barcelona, published a spread with a plaintive headline: “No One Like Tàpies.”
Antoni Tàpies, 88, was a local hero who rose to international prominence by bringing Great Spanish Painting into the postwar era. His metaphysical abstractions are infused with the legacy of his modernist forebears, Picasso and Miró—along with medieval Catalan mysticism, Eastern spirituality, anti-fascist sentiment, and an assortment of humble materials, like dirt and straw, imbued, as his champion Roland Penrose put it, with “a profound hidden meaning.”
Admired for his pro-democracy stance during the Franco era, when many other artists were in exile, Tàpies grew into an éminence grise, a public and much-published intellectual who built a foundation to share not only his own work but also his fascination with other cultures and disciplines. “From the time I was very young, I felt like a missionary,” the artist told me in his home in 1990, surrounded by art objects from Africa, Oceania, and other parts of the world. “It’s always the story that poets are something of the loco, hero, priest, teacher.”
Tàpies was largely self-taught. Born into a middle-class family in 1923, he began drawing during a long illness in 1942–43 and reading voraciously in such fields as physics, Zen Buddhism, and Taoism, which would strongly influence his art. By the time his dreamlike, fanciful works, influenced by Miró and Klee, were featured in his first New York show, at Martha Jackson Gallery, in 1953, he had developed the components of his mature style. His paintings, using ground marble dust, chalk powder, household objects, even garbage, with names and words scribbled like graffiti, were at once urgent and transcendental. They shared a gritty gesturalism with Art Informel; a found-object poetry with arte povera. But the meaning of the pail, plate, or burlap bag he attached to his canvases, or the crosses he often scratched into them, remained obscure, as if, as his friend and mutual admirer Robert Motherwell told me, they were not “nameable objects but a state of mind.”
If Motherwell, Kline, and Burri are often cited as his kindred spirits, Polke, Kiefer, and even Beuys are considered in his debt. “There’s an alchemical side to what he was doing,” says Orange County Museum of Art chief curator Dan Cameron. “Later artists like Kounellis found it very useful.” In his own country, the list is a bit thinner, a result of the giant shadow the artist cast on the local art scene, where he is often regarded less as mentor than as father figure to rebel against (particularly by Conceptual artists, whose practice he mocked early on).
Asking artists and curators who they thought could fill his shoes as artist or as icon, El Periódico came up empty. “He was the last of a kind,” says Manuel Borja-Villel, founding director of the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona, who now runs the Reina Sofía in Madrid. “Tàpies was a bridge between the historical avant-garde and the younger generation. He wasn’t modern anymore, and not postmodern. That makes him very interesting. You cannot understand Spanish art and culture without his presence.”
In his global interests, he was way ahead of his time, and his foundation plans to continue its mission: to advance “dialogue with other cultures, other disciplines, other artists’ work,” says director Laurence Rassel. In June it will open a show of Tàpies’s work from the last 12 years related to themes of the body and mortality. Already in the planning stage before his death, the exhibition is being coorganized by Rassel with the artist’s son Miguel, who recently stepped down as president of the foundation’s board; he remains a trustee along with his mother, Teresa, and his siblings, Clara, a doctor, and Toni, a gallerist, who represents Tàpies in Barcelona. (His other dealers are Soledad Lorenzo in Madrid, Waddington in London, Lelong in Paris, and Pace in New York.) A retrospective, curated by former Tate Modern director Vicente Todolí, of work from the artist’s own holdings is scheduled for next year.
In the United States, meanwhile, despite several major museum shows in recent years, Tàpies remains relatively unknown. Borja-Villel, who curated a show of his early work at the Dia Art Foundation in New York three years ago, hopes future scholarship will change that. “His art needs to be reevaluated,” Borja-Villel comments. “He needs to find his place in history.”
Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.