‘Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is’
‘Far from the cliché that people have formed of the artist, with all its onus of originality, personality, style, etc., that allows the work to speak in the outside world, for the author there is, above all, a core of more anonymous thought, of collective thought, of which he is no more than the modest servant. This is surely the area where the wisdom that understands all the ideologies and fateful contingencies of the world must be stored’
Included in the 1964 Pittsburgh International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture at the Carnegie Institute, Arquitectura (1963) is replete with Antoni Tàpies’ distinctive mural magic. Wrought from a scarred, carved and stained compound of oil and sand on canvas, this richly textural object speaks a narrative of time physically recorded on its wall-like skin: the passage of the elements, people, human bodies and lives. A rough quadrilateral of sandy hue, like the ghost of a structure once affixed there, dominates the pitch-dark surface. A long, sharp diagonal mark cuts through its centre. Deep pockmarks are scored and scattered as if from a shrapnel blast. A haze of watery paler pigment, reminiscent of old whitewash or of dust kicked up from the ground, churns across the composition’s lower half, whose texture recalls peeling paint, mottled plaster or cracked hide. Tàpies’ characteristic cruciform ‘T’ glyph is incised to the left, like a graffiti tag or the X marking treasure on a map. Rather than representing on a pictorial surface, Tàpies replaces that surface itself with solid material fact: a wall, taken as a site of incision, inscription and revelation. Like the mythic scrawl of Cy Twombly, Tàpies’ mark-making gestures to layers of history and thought through its intense physicality. The work is a meditative, reliquary zone, its earthbound surface carrying the aura of some antique architectural fragment or archaeological site. This large-scale work is also a visceral reflection of the violence of the Civil War and Catalan nationalist conflicts inscribed on the Spanish streets where Tàpies grew up. The ancient walls of Barcelona, cratered and bloodied by war, were analogues of a wrecked and disfigured civilisation. Conjuring beauty from the dust and rubble, Tàpies forged a new, elemental conception of reality in his works, offering a vision of hope and healing for postwar Europe. Not unlike the torn, stitched and burnt compositions of Alberto Burri, Tàpies’ art acknowledges society’s lesions and scars while making an inspirational case for creation coming from destruction – a vital, redemptive message in the brutal Francoist years of 1960s Spain. As the critic John Russell wrote in 1969, his works seem ‘to have been not so much painted as excavated from an idiosyncratic compound of mud, sand, earth, dried blood and powdered minerals’ (J. Russell, quoted in W. Grimes, ‘Antoni Tàpies, Spanish Abstract Painter, Dies at 88,’ The New York Times, 6 February 2012). Enthralling, primal and enigmatic, Arquitectura is a surface alive with potential. Its refined fusion of medium and message stands testament not only to Tàpies’ metaphysical mastery, but also to his urgent, deeply felt humanism.
Tàpies, whose own surname means ‘walls’ in his native Catalan, was fascinated by the endless prospects of the wall as a vehicle for expression. ‘How many suggestions can be derived from the image of the wall and all its possible permutations!’ he enthused in 1969. ‘Separation, cloistering, the wailing wall, prison, witness to the passing of time; smooth surfaces, serene and white; tortured surfaces, old and decrepit; signs of human imprints, objects, natural elements; a sense of struggle, of effort; of destruction, cataclysm; or of construction, re-emergence, equilibrium; traces of love, pain, disgust, disorder; the romantic prestige of ruins …’ (A. Tàpies, ‘Communication on the Wall’, 1969, in Antoni Tàpies. In Perspective, Barcelona 2005, p. 79). In the compelling composition of Arquitectura, all this dynamism, all the life and passion and inexorable motion of history, is contained. From its tarry ripples and cruel incisions to its sediments of lyrical colour, this lacerated wall seems not inanimate but flesh and blood. Its pitted flashes of reddish hue evoke a body of pain and vitality, capturing the spirit of a hurt but living Spain.
Tàpies’ works differ from real walls in one crucial aspect: where a wall out in the real world continues to record the marks of time on its surface as the years go by, Tàpies’ creations effectively make time stand still, accruing no further scarring after their execution. They are removed from the continuum of their implied history, preserved forever in the museum, gallery or collection environment. Yet rather than enshrining a precious personal vision in these objects, Tàpies saw himself, in recreating and transforming the surfaces which govern our everyday existence, as unlocking a compound truth at the heart of human experience. ‘Far from the cliché that people have formed of the artist,’ he wrote, ‘with all its onus of originality, personality, style, etc., that allows the work to speak in the outside world, for the author there is, above all, a core of more anonymous thought, of collective thought, of which he is no more than the modest servant. This is surely the area where the wisdom that understands all the ideologies and fateful contingencies of the world must be stored’ (A. Tàpies, ‘Communication on the Wall’, 1969, in Antoni Tàpies. In Perspective, Barcelona 2005, p. 80). It is in this radical sense of the communal condition, of rising above the self to further something greater than the individual, that Arquitectura finds its meaning, its beauty, and, ultimately, its emotional resonance. Tàpies wrests dignity from trauma and splendour from rough matter like a shaman. Arquitectura eloquently expresses his transcendent mythos of rebuilding, reuse and transformation: this living wall represents the construction of a new architecture of art, a new way of seeing, to heal Spain and the world.