TWENTIETH CENTURY MASTERWORKS FROM THE COLLECTION OF ANTONI TÀPIES
Christie’s is honoured to present a selection of Twentieth Century Masterworks from the personal collection of Antoni Tàpies. Offered across a series of auctions throughout 2017 and 2018, these exceptional works offer a unique insight into the powerful bond that existed between this revolutionary artist and the paintings, sculptures and artefacts he encountered over the course of his lifetime. Highly intimate objects, gathered together over the course of his meandering collecting journey, these objects were closely connected to Tàpies’s own artistic practice and reflect the seminal relationships, friendships and concepts that inspired him throughout his artistic career. Each work in the collection stands as a testament to the critical, perceptive and engaged way of looking that Tàpies was renowned for, and the passion he had for the works of his artistic and cultural forebears.
Gathering together artworks and objects apparently epochs and cultures apart, Tàpies collected passionately, but in a unique and idiosyncratic manner. An avid reader of ancient and Eastern philosophy, he held a deep fascination for the concept of ‘authentic reality’, a state of awakening which could be triggered by contact with a piece of art. As his son, Toni has explained: ‘For Tàpies, an artwork had to be like a talisman. A talisman capable of transmitting wisdom, thought and answers to the deepest doubts and concerns that may face a human being’ (Toni Tàpies, ‘A Personal View’ in Tàpies: Lo Sguardo Dell’Artista, exh. cat. Venice, 2013, p. 27). It was this energy, the unique spirit of an artwork, that Tàpies sought in all he collected. It was a power which obsessed him, which he attempted to absorb, to digest and nurture, to combine with his own artistic vision, and finally, to translate into the gestures, strokes and marks he put down on his canvases. Each of these carefully selected works of art, chosen for their visual and spiritual presence, provided Tàpies with a personal library of visual stimuli, which acted as a catalyst for his own creative impulses and shaped and influenced his art throughout his career. The importance of these artworks in Tàpies’s everyday experience is evident – these are the images and shapes which captured his imagination, comforted him, inspired him and obsessed him on a daily basis. Each of these artworks provided essential nourishment for Tàpies’s creativity, opening a path for his artistic evolution and pushing his work to new levels of dynamic expression.
‘Some of his richest colour orchestrations appear in a number of works on paper from these years ... With their dense, unmodulated surface, they do not flicker with the atmospheric light of the classic paintings; rather, they generate a strong, constant glow. In these works, Rothko seemed to be searching for ways to bring more light into his paintings’
‘The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer’
Shimmering in radiant solar bands, Untitled (Orange and Yellow) is luminous vision dating from Mark Rothko’s celebrated final period. Fine layers of yellow and orange pigment demarcate three powerful zones of colour, backlit by the vast, pale surface beneath and enshrined in a trembling border. Executed in 1969, the year before the artist’s death, it belongs to the remarkable series of large scale works on paper that number among his last and most poetic achievements. Rekindling the spirit of the artist’s early watercolours, these vivid, light-infused compositions represent a cathartic new direction following the completion of the fourteen monumental murals that adorn the Houston chapel. After suffering an aneurysm of the aorta in May 1968, Rothko had initially been instructed by his doctors to restrict himself to works under 40 inches in height. Not unlike Matisse, who devoted his final years to paper cut-outs so that he could continue to work in spite of his ailing health, Rothko began to work almost exclusively on paper, relishing the creative freedom afforded by the fast-drying medium of acrylic. By the time of the present work, the artist had returned to the larger format of his canvas paintings, yet continued to explore the rich possibilities of these media. ‘Some of his richest colour orchestrations appear in a number of works on paper from these years’, writes Bonnie Clearwater. ‘...With their dense, unmodulated surface, they do not flicker with the atmospheric light of the classic paintings; rather, they generate a strong, constant glow. In these works, Rothko seemed to be searching for ways to bring more light into his paintings’ (B. Clearwater, The Rothko Book, London 2006, p. 166). With its ethereal, translucent chromatic fields, Untitled (Orange and Yellow) is an exquisite example of this extraordinary body of work.
In spite of his weakened health, Rothko worked almost every day during the final year of his life. As his assistant Oliver Steindecker recalls, the artist would already be immersed in painting when he arrived at the studio in the morning. At Rothko’s instruction, Steindecker would cut approximately twenty sheets of paper from a large roll, which he dampened and stretched. He then attached them – initially with staples, and later with masking tape – to easels positioned around the room, many of which were the original wooden walls that had been built for the chapel commission. Moving quickly, Rothko channelled every last ounce of his remaining physical energy into his work, building layers of colour on up to fifteen paintings at a time. The instantly-discernable effect of acrylic, compared to the slow-drying properties of oil, allowed him to make intuitive judgements about colour and form. With his personal life in disarray, following the departure of his wife, Rothko’s art became the sole focus of his existence. As Dore Ashton – one of very few critics whom Rothko respected – recalled of a visit she made to his studio in the spring of 1969, the artist was immensely proud of his recent work. ‘He named the exact number with pride, as though to say, “with all my trouble, I was able to do this”’, she recounted. ‘Many are very haunting … I see them as consequent to the murals’ (D. Ashton, quoted in J. E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko; A Biography, Chicago 1993, p. 511).
‘The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point’, Rothko had written in a 1943 letter to The New York Times, ‘will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer’ (M. Rothko, quoted in D. Anfam, Mark Rothko, The Works on Canvas, Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London 1998, p. 10). Having been forced to re-evaluate his technique at close range following his illness, Rothko’s final works on paper mark the realisation of this ambition. Whilst many of his paintings from this late period adopted a sombre palette of black, grey and brown, the present work exemplifies the vibrant colour combinations that accompanied his dark-toned canvases. Jeffrey Weiss has observed that many of these works share a palette and pictorial structure with Alberto Giacometti’s paintings, exhibited at Sidney Janis Gallery in late 1968, which Rothko is believed to have seen. Ultimately, however, the resonant tones of orange and yellow that saturates the present work demonstrates that, despite his diminished physical capabilities, Rothko continued to conceive of his art as a vehicle for the sublime. The colours vibrate with the same intensity as his large-scale canvases, forming a reverberant triadic chord that resounds with all the chromatic depth of a tolling bell. Compressed together, the blurred edges of each band create a homogenous and cohesive material entity. The matt qualities of the acrylic paint serve to ground the quivering strata of pigment, creating an image of physical permanence in the face of transcendence.