"I go hunting for souls, not the masses"

Antoni Tàpies leaves behind him a great legacy as a leader of European informalism

Antoni Tàpies was one of the most important artists on a global scale from the 1950s, when he adopted the language of informalism, soon standing out as one of the best European representatives of this movement. But unlike other artists who then drew similar acclaim, Tàpies did not lose his creative forcefulness over time and the passing of trends. On the contrary, he was able to continually evolve without making any artistic concessions.

Born in Barcelona in 1923 to a bourgeois family from Catalonia - his father was a lawyer and his maternal grandparents were nationalist politicians - he inherited a passion for books that made him a first-rate intellectual, art theorist and collector besides a major artist. In 2010, King Juan Carlos named him Marquis of Tàpies.

"It is a great compliment to know that there are people who love me, and even artists who follow me," he told EL PAÍS in an extensive interview in 2004. "And all over the world, too. They have come to visit me and almost pay reverence to me. Not long ago I was visited by an artist from India who said he adored me, that I was his guru, and added that the first thing one must do with gurus is to touch their feet. And he crouched and touched mine. This is a great compliment. Another time there was a girl from Bali. And I won't even mention all the visits from Japan, Germany and the United States."

Despite his fame, Tàpies spent his life almost as a recluse inside his workshop, where he continued to produce striking works until the end, despite serious health problems. In 2004 he confessed that he was going blind and deaf.

Tàpies' work is defined by rough surfaces, tears and rips, cracks, crosses, numbers and other signs belonging to his own personal mythology. His brushstroke is enigmatic, his will intricate, but his style is unmistakable. He was highly influenced by Oriental spirituality and most especially Zen Buddhism. The contrast between this mystical, universal drive and his fondness for the mundane made him a unique artist. Few other artists of his stature would be able to find the intimate poetry in a vulgar sock. Tàpies was able to sublimate a shoe or an armpit hair embedded in a painting.

He had earned all the major Spanish and international awards that the art world has to offer. He had exhibited work since the 1940s and was a co-founder of the Dau al Set art movement. He was influenced by Picasso and Miró, but soon embarked on a very personal journey in parallel with his interest in spirituality.

"I go hunting for souls, not for the masses," he told EL PAÍS in 2004. "I don't think it is possible to convince the masses. People have to convince themselves. When I work, what I do is to set out the mechanisms so that people will produce a change in the way they think and go down the right path. But all I do is point the way. Nothing else. In reality, it is very modest work."

Tàpies only became Tàpies after he visited Paris in 1950 and fell in love with French abstract painting. Using the new language of informalism - Europe's answer to American abstract expressionism - he was able to incorporate a few traits from the traditional Spanish school of painting, especially the tortured sensuality and the use of texture that were features of another great Mediterranean painter, the 17th-century José de Ribera. Tàpies explored very diverse artistic worlds such as painting, collage, sculpture and all the possibilities of work with objects.

Out of each successive moment in the anxious experimentation that defines contemporary art, he was able to extract the elements that best suited his own personality. Without ever losing his prodigious tactile perception of matter, nor his elegant calligraphy, much less his ductile and poetic ability with signs, Tàpies crossed the conventional barriers of the canvas and created objects full of a magic that was not incompatible with his down-to-earth, humble nature.

On one hand, Tàpies brought us the best of Spanish art's historical memory, and on the other, he not only projected his experimental drive, but also leapt above civilizations, becoming one of the artists who has conducted the deepest dialogue with Eastern cultures. He was able to explore the mysteries of earthly matter, manipulating organic material of all types, yet he was also adept at transparencies and the airy sheen of varnish.

Tàpies' art brings together East and West, the particular and the universal, science and mysticism, the vulgar and the sublime. A Renaissance man in the most grandiose definition of the term, he leaves behind the smoking spiral of a heavenly body, a great scar, a crack in the shuddering surface of contemporary art.

The wake for Antoni Tàpies was held on Tuesday at the funeral home of Sant Gervasi, which only close friends and relatives attended at the family's request. Meanwhile, lovers of his art stood in line outside his foundation in Barcelona to pay their respects.

Antoni Tàpies in 2006, at an exhibition of his work at Madrid's Soledad Lorenzo gallery.
Antoni Tàpies in 2006, at an exhibition of his work at Madrid's Soledad Lorenzo gallery.RICARDO GUTIÉRREZ
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