Five months after his death, a surprising exhibition brings back Tàpies in his most potent and corrosive form. In the last period of his life, the artist openly explored carnality, moving somewhere between the pornographic — in the noblest sense of the term — and the scatological. It was as though the omen of an imminent end had freed him from his bonds. The artist’s foundation in Barcelona now presents Antoni Tàpies. Cabeza brazos piernas cuerpo (Antoni Tàpies. Head arms legs body), which comprises 74 works from his final productive period, between 1999 and 2011. In other words, the show addresses his 21st-century work.
Many of the artworks are on display for the first time and belong to private collectors from all over the world who loaned them out for the occasion. Others still belong to the family. The show was curated by foundation director Laurence Rassel and by Miquel Tàpies, son of the artist and chairman of the foundation until last year. For Rassel, one of the goals of the exhibition is to offer a renewed vision of the artist and to underscore that Tàpies is not just a modern painter, but also a thoroughgoing contemporary artist who extends into the 21st century.
Where did Tàpies, best known for his abstract expressionism, get this obsession with the human body? “It was always there, from the first drawings like Self-Portrait from 1945 to his last works,” Rassel replies. “The human condition, philosophy, politics... everything passes through the body.”
But his son Miquel has a more mundane explanation. “It was when he realized how difficult it had become for him to put his socks on,” he suggests. “This banal realization may have triggered a process that made him return to the human body, to the human condition.”
Also, adds Miquel Tàpies, representing body fragments was a way to relieve his pain, in a kind of exorcism that is also present in Louise Bourgeois. “But this is not an exhibition of the erotic Tàpies,” he notes. “This is about the body, even though eroticism is a part of it.”
The exhibition focuses on Tàpies’ production beginning in 1998, when he had a show called El tatuaje y el cuerpo (The tattoo and the body). The first series is called Látex and comprises paintings made with this “living material that changes color and varies with time,” according to Rassel. “It marks a return to the intimacy of drawings and fragments.” There are feet and socks, penises and semen — ordinary everyday objects that take on an odd identity of their own.
Antoni Tàpies. Cabeza brazos piernas cuerpo takes up all three floors of the foundation. The drawings are in the basement; the ground floor holds large wooden pieces that are standing rather than hanging, in such a way that visitors measure themselves against them, as though they were sculptures. The likenesses of heads, feet, torsos, legs, arms and genitals strewn about the bright room are striking to contemplate. They are material masses that force viewers to become aware of their own body and perhaps even have the kind of “sensorial experience” that the curators envisage.
Rassel quotes the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty to illustrate that matter is an extension of oneself, a fact that Tàpies always understood. “The thickness of the body [is] the only medium I have to reach the heart of things, to turn myself into the world and turn things into flesh,” Merleau-Ponty wrote.
Tàpies used anything that was handy: there are genitals made with the bristles of a hairbrush, black thread forming the armpits on a torso whose relief seems to want to occupy the entire room; two different legs with the underwear around one of the ankles...
The first floor contains some of the most powerful items in the show, like the violent, unsettling Composición y cuerda (Composition and rope), from 1999. This piece, now owned by a New York art collector, explores pornography, death and the scatological realm. These artworks are the most recent and the most radical in the Catalan’s production. Piernas y diario (Legs and newspaper), from 2005, is openly scatological, as is Piernas sobre madera (Legs on wood), made that same year. Cuerpo y bastón, also from 2005, introduces extreme sadism into his work. The show ends with Lobo (Wolf) and Dos formas (Two Shapes), both from 2011, the year before his death at the age of 88.
“Everything passes through the body and without it we cannot see, read or talk,” says Rassel, who describes this as a living exhibition where “death vibrates as part of the human condition, which is why it is also reflected in it.” But perhaps it was the artist himself who best described his own intentions in a book, Reality as art: “The suggestion of man is something I want to do indirectly, through traces or fragments of the human body, through signs.”
Antoni Tàpies. Cabeza brazos piernas cuerpo. Until November 4 at Fundación Antoni Tàpies, C/ Aragó 255, Barcelona. www.fundaciontapies.org