Antoni Tàpies, 1923-2012


One of the giants of the postwar European avant-garde, Antoni Tàpies died at his home in Barcelona on Feb. 6, after a long illness. He was 88. Best known for his richly textured paintings in a muted palette, he frequently used unorthodox materials such as sand and rope and incorporated in his compositions graffitilike markings as well as found objects. In his most successful efforts, Tàpies merged the somber colors and austere, epic vision associated with Spanish masters such as Zurbarán and Goya with the raucous egalitarian approach of contemporary movements like Arte Povera and the Zero Group, with which he was associated for a time in the early 1960s. A keen student of non-Western art, and especially Asian art and philosophy, Tàpies made precise, Zen-like gestures, aiming for a meditative quality in his work.

Born in Barcelona, he intended to follow his father’s footsteps into law but his studies were disrupted by the tumult of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). Tàpies’s father was an advisor to the provisional Republican government of Catalonia, and after the Republican defeat, the Tàpies family remained staunchly opposed to the Franco regime. As a teenager, in 1940, Tàpies was stricken by tuberculosis and forced to leave school. He convalesced for two years in a mountain retreat. There, his attention turned increasingly to philosophy, poetry and art. He resumed law studies after he recovered, but within a few years, dropped out to pursue art full time.

The poet Joan Prats introduced Tàpies to Miró, and Tàpies’s earliest paintings reflect the latter’s influence as well as that of other Surrealists. In 1948, Tàpies began to show his work, exhibiting with a coterie of artists and writers called Dau al Set (Seven-Faced Dice), which garnered significant local attention for bold, experimental work. During the early 1950s, his output moved away from the Surrealist imagery of his so-called “magic” paintings of the late 1940s, toward highly textured pure abstraction, latter called tachiste or matter painting. These works were the first to attract significant international notice.

Within a few years, Tàpies’s career blossomed. In 1952, a number of his pieces were included in the Venice Biennale as well as the Carnegie International. The following year, he won a major prize at the Bienal de São Paulo, and the same year established gallery representation with Martha Jackson in New York, and Galerie Stadler and Galerie Maeght in Paris, where he showed throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Later, he exhibited with Lelong in New York and Paris, eventually moving in the early 1990s to New York’s Pace Gallery, which continues to represent the artist.

Tàpies has been honored with a number of museum surveys, including a 1973–74 show that toured Europe, and a retrospective organized by the Albright-Knox Gallery, which traveled the U.S. in 1977. New York’s Guggenheim Museum mounted a career survey in 1995, and, more recently, another was presented at Dia:Beacon in 2009. Tàpies has written extensively throughout his career, and the Indiana University Press has embarked on publishing English translations of his complete writings, the second volume of which, Antoni Tàpies: Collected Essays, appeared last year.

Tàpies resided in Barcelona and on the outskirts of the city for his entire life. In 1984, he established the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona, a repository of his archives and over 2,000 of his works. The foundation opened in 1990 a library and public exhibition space, which has become one of the region’s most important contemporary art venues. In 2010, in recognition of his lifetime achievement, Spain’s King Juan Carlos bestowed on the artist the title of Marqués de Tàpies.

Photo by Jordi Belver, courtesy of The Pace Gallery.