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Tapies at the MCA Chicago

Antoni Tapies
Tapies at the MCA Chicago, a set on Flickr.
I went to the Chicago MCA last Friday for a press preview of the new show by Theaster Gates. After I'd finished there, I walked into the galleries devoted to the show Destroy the Picture, and a heavily textured, brooding painting caught my eye. Was it a painting by Antoni Tapies? Yes it was, and it was accompanied by four others, all of them from the late 1950s, when he was in the first headlong charge of his career (when his work, in other words, was at its peak.) I haven't seen this many paintings by the Catalan master since I lived in Barcelona, over 18 years ago. So I sat on the bench in the gallery, and lost myself for a while in the dense surfaces of these strange pieces of art.


Before I moved to Barcelona, I had only vaguely heard of Tapies, but once there it was difficult to avoid him. He is revered in Barcelona because of his opposition to the fascist regime of General Franco, and for his support of Catalan nationalism and identity, both of which were ruthlessly suppressed by the dictator. It's been said that the look of these paintings was derived from the walls of the buildings in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, which Tapies used as his own wall on which to scrawl his obscure marks and not-quite-words. I read a series of interviews with him once in which he said that his process is also influenced by asian philosophy, but for better or worse he is claimed in Catalonia as one of their own, an enemy of fascism and a friend of the common man. That's why you could walk into the shabbiest bar, with dirty floors and neon lights, and see a framed reproduction of a Tapies painting on the wall. You could also see his sculptures installed in public spaces, and if (like me) you wanted more, you could visit the Museu Tapies, on the Carrer d'Arago. As a student at the time, I obtained a visitor's card to the museum's library, in which I was very often alone among the stacks of giant art books, staring down through the glass wall that overlooked the museum at the larger-scale paintings from the 1980s and 1990s. I didn't like all of his work, but I was experimenting a lot in my studio when I was in Barcelona (that's where I did my Fine Art grad program), so it was easy to feel an affinity with Tapies' free handling of matter.

From the preceding paragraph it's obvious that my own biographical connection to Barcelona accounts in part for my fondness for Tapies. But I do love these paintings for themselves, as it were - for the surfaces that I find beautiful, and for the intimations of bodily presence and ghostly signs that emerge gradually, and only after prolonged looking. 

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