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Antoni Tàpies, Farcell (Bundle), 1970. Paint on object-assemblage, 75 x 55 x 45 cm. Private collection, Barcelona © Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona /VEGAP, Bilbao, 2013. Source of the images: VEGAP Image Bank.

BILBAO.- To commemorate the first anniversary of the artist's death, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao presents Antoni Tàpies . From Object to Sculpture (1964–2009), the first comprehensive, in-depth survey of a fascinating facet of an artist who marked the second half of the 20th century. 

Sponsored by Iberdrola, the exhibition features nearly one hundred works spanning the Tàpies’s sculpture production spanning almost five decades: from the early objects and assemblages of the 1960s and 70s, to his more recent fire-clay and bronze pieces, including the last sculpture signed by the artist in 2009. 

Objects and sculptures were central to Antoni Tàpies's artistic development and featured heavily throughout his career, constituting a unique and autonomous body of work. According to exhibition curator Álvaro Rodríguez Fominaya, the exhibition “reveals Tàpies's lifelong preoccupation with the sculptural problem and for the first time brings his sculpture face-to-face with itself.” 

Organized both thematically and chronologically on the Museum's second floor, the exhibition features works in a range of dimensions, from the monumental to the small. By examining the chronological continuity, themes, materials, and mediums used by the artist, viewers are offered insight into the oeuvre of Antoni Tàpies—from his idea of the wall to re-creations of commonplace objects such as chairs, beds, skulls, and books. 

Antoni Tàpies. From Object to Sculpture (1964–2009) is the fourth Guggenheim exhibition dedicated to the work of one of Spain's most international artists. The first was a major retrospective curated by Lawrence Alloway at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1962; the next was at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo, curated by Carmen Giménez in 1995; the most recent was a presentation of the Permanent Collection, Chillida/Tàpies: Matter and Visual Thought at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, curated by Petra Joos in 2001 and later travelling to the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin in 2002. 

Tàpies produced his first autonomous, clearly three-dimensional objects in the mid 1960s. However, it was not until the 1980s that the word “sculpture” was formally introduced into his vocabulary. 

The 1960s and 1970s

The exhibition begins in the Museum's classical galleries with Tàpies’s sculptural output from the mid-1960s and 70s. This was a period of intense political activity for the artist, during which time he incorporated everyday objects into his research. These objects not only had ties with Art Informel, but also aligned him with other conceptual art movements that were emerging at the same time such as Arte Povera. Tàpies’s early objects also had their roots in Dadaism and Surrealism. 

This is evident in some of the works in the first part of the exhibition: Cadira i roba (Chair and Clothes, 1970), Pila de plats (Pile of Plates, 1970), and Armari (Wardrobe, 1973). Made of furniture, paper, clothes, sawdust, or wood, these are the pieces that marked the birth of a language of “three-dimensional objects” in Tàpies’s career. The diversity of symbolic resources that characterize these works opened up many creative directions for the artist, as seen in Farcell (Bundle, 1970) and Cartó corbat i corda (Curved Cardboard and String, 1970). 

Collage was the direct forerunner of his sculptures. In Rotllo de tela metàl·lica amb drap vermell (Roll of Chicken Wire with Red Rag, 1970) and Maqueta per a “Núvol i cadira” (Model for Cloud and Chair, 1988), Tàpies used mesh and chicken wire, malleable metals that helped to divide space and stand in opposition to natural organic elements, which he would also use in later decades. 

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Antoni Tàpies, Pila de plats (Pile of Plates), 1970. Object-assemblage, 40 x 23 x 23 cm. Collection of the John Cage Trust © Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona /VEGAP, Bilbao, 2013. Photo: Joerg Lohse

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Antoni Tàpies, Pila de diaris (Pila de periódicos), 1970, 29 x 45 x 43 cm. Colección de Michael Straus © Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona / VEGAP, Bilbao, 2013.Fotografía: Jason Wallis

Early Fireclay Works

In the early 1980s there was a significant change in the artist's creative process. He temporarily set aside his assemblages and entered the world of ceramics, producing his first ceramic sculptures in 1981.

Sculptor Eduardo Chillida, art dealer and gallerist Aimé Maeght, and ceramicist Joan Gardy Artigas played a fundamental role in this discovery. The exhibition includes some of his earliest ceramic pieces, including Cub (Cube, 1983) and Díptic (Diptych, 1983) made in Artigas's studio in Gallifa, Catalonia. The artist would later work at the Galerie Lelong studio in Grasse, France, assisted by German ceramist Hans Spinner. 

Of all of the possibilities offered by ceramics, Tàpies concentrated on fireclay, or terras xamotadas , a blend of clay and fragments of crushed fired pottery. The mixture allowed him to create weather-resistant, sturdy, large-scale sculptures. An example is Sabatilla (Slipper, 1986), the over two-meter-long piece that dominates the center of the gallery. 

The artist also experimented at the time with other ceramic materials and mediums such as enamel, stoneware, and porcelain. In works like Llit (Bed, 1988) and Divan (1987) we can see how he applied enamel to his fireclay sculptures, generally using brushes, brooms, or sponges. On most of these sculptures Tàpies inscribed marks or symbols, employing grinders and even the teeth of a key. In the exhibition catalogue, Alvaro Rodríguez Fominaya explains that the symbols “are interpretive devices and they do not ‘reveal’ anything. Instead they are like veils that add their own private meaning to the pieces.” 

In the book La poétique de la matière, Jean Frémon asks the question “What is sculpture?” to which Tàpies replies: “Why not, for example, thirty kilos of clay shaped into a premolar and hastily covered with white enamel that looks like it’s still dripping?” 

The artist inscribed letters and symbols in his objects and, in this way, transferred to them part of his symbolic repertoire, as can be seen the works T tombada (Fallen T, 1986) and Cub-creu (Cube-Cross, 1988), for example, which reflect perfectly Tàpies's imagery. 

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Antoni Tàpies, Llit (Bed), 1988. Enamel on fireclay; 27 x 175 x 86.5 cm. Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for Art © Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona /VEGAP, Bilbao, 201. Photo: PD Rearick

From Clay to Bronze

One of the Museum's large, curved galleries contains important examples of Tàpies's three-dimensional pieces, demonstrating his mastery of fireclay. Also highlighted here are his first experiments with bronze (Armari and Matalàs dominate the gallery), made in 1987 at the Foneria Vilà foundry in Valls, Catalonia. The artist worked with both materials in a set of pieces in which he repeated a series of everyday objects and motifs, such as books and skulls.

Among Tápies's 1970s three-dimensional, furniture-based assemblages are his chairs, an extraordinary development in its own right. Later, in the 1980s, the artist revisited this theme. 

The exhibition features a number of ceramic chairs produced in Grasse, France, in which Tàpies worked with ceramicist Hans Spinner. These pieces succinctly summarize part of the artist’s symbolic universe: Cadira coberta (Covered Chair, 1988) bears the shape of an ear and a T; Cadira amb barra (Chair with Bar, 1988) includes a horizontal piece that transforms the chair into a T; and Cadira (Chair, 1987), features a cross. In all of them the artist used enamel on fireclay, a medium that introduced a certain level of uncertainty since heat can produce textural and color variations—aspects that captured the artist’s interest. 

Alongside these works is Tàpies's bathtub, dating from 1988. The bathtub, an object generally associated with private, intimate spaces, takes on new meaning when transported to the semi-public museum gallery. The basket, represented here in ceramic form, reappears later in a number of bronzes cast in the 1990s. 

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Antoni Tàpies, La butaca (The Armchair), 1987. Paint on bronze; 88 x 90 x 87 cm. Collection Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona © Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona /VEGAP, Bilbao, 2013.Source of the images: VEGAP Image Bank

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Antoni Tàpies, Banyera I (Bañera I), 1988. Esmalte sobre tierra chamoteada; 78,5 x 143,5 x 63,5 cm. Colección particular. © Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona / VEGAP, Bilbao, 2013. Fotografía: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

Walls and Doors

The concept of the wall, a fundamental idea in the iconographic imaginary of Antoni Tàpies, is also represented in a selection of works grouped together under the theme “Walls and Doors.” Tríptic (Triptych, 1991) and Composició (Composition, 1991 ), made from refractory concrete, particularly reflect how the artist came to constructive abstraction.

"The story of how the evocative power of wall images took shape in me goes way back. They are memories from when I was a teenager and young man, trapped within the walls where I lived during the wars." In his 1969 article “Comunicación sobre el muro” (Communication on the Wall), the artist explained the ambivalence and many meanings of his walls: “How many suggestions can be derived from the image of the wall and all its possible permutations! Separation, cloistering, the wailing wall, prison, witness to the passing of time […] So many things arose that appeared to establish a proud kinship between me and those philosophies and wisdoms I so esteemed!” 

Along these same lines, the door theme also appeared which the artist created in ceramic and bronze. Examples include two bronzes cast in 1987, Porta II (Door II) and Porta (Door); and the most literal of these pieces, Mur (Wall, 1991). 

Laden with symbolism, Tàpies’s doors and walls stand before the visitor’s gaze. 

 

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Antoni Tàpies, Composició (Composition), 1991. Oxide paint on refractory concrete; 160 x 243 x 59 cm. Collection Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona © Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona /VEGAP, Bilbao, 2013. Source of the images: VEGAP Image Bank

Summer 1993

In 1993 Antoni Tàpies presented the installation Rinzen—a Japanese word meaning "sudden awakening"—in the Spanish Pavilion at the 45th Venice Biennale, where his work was featured alongside that of Basque artist Cristina Iglesias. The piece, which was awarded the Leone d’Oro, was a symbol of protest and a reflection on the effects of the Balkans war.

After finishing this piece, the artist began the summer of 1993 with renewed energy. In his studio in Montseny, he created a series of objects, turning his attention back to assemblage in its purest form. Capçal i metall (Bedhead and Metal), Paquetes metálicos (Metal Packets), and L’hora del te (Teatime) were all created in 1993. This impulse was solidified in 1994 in an exhibition held in London, entitled Antoni Tàpies: A Summer’s Work, which featured works created from the time of the Venice Biennale, a turning point in the artist's sculptural career. 

In a sense, these new pieces embody all of his past, as they are connected with his earlier objects from the 1970s but they also give us a glimpse into the future sculptural work of the artist by introducing new textures and elements. 

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Antoni Tàpies, L'hora del te (Teatime), 1993. Object-assemblage; 56 x 72.5 x 69 cm. Private collection, Barcelona © Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona /VEGAP, Bilbao, 2013. Source of the images: VEGAP Image Bank

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Antoni Tàpies, Panera de roba (Linen Basket), 1993. Paint on object-assemblage, 48.5 x 118.5 x 156 cm. Private collection, Barcelona © Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona /VEGAP, Bilbao, 2013. Source of the images: VEGAP Image Bank.

1995–2009

The exhibition concludes with a number of sculptures dating from 1995 to 2009, covering the artist’s production until his death. This period saw Tàpies embrace a wide range of mediums and materials which the artist had collected and perfected over the decades. 

Tàpies did not stop at merely re-creating past techniques. Instead, he alternated materials and processes with remarkable alacrity, at the same time creating assemblages, bronzes, and ceramics, adding new elements to his vocabulary. In bronze, he worked with varnishes and new formats—Caixa i cadira (Box and Chair, 1999); in ceramics, he set mineral against organic matter and stoneware against earth—Creu invertida (Inverted Cross, 2002); and in objects he created new perspectives and volumes—Composició amb Cistella (Composition with Basket, 1996). 

Nonetheless, in his imagery some aspects remained unaltered: the signs, the letters, the crosses, the mathematics, the rural, and the familiar, everyday objects. In one of his last essays, Tàpies included this quote by Shi Tao: "I speak with my hands, you listen with your eyes." 

The artist’s last sculpture Threshing Board (Trill) dates to 2009, closing this exhibition dedicated to Antoni Tápies the sculptor, one of the least-known yet most relevant facets of the great Catalonian artist. 

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Antoni Tàpies, Trill (Threshing Board), 2009. Paint and collage on object,; 111 x 41 cm. Private collection, Barcelona © Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona /VEGAP, Bilbao, 2013. Source of the images: VEGAP Image Bank