Antoni Tàpies, (1923-2012), one of Spain’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, was a creative alchemist. The magic lies in his alloy; his combinations of runic signs and symbols, with commanding brush strokes. The works of this Catalan art theorist and philosopher are an amalgam of the simple, transformed into elegant enigmas. Self-taught, Tàpies discovered art as a young man during a lengthy illness. Taking common cues from the world around him, he created art both mystical and meditative. Drawing from Dada, Art Brut, Symbolism, Surrealism, arte povera, and Oriental philosophy, his contemplative works verge on the abstract, although symbols remain recognizable. Of all his sources, Asian calligraphy and thinking had the most impact. Oriental influence can be seen in his command of the gesture. Sometimes his strokes are bold and black, (Red on the Left, 1980), bringing to mind the painter Franz Kline. Other lines are more calligraphic and delicate. The Tàpies exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, In Memoriam: Thirty-three Prints and a Drawing by the Catalan Master, showes the originality and richness of this pioneer who experimented with unconventional techniques. Unerringly modern in his thinking, Antoni Tàpies explored different techniques. He scratched, walked on, varnished and made collages with his prints. Close examination of his work reveals flocking (Untitled, 1962), embossing, tearing, folding and cutting. Pushing the envelope, Tàpies placed his fingers and feet on the plate: There, like a finger painting, are his hand and foot prints. In Basket and Black Signs, 1980, he put a textured handbag on the printing plate in order to create a ghostly texture behind his strokes. He combined his brushstrokes with signs; musical notes, letters of different alphabets, numbers, and the cross. Although professing not to be a believer, Tàpies found the cross an important symbol. Like the philosopher king Joseph Campbell, he saw universality and interconnectedness all around him. His wide-ranging intellect was inspired by Hindu philosophy, Taoism, Buddhism, a medieval Catalan mystic Ramon Llull (1235-1316), his friend and collaborator Spanish poet Joan Brossa, Paul Klee, and Juan Miro, with whom he was friends all his life. His own art collection had works by Pablo Picasso, Mark Tobey, the 17th century painter Francisco de Zubaran, and Mark Rothko, as well as African fabrics and objects from Nepal. His nuanced pictorial language reflects his work in, and love of, graphics. In association with poets and writers, he produced many books, carrying on the family tradition of publishing. One of his Derrière le Miroir publications published by Galerie Maeght was shown at the MMFA. There is no text. The large book is created with beautiful heavy paper. A bright red brushstroke is drawn continuously across each page until the end. The horizontal gesture links each page with its enflamed message. Never has a line been so eloquent. It is Tàpies’ powerful statement about the civil war in Spain.

Although Tàpies started out as a Surrealist painter, he grew into a more informal artist. Working in what is called pintura matèrica, he enhanced his work with non-artistic materials; marble dust, string and clay. There is a mystery about the subtle work of this Catalan artist. His limited palette is impassionedly passionate. Its simplicity communicates with a great strength that pulls the viewer in to try and discover more. Antoni Tàpies’ work is not easy. The artist used simple signs to evoke many meanings. He gives out clues, using conventional symbols that one can recognize. But that is all. The meaning is elusive. It is up to the viewer to explore. In many of his works, the artist taps into the universal subconscious; the cultural memory of mankind. There, for all to see, are the signs of the times – both ancient and modern. Using weighty symbols – heavy with psychological and philosophical significance – Tàpies hints but never answers. He wished his works to have the power to transform our inner selves. It is up to the viewer to look – and to see. His work is mindful of the Zulu greeting Sawubona, I see you; the graceful response to which is Ngikhona, I am here. There is a universal spiritual recognition in Antoni Tàpies’ quiet minimalist works: it is how the artist suggests we open our minds.

In 2010, he was awarded the hereditary title of the Marquess of Tàpies by King Juan Carlos I.

The donated works by Antoni Tàpies at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts are part of the Museum’s permanent collection.