Mason, Scrawler, Philosopher, and Artist

Guggenheim Museum SoHo exhibits wall-like collages by the highly creative Catalan Antoni Tapies

`THE strange destiny of a name!'' wrote Antoni Tapies, the foremost living Spanish painter. True to his destiny, Tapies, whose name means ``walls'' in Catalan, has spent the last 40 years creating wall-like canvases.

``Tapies,'' an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo, presents more than 50 works dating from 1946 to 1994. Images of walls (as well as doors and windows) are so frequent that viewing the show is like strolling on a Hollywood Main Street set, with building facades propped up on either side.

In this case, the street is in postwar Spain, and its ``walls'' contain semiopaque windows into the mind of a Catalan nationalist who also deems himself a citizen of the universe.

Born in Barcelona in 1923, Tapies was a teenager during the catastrophic Spanish Civil War. After World War II, the fascist dictator Francisco Franco waged a campaign of repression in Spain until 1975. Much of this tragic history is implied in Tapies's canvases. The present show concentrates on collages, assemblages, and his best-known ``matter'' paintings - huge slabs of pigmented marble dust - that resemble bas-relief walls.

The wall paintings fairly hum with political undertones, like the provocative ``What to Do?'' (1974), a veiled attack on censorship and oppression. City walls ``bore witness to the horror and the inhuman reversals that were inflicted on our people,'' Tapies has written. Tacked to a stuccolike triptych are a buckle without a belt, a menacing straightedge razor, and nine sheets of paper, with the heart of each page ripped out so the message is illegible.

Wherever references to the body appear in these mostly abstract paintings, the scarred surfaces hint at mutilation. ``In the Form of a Leg'' (1968) depicts an almost sculpted leg, built up from a paste of marble dust and latex paint on canvas. ``Nude'' (1966) portrays a body on hands and knees. The degrading pose suggests a tortured prisoner.

Although Tapies opposed Franco and was briefly imprisoned in 1966 for participating in a pro- test, his paintings derive from universal as well as local concerns. He combines elements from diverse influences, like science, mysticism, magic, Zen Buddhism, and Surrealism.

Part of the zing of his work derives from the Surrealist gambit of combining unlikely objects in bizarre contexts. This notion was first expressed by the Comte de Lautremont, who profoundly impressed Surrealist artists with his description of a young man who was ``beautiful as the chance meeting upon a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.''

Tapies achieves similar jolts of juxtaposition in collages composed of found objects like tinfoil, string, lace, shreds of paper, and fabric. In his assemblages, he affixes mud, straw, human hair, and broken crockery to canvas.

``Metal Shutter With Violin'' (1956) illustrates Tapies's contention that painting, like music, should be apprehended by the senses rather than the mind. A corrugated shutter, used to shut shop windows, blocks the view inside, while an attached violin hints that art is the key to opening the gate.

A 1994 work, ``Wrapping,'' fruitfully combines paint and matter (in this case, sisal matting rolled into a cylinder). The starkly simple composition tantalizes with the possibility of taking off the wraps to reveal hidden meaning.

Many of the paintings contain Tapies's trademark iconography: the letter ``T'' (the artist's initial), which often transmutes into a cross suggesting crucifixion or into an ``X'' connoting cancellation or identity. Tapies has said that the cross signifies the union of the physical and spiritual that he pursues. The vertical line, he explains, links heaven and hell, which intersect at the horizontal plane of the earth.

Tapies also draws heavily on the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who wrote, ``The world is both multiple and one.'' The Spanish painter has quoted Santa Teresa, who said God is to be found even in pots and pans, believing that the humblest objects serve as a springboard to transcendence.

Painting ``is a door that leads to another door,'' Tapies has written. He gouges, pokes, and pocks the layers of grainy dust and paint to reveal glimpses of deeper meaning. ``Red Relief'' (1958) is one of the most successful - and topographical - examples.

Inch-thick striations of bulging red paint mixed with marble dust undulate across the canvas like a geological map of molten magma. Alluding perhaps to the four red stripes of the forbidden Catalan flag, as well as to the parched earth of the region, the painting flows from internal and external wellsprings.

Tapies's motifs have remained fairly constant for half a century, which makes the current show somewhat monotonous. The rough-hewn physicality and expressiveness of his media, however, lend the works interest and impact. Tapies - a mixture of mason, scrawler of graffiti, philosopher, and artist - molds earthy materials into a concrete art to express abstract concepts.

Texture, terrain, and tactile are three words that suit Tapies to a ``T.''

* `Tapies' continues at the Guggenheim Museum Soho through April 23.

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