Antoni Tàpies. From Object to Sculpture (1964–2009)
October 4, 2013 – January 19, 2014
La butaca (The Armchair), 1987
Paint on bronze, 88 x 90 x 87 cm
Col·leció Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona
“I think that a work of art should perplex the viewer, make him meditate on the meaning of life.”
In the late sixties and early seventies Antoni Tàpies (b. 1923, Barcelona; d. 2012, Barcelona) absorbed the political and social events of the time. His political commitment opposing the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1892–1975) and his works from that period became denunciations and protests. With the return of democracy in Spain, years of political struggle ended by the early 1980s and Tàpies started to investigate new techniques and explore with object-sculptures. He had already started incorporating more substantial objects from his immediate surroundings into his paintings around 1970, such as parts of furniture, probably influenced by Pop artists who were using “found objects” at that time. It was not until the 1980s that he began experimenting with the lost-wax process to create bronze pieces like La butaca (The Armchair, 1987).
Tàpies based his art on objects found in daily life, but he did not show them as they were; rather, he left his mark on them. His techniques and ideas took the known possibilities of these different materials and completely turned convention upside down, transforming these humble resources into complex works of art using metal, mixing in textures, and creating consistencies identical to those of wood, leather, cardboard, or cloth. His objects generally contained the characteristic of being simple objects, damaged through use, but frozen in time by his vision and techniques.
In La butaca, the viewer sees a black leather armchair that promises great comfort; it appears to be old, which conjures the idea of softness and relaxation, but nothing could be further from reality. It is an object-sculpture, cold and hard, which is made of painted bronze. It is an invitation to an impossible act of sitting on a comfortable piece of furniture, which is in fact a solid metal creation. This game of opposites creates contradictory associations between sensations. Tàpies imprints and manipulates his objects in different ways to create an illusion, seeking to impact the viewer with unusual feelings by changing the material from leather and padding to hard metal.
Tàpies’s use of everyday objects has always contained a spiritual meaning, using the significance of simple elements as a means to evocate a larger universal order. He saw his works as meditation objects, encouraging the viewer to interpret the pieces according to his/her personal experience. He tried to create images that make the viewer see beyond reality, in a more contemplative way. His work demonstrates an interest in the human experience and even existence. “An armchair or a bed, as depictions or as real objects, all point to the simplest of human needs and open up diverse associative possibilities to the viewer. Both tell of the absence of the body illustrating that there is no trace of the human being.”
Tàpies generated a constant dialogue with Eastern culture and this is reflected in his work. His interests with simple objects like an old and humble armchair, and the painting in a calligraphy manner that he made on his work shows his approach to the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. He takes from Zen Buddhism the value of modest objects and humble materials and he used calligraphy as gestures of brush and ink to create his artworks.
1. Victòria Combalia talks with Antoni Tàpies at “The interview of 3/24” for Catalonian Television, February 7, 2012. http://www.tv3.cat/ videos/3939810/Victoria- Combalia-historiadora-dArt-a- lEntrevista-del-324
2. Rodríguez Fominaya, Álvaro. Object and Concept. Exh. cat., 2013
Look carefully at this artwork. Describe what you see. How is the armchair different from one that you might have at home or seen in a friend’s house? Observe the marks and describe them. What do you think they are? Can you recognize any forms?
Tàpies produces a metal object-sculpture that creates opposite feelings. How did knowing the material change your perception of it? If possible, show the students a sample of an object made out of bronze and allow them to touch it and describe its qualities. Do you know other things that are made of bronze? What are they? Make a list. What associations do you have with bronze or metal in general? How do you imagine it feels to sit in this armchair? Do you think it is a comfortable place to rest? Would you like to be seated there? Explain.
What other images, objects, and situations come to your mind by looking at La butaca (The Armchair)? If you had to think about a place to put it, where would it be? What other things would you find in the space? Who would own it?
Create a Miniature Opposite Object
Tàpies gave us the perception of softness and relaxation through his simulation of an old comfortable leather piece of furniture, but sitting in this painted bronze armchair may feel the opposite of comfortable. Divide students into pairs and ask them what they noticed while they observed the artwork.
Later, with their partner, ask them to look at chairs, armchairs, or sofas at home or school and to take pictures from different points of view, and bring the photographs to school. In class they will pick one picture that they both like and sketch it. Then they will discuss what material they could use to create a contradictory feeling and how they might construct a miniature replica with their selected material. For example, they can use cotton and glue to make a metal chair, or toothpicks and thread to recreate a wooden armchair. Encourage them to be creative with the materials that they select.
When they are finished they can display the photograph, the sketch, and the object together and answer the following questions. Which would you prefer to own? Why? Which would you prefer to sit on? Why? Ask the class to vote on the piece of furniture that they prefer.
The project can also be simplified by doing it without the aid of photography and selecting photographs of furniture in magazines or newspapers. Use clay or Play-Doh® to recreate the object selected. Have students experiment with the material before constructing the final product. They should also add a title.
Write an Essay Using the Armchair or Other Object as the Principal Character
Look for other furniture that Tàpies used to create artwork. According to Tàpies, “when we observe any object, for example an old chair, we must try to abstract ourselves in order to see beyond the object itself. When we look at an old chair we must think about the entire universe included in it: the hands and sweat of the workers who cut the wood, the alleviated fatigue of people who sat in it, the different places where the chair has been.”
Discuss with your students what they think about Tàpies’s idea. Select an old object that you have and write about the journey that it made until you got it. Try to convey “the entire universe included in it.” Who made it? Who used it? Where has it been?
Tàpies takes from the philosophy of Zen Buddhism the value of modest objects and humble materials. Using these kinds of elements, the artist wants to advocate that beauty can be found in improbable places. Divide the class into two groups. One of the groups should focus on doing research on Zen Buddhism as a philosophy while the second one should explore Buddhist-inspired artwork. Share the information in class and discuss the relationship between Tàpies’s furniture, Zen philosophy, and the artwork the second group presents for review.
1. Tàpies, Antoni. The Game of Knowing How to Look. Barcelona: Cavall Fort, no. 82, 1967.
Bronze: Alloy traditionally composed of copper and tin and sometimes other elements. This material was used by the artist to make some sculptures in the late eighties and nineties, normally by casting it in molds. Tàpies worked with two foundries: Foneria Vilà in Valls (Tarragona) and Foneria Barberí in Riudellots de la Selva (Girona), both with extensive experience in sculpture execution. There are unique sculptures but he also produced a few series of between three and seven pieces which he then personalized by painting them.
Imprint: The direct trace of an object or body.
Lost-wax process (Cire perdue): The lost wax process is a method for changing a sculpture made of a soft material into a harder material such as bronze. It involves two molds for each sculpture. The first mold is taken by covering the original with a soft material (eg. clay) that registers the details sculpted. The original is removed from that first mold creating empty space. Hot wax is pourid into the mold. When it hardens, the wax cast is inmersed in a liquid ceramic material forms the basis of the second mold. Next, the mold is heated until the wax melts and disappears (lost wax). The resulting empty space left by the lost wax in the second mold is later filled with molten bronze or any other meltable material.
Pop art: An art movement with its roots in the 1950s that explored the world of popular culture, from which its name derives. Basing their techniques, style, and imagery on certain aspects of mass reproduction, the media, and a consumer society, Pop artists took inspiration from advertising, pulp magazines, billboards, movies, television, comic strips, and shop windows. These images, presented with (and sometimes transformed by) humor, wit, and irony, can be seen as both a celebration and a critique of popular culture.
Zen Buddhism: A school of Buddhism that asserts that enlightenment can be attained through meditation, self-contemplation, and intuition rather than through faith and devotion. It is practiced mainly in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
Rodríguez Fominaya, Álvaro. Object and Concept. Exh. cat., 2013.
Tàpies, Antoni. The Game of Knowing How to Look. Barcelona: Cavall Fort, no. 82, 1967.
Victòria Combalia talks with Antoni Tàpies at “The interview of 3/24” for Catalonian Television, February 7, 2012.