Nahmad Projects is one of Mayfair’s shiniest white cubes, a deceptively large gallery with a nave, side chapel and benches. This allows the dozen or so large, abstract works that make up most of this exhibition to be presented like relics in a church.
Antoni Tàpies, the artist on show, made a decisive turn towards abstraction early in his career, and built up a distinctive visual lexicon of signs and symbols, using everyday materials. Annoyingly, the exhibition notes don’t specify exactly which materials are used in each work, though maybe that’s the whole point: Tàpies is shown as an alchemist, transforming cast-offs into gold through the power of his artistic imagination. The source material doesn’t matter; the (divine?) artistic output is what counts.
“The ordinary is made sublime,” the artist is quoted as saying. “This is the act of transmutation, intensely experienced it can transform the spirit.”
So, in Color arpillera Ififlerros, from 1972 and pictured above, a thick burlap sack is hung as reverently as the Turin Shroud. On its dark background, the sacking is constrained by wires, tight as a crown of thorns. Arpilleras is a word associated with resistance and revolution: in Chile at the time, local women painted images on local burlap, protesting against the military dictatorship there. Meanwhile, in Turin and elsewhere in Italy, arte povera artists like Alberto Burri were using burlap in a lighter, cheekier way.
Tàpies’ works, on the other hand, seem almost too heavy for the shiny white walls of the gallery to bear: loaded with symbols, layers of sand, layers of foam. They’re powerful, hefty, grand. The Christian cross is one of the most common of the motifs and signs, scratched into the surfaces with the artist’s fingers.
One work stands in contrast to the rest, though. Head of a Woman, from 1952, was painted before Tàpies’ turn away from figuration. It’s hung directly next to that massive burlap sack, and is dwarfed in comparison.
But there’s that same dark background, and a shared sense of sublimity across the two works. Here, the woman’s face, in profile, is tilted slightly upwards. The arrangement consciously echoes an Ancient Egyptian wall painting. Or maybe a still and static pre-Renaissance Virgin Mary.
Either way, it's object of reverence. Or maybe an object for which reverence is expected, just like the others on show in this church-like room.
antoni tàpies: alchemy is at Nahmad Projects (London). 06 October - 09 December 2022