Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 16, 2005
Jean Frémon and Antoni Tàpies Tàpies/Rainer—Porteurs de Secret Exh. cat. Klosterneuberg, Austria: Edition Sammlung Essl Privatstiftung, 2005.
Sammlung Essl: Kunst der Gegenwart, Klosterneuburg, June 24, 2005–October 23, 2005
Antoni Tàpies. Materia i collage de paper. 1991. Mixed media on canvas. 200 x 200 cm. Collection of Essl, Klosterneuberg. Artwork © Antoni Tàpies. Photograph © Photoatelier Laut, Wien.

In this exhibition, Klosterneuburg’s Essl Collection—dedicated since 1995 to the dissemination of contemporary art—brings the Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies and the Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer together for the first time, thereby creating a unique encounter between their respective oeuvres. Conceived by collector Karlheinz Essl, whose collection contains most of the ninety-plus works on display, the exhibition was curated by Jean Frémon, a co-director of Paris’s Galerie Lelong and a long-time follower of both artists’ careers.

The exhibition sets out to explore the echoes and convergences, not necessarily intentional, between the two artist’s oeuvres and their lives. Formal relationships and echoes seem of principal importance in establishing the comparative and evocative associations. Essl and Frémon understand these artists to be kindred spirits, and the dialogic relationship forged by exhibiting them side by side enables Frémon to produce creative tensions and harmonies between their respective work. This emphasis on the dialogic and the elective affinity between the work is augmented by the historical disparity of the works selected for the exhibition. The exhibition emphasizes an impressive range of Rainer’s art since the 1950s, while the Tàpies inclusions are more contemporary, dating from the early 1980s to 2004. Relations teased out between the two artists include the recurring thematizations (by curator and artists) of center and margin and of inclusion and exclusion, as is powerfully symbolised in the first room by Tàpies’s Parenthesis (1994). This large artwork shows a punctuation mark on a dark background surrounding some illegible marks. The artwork itself is inserted into a parens formed by two works by Rainer, each opening thematic interplays. Untitled (1969–71), the first of Rainer’s works seen in the exhibition, begins this artistic parenthesis, and was lent by Tàpies (normally it hangs in the entrance to his house) as an appreciatory reply to the essay, “Tàpies and the Walls around Heaven,” which Rainer wrote for the exhibition catalogue.

The exhibition is hung in six galleries, each assigned an organizing thematic such as the Human Image, the Cross, the Painterly Gesture, and the Late Work. Harnessed thusly, the works reveal themselves in a plethora of new ways; however, each artist is also allowed space to stand out individually. The interrogation of boundaries suggested by the parentheses of the first room threads through the exhibition in artworks such as Rainer’s Centralformations and Centralisations and in his overpaintings, which Barbara Catoir accurately describes in her catalogue essay as “empty centres and vibrating marginal zones” (32). Boundaries are also clearly evoked by Tàpies’s walls, meant to define areas of interior and exterior space, and objects like Door (1987), an old, heavy door constituting the simplest of boundaries. Door is placed before the entrance to the second room, dedicated to the human image. In this next area, Rainer’s overpaintings of death masks by Pignalelli, Liszt, and Beethoven (1983–84) occupy one side of the room. Across the way, another wall is taken up with twelve photo-overpaintings offering an impressive overview of his artistic production of the early 1970s. While Rainer dominates the visual space in this room, Tàpies works such as Bandaged Head (1989) and Matter and Collage Made of Paper (1991) manifest their presence through olfactory senses. Different odors emanate from these objects, which he produced from burnt fireclay, and from the large rough and encrusted surfaces of his canvases, cloaked in everyday detritus.

Tàpies’s accumulations are best described as haptic, engaging the viewer’s eye to move over their textural surface. They invite a contemplative vision that breaks down the voyeuristic boundaries between viewer and image, allowing a mutuality of touch to evolve. This haptic quality is echoed throughout the exhibition in Rainer’s images. The energetic lines of his overpaintings suggest the importance of touch, and the traces of blood in his finger paintings narrate the story of broken-down boundaries between artwork and artist. Like Tàpies’s, his late works introduce deep colors into similarly textured surfaces. Combined together, the works stimulate and excite a vision that Laura Marks describes in The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000) as “more inclined to move than to focus, more inclined to graze than to gaze” (162).

This multisensory experience, replete with its boundary-bending capacities, is further enhanced by a multimedia generative sound and video installation in the second room, Through the Curly Rain-Taps (2005) by Ramón González-Arroyo and Karlheinz Essl, in which repetitive, meditative sound sequences accompany the viewer throughout the exhibition, enhancing the sense of a mystical, religious happening. However, as Pere Gimferrer writes in Tàpies and the Catalan Spirit (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 1986), Rainer’s and Tàpies’s “religiosity” has to be understood as “exchangeable with ‘magical’ or ‘poetic’” (21). Here, as in an alchemist’s laboratory, the ordinary, ugly and “abnormal” have been transformed into “conductor[s] of a higher reality” (ibid., 34).

The third room, Cross: Abbreviation, Coordinate, Connecting Link, powerfully addresses affinities between the two artists. It features representative works by each artist dwelling on the formal attributes of the cross. According to Tàpies, as quoted in the exhibition catalogue, for both artists the cross represents a “universal symbol” that transcends its Christian function (45). For Rainer, as also quoted in the catalogue, the vertical-horizontal structure of the cross joins with the monochrome of overpaintings to become, “the royal route to immobilization and mortification” (93). Tàpies describes the cross as “a mysterious symbol” both “paradoxical” and “mathematical” (45). In this room, eight large Rainer crosses are arranged on a wall facing Tàpies’s equally immense five-part series Daily Routine (2002) that records fleeting moments such as footprints and writings in sand. Here, the inscribed, engraved, and painted crosses appear sometimes as a geometrical symbol, sometimes as the letter “t” (which is also Tàpies’s initial), and sometimes as nothing more than the accidental crossing of two lines. The structure of the cross ultimately symbolises the fascinating encounter of these two artists’ oeuvres in the Essl collection’s exhibition spaces where their positions endlessly shift from polarity to crossovers and dialectical fusions in which the viewer is repeatedly situated at the center.

Patricia Allmer
Research Associate, Manchester Metropolitan University, MIRIAD