Emptiness was both subject and source for the Abstract Expressionists. Within the boundaries defined by an empty white canvas, they found an arena for action and awareness, and they explored it with varying degrees of clarity. Some, such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, painted from the deep unconscious, from that free place beyond rational calculation. Others, such as Robert Motherwell molded an ideal of freedom with the tool kit of an intellectual.

Their Catalan colleague, Antoni Tàpies, Spain’s foremost living abstract painter, is a member of that milieu, though his affiliation is with art informel, or Lyrical Abstraction, the European equivalent of Abstract Expressionism. Tàpies is also a Zen Buddhist who leads a simple life. “I do nothing but meditate and paint, meditate and paint,” he told writer Alan Riding in a recent interview in the New York Times. Although his reading has been legendarily broad, ranging through the world’s philosophy, theology, and literature, Tàpies “found a spiritual home in Zen Buddhism,” Riding writes. “And now, through his paintings, he struggles to achieve “‘the ultimate mysterious unity’ that links the entire universe.”

Indisputably, Buddhism touched one or another of the painters of the forties and fifties, but whom and how much remains to be determined. Ad Reinhardt read enough tantric teaching to create his own “mandalas”: satiric drawings of the small New York art universe, with its layered cosmologies, its bodhisatvas and demons. His black paintings (shades of black, at the edge of dissolution) were his response to the creative negation of “no-mind.”

A tombada (Fallen A), Antoni Tàpies, 1982, paint and varnish on wood. Courtesy Collection of Jean Hamon, Paris.
A tombada (Fallen A), Antoni Tàpies, 1982, paint and varnish on wood. Courtesy Collection of Jean Hamon, Paris.

 

Artists of that era universally shied away from an open affiliation with Buddhism, however. Mark Tobey, who traveled in Asia and lived in Japan, and who professed the Bahai faith, was cagey about his interest in Zen. His “white writing” paintings invoke a harmonious, meditative cosmos of equalized energies. Was his Zen perhaps also personal? Franz Kline, who might be thought to have the strongest affinity with Zen, vehemently decried the constant comparison between his black-and-white gesture paintings and calligraphy. He protested that he was an American painter, as though to resolve a troublesome issue. It is rare to hear a declaration as unambiguous as Tàpies’s acknowledgment of Zen.

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