In the late '50s the favorite pastime in Madrid's cafes was guessing whether Franco's spy was the bootblack, the waiter or the man reading the newspaper in the corner. Expressionist Antoni Tapies emerged during that epoch and his abstract painting seemed a daring slap in the face of fascism. His oozing shapes and crusty impastos of blacks, tans and whites pushed the parched fervor of Spain's traditional art past the revolution into the internalized sufferings of the Beats and the Existentialists.
Today that same art inaugurates the L.A. opening of the Wenger Gallery, long established down La Jolla way. Almost inevitably Tapies' work has grown suave, its spontaneity less that of the anguished rebel than the practiced fencing master. A huge wash called "Eyes and Footprints" has the studied wit and eccentricity of a Zen aristocrat. He moves with almost suspicious ease through a range of approaches seeming equally at home with a goopy large brown cross laid on a rumpled sheet or a subtly nostalgic collage of an old manuscript and twine.
This art lacks the raging awkwardness of late Picasso. It has more in common with the seductive savoir-faire of Robert Motherwell. Tapies' burlap canvases used to speak of privation and suffering. Today they murmur with the good taste of a tailor. "Nude and Table" tries to deal with the figure and its awkwardness is a real relief. (Wenger Gallery, 828 N. La Brea Ave., to Nov. 26.)