Replete with Antoni Tàpies’s distinctive mural magic, Negre sobre Vermell (1963) is a richly evocative artefact. A cracked, incised and caked zone of black is built upon a similarly scarred ground of deep burgundy, over a metre in height. The oil paint, weighty with marble dust, creates thick, geological layers, the artist scratching, smearing and scouring as if through coagulated depths of sediment. Recalling a ruined wall or door – Tàpies’ work has often suggested the violence of the Civil War and Catalan nationalist conflicts inscribed on the Spanish streets where he grew up – the work is a site of inscription and excavation. The cracked black evokes bituminous tar-pits, scaly riverbed fossils, the fractured surface of prehistoric lava flow. The red makes a sanguine nod to damage and destruction but also to the pulse of human life, conjuring the wine of Christian liturgy as much as the bloodshed of battle.
Tàpies’ scored and punctured picture plane may be said to recall the work of Lucio Fontana, whom the artist had met in the 1950s. Indeed, the two were motivated by a similar desire to access a deeper reality by wounding their pictorial surfaces; Fontana went so far as to rupture the very fabric of the canvas itself. Yet whilst Fontana’s practice was driven by his own Spatialist theories, inspired by contemporary developments in space exploration, Tàpies’ outlook arose from a more fundamental interest in the auratic properties of the materials he employed. Heavily inspired by Eastern philosophies, Tàpies cultivated an artistic language in which rough-hewn textures and distressed markings were understood as means of invoking profound existential forces. ‘The mystical consciousness – almost indefinable – seems fundamental for an artist’, Tàpies has explained. ‘It is like a “suffering” of reality, a state of constant hyper-sensitivity to everything that surrounds us, good and bad, light and darkness. It is like a voyage to the centre of the universe which furnishes the perspective necessary for placing all things of life in their real dimension’ (A. Tàpies, ‘I am a Catalan’, 1971, reproduced in K. Stiles and P. Selz (eds.),Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 1996, p. 56).
Like the mythic scrawls of Cy Twombly, Tàpies’ mark-making gestures to strata of history and thought through its rich physicality. The work is a meditative, reliquary zone, its gravity echoing that of an ancient symbolic object or vestige of antique civilisation. As the critic John Russell wrote in 1969, these works seem ‘to have been not so much painted as excavated from an idiosyncratic compound of mud, sand, earth, dried blood and powdered minerals’ ( J. Russell, quoted in W. Grimes, ‘Antoni Tàpies, Spanish Abstract Painter, Dies at 88,’ The New York Times, 6 February 2012). Negre sobre Vermell shares in the enigmas of the earth and breathes an atmosphere of mystery, at once eloquent and inscrutable. Painting verges on sculpture; art becomes a ritual act of exorcism. Enthralling in its evasive semiotic aura, the work stands testament to Tàpies’ material and metaphysical mastery.