Comprising two large oval forms clawed out from an earthy landscape-like surface made from a mixture of paint, sand, marble dust, glue and other mixed media laid down on a red-painted canvas ground, Oval gris-marró (Grey Brown Oval is one of the pioneering series of material paintings that comprised Tàpies' international breakthrough at the end of the 1950s.
An earthy and mysterious work seemingly held into some kind of landscape unity by two great oval swathes in its surface that have been made by the artist clawing away at its material surface, closer inspection reveals also a sequence of seemingly randomly punctured, imprinted and incised marks that transform the picture plane into its own self-contained universe of activity.
In these material paintings which Tàpies began to make in 1954 shortly after a brief flirtation with Surrealist dream image, the artist fused both tachist and informel influences with a unique philosophical and meditative approach. Drawing on Buddhist philosophical practice and the disciplines of different oriental calligraphies Tàpies' work is a combination of impulsive and intuitive physical responses to the carefully prepared and highly material ground of his paintings. Often preferring, as here, a fine sandy ground that he believes highlights the inherent atomic structure of the world and the ultimate immateriality of all matter - by visibly disintegrating into millions of tiny particles when broken - for Tàpies his pictures, are 'truly experimental fields of battle where it is ultimately the destruction of the surface that leads to the work's 'aesthetic tranquility.'
Treating material in an esoteric way, as a physical expression of space and time able to become animated through the impulsive or gestural interaction of the artist, Tàpies finds both identity, purpose and meaning in the manner in which he instinctively responds to the prompts he feels from the material he works with. 'Like a researcher in his laboratory, I am the first spectator of the suggestions drawn from the materials', Tàpies has said, 'I unleash their expressive possibilities, even if I do not have a very clear idea of what I am going to do. As I go along with my work I formulate my thought, and from this struggle between what I want and the reality of the material - from this tension - is born an equilibrium. (Antoni Tàpies 'I am a Catalan' 1971, reproduced in K. Stiles and P. Selz Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, p. 55.)
Though perhaps coincidental or even unintended, in its comparatively rare use of two enclosing ovals, Oval gris-marró is one of only a small number of works from this vital period whose cyclical form seems to bestow the arena of Tàpies actions with a unique holistic and united sense of oneness and completion.