'The work of art is a simplistic meditation, an artifice serving to fix the attention, to stabilize or excite the mind; its value can only be judged on its results' (A. Tàpies, 'I am a Catalan', in K. Stiles and P. Selz (eds.), Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, p. 55).
Antoni Tàpies's poetic canvas Matèria damunt tela i collage paper is an evocation of memory, which when combined with the artist's signature use of form, material and texture, creates a spiritual reflection on the nature of humanity. This immense canvas is among the very best works from a pivotal period in the artist's career when he began responding to the drama of combining intuitive and impulsive forces as they play out across the surface of the work. Exceptionally for the artist, this work contains several of his iconic 'signs' - the lexicon of crosses and marks that are often inserted into the surface of his most momentous works. Normally they appear singularly, but this work's multiple signs transform the painting from a passive recollection of a forgotten landscape into an active site of discovery. This sense of energy is enhanced by the grand scale as its monumental size envelops all who stand before it and draws them into Tàpies's gracious world of aesthetic tranquility.
The variegated texture of Tàpies's highly worked surface combines with his delicate and deliberate construction to produce an intoxicating assemblage which the artist orchestrates into a rich medley of texture and form. The title gives the first clue as to its construction as Matèria damunt tela i collage paper translates into a literal list of the assortment of materials at hand - Material on canvas and paper collage. In Tàpies hands the rich patchwork of different surfaces and materials merge together to form a distinctive whole. He constructs the surface of this work by assembling rough geometric forms fashioned out of fragments of found paper, and in the process invigorates them with new life within his own formations. These portions are then embellished with bold strokes of black, white, gray and taupe causing the eye to explore the surface of the work and adding an additional dimension of energy and presence.
In Matèria damunt tela i collage paper, Tàpies has taken the rare step of including a pair of his 'signs' in the top portion of the canvas. The bold boxed 'X', and the accompanying emblem beneath it, become his personal iconography which the artist uses as both a mark of identity and negation. These iconic symbols are formed without any preconceived role within the composition, as Tàpies explained, "I set down these signs in an intuitive and spontaneous manner, which quite pleases me. That may seem very simple, and today it is perhaps and outmoded justification. When I work, I don't analyze why I choose one form or another. Naturally, I can do that afterwards. For many years I have worked in an automatic, unconscious way.When I paint a sign, an X or a cross or a spiral, I experience a certain satisfaction. I can see that the picture receives a real force with this sign. (A. Tàpies, quoted by R. S. Lubar, 'Language and Desire: Textual Practice in the Art of Antoni Tàpies, Tàpies, 1993, p. 7).
The rich textural surface of Matèria damunt tela i collage paper, like many of Tàpies's best works, recalls the surfaces of the walls the artist saw growing up in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. These surfaces became the message boards for a city in conflict, covered with political posters and graffiti, alongside the numerous bullet holes and shrapnel marks that were the result of the intense fighting. After spending prolonged periods of sheltering from the fighting behind these walls, Tàpies formed a powerful identification with them as a tool and conveyer of meaning. Then, in the late 1950s, Tàpies also began to take an interest in eastern philosophies and discovered that the work of Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, was called the Contemplation of the Wall at Mahayana and that Zen temples had sand gardens that formed layers or fringes that are similar to the fringes of some of his works.
This work dates from an important period in the development of Tàpies's body of work. It was during this time that the formal iconography of his highly intuitive art developed. In this unconscious and almost ritualistic way Tàpies explores a mystical realm into which he as the artist is immersed. Recognising this, the autobiographical ephemera of this impressive painting which is itself immersed in and emerging from the painting, reflects Tàpies's growing awareness of mystical realm of creativity as ultimately, a personal voyage of self-discovery. As he points out, "The mystical consciousness - almost undefinable - seems fundamental for an artist. 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 center of the universe which furnishes the perspective necessary for placing all things of life in their real dimension" (A. Tàpies, 'I am a Catalan', in K. Stiles and P. Selz (eds.), Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, p. 56).
Tàpies's extreme sensitivity towards the qualities of different materials produces works of extreme complexity and depth. Matèria damunt tela i collage paper's layers of paper collage, paint and sand represent an almost spiritual interaction between artist and material. In this work, Tàpies takes the elemental nature of man (the sand) and mixes it directly with the ephemeral nature of humanity (the remnants of newspapers) and produces a profoundly meaningful work. By reflecting on this spirit of man and mixing it so seductively with painting, it is the artist's intention to penetrate the mysteries of life by interacting directly with its innate nature. In this way, placing his iconography directly on the surface of the canvas, is for the artist, akin to making a mystical journey of exploration. SJ