‘The adventure only starts when painting is backed up against the wall, when it evolves from being a support – a pretext – to being the essence, when the quest for the highest level of quality only serves itself [...] Tàpies has something else to say, he knows it, he only has to do it’ (M. Tapié, Tàpies, Barcelona 1959).
A vast ochre plane inscribed with a dense tapestry of visceral markings expands before the viewer in Antoni Tàpies’ Gran ocra amb incisions (Large Ochre with Incisions). Upon this expansive ground, subsuming our vision through its monumental scale, Tàpies has created an unearthly geological terrain, incised with cracks, slits, gauges and stabs that tremble with raw presence. Executed in 1961, the work was first owned by Michel Tapié, the influential critic, curator and leading authority on Tàpies, who played a key role in the artist’s rise to international acclaim and whose work provides a central source of reference for Tàpies scholarship today. Indeed, it was Tapié himself who coined the term art informel in 1952, championing the work of its most important exponents including Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier, Alberto Burri, Willem de Kooning and Tàpies himself. Tapié directed the Centro Internazionale di Ricerca Estitica in Turin, a unique centre for contemporary art research, where the present work was kept. Currently part of the Viktor and Marianne Langen Collection, where it has been held for the last thirty five years, Gran ocra amb incisions is an exquisitely intricate example of the ‘matter paintings’ that represent one of the most fundamental strands of Tàpies’ practice. Materially grounded yet metaphysically conceived, these works constitute a deep enquiry into the relationship between the tactile substance of earthbound matter and its inherent mystical properties. The 1960s were an important time for the artist, with growing international recognition evidenced by his first solo museum exhibitions in Europe and America. The present work was widely exhibited during this period, including at the XVIIIe Salon de Mai at the Musée de la Ville de Paris in 1962, and has not been seen in public since it was exhibited in Vienna in 1968, nearly half a century ago.
Tàpies was entranced by raw media and notion of human trace, creating works that attempted to access unknown dimensions of being through their rarefied physicality. Much of this aesthetic was rooted in his fascination with the weather-beaten, graffitied walls that lined the streets of his native Catalonia, and which bore traces of the hardship and repression endured throughout the Spanish Civil War. The present work, resembling a distressed stone edifice or a fragment of dried, cracked earth, is a superb demonstration of this influence. Its complex distribution of marks seems to strain towards communication, executed with pseudo-symbolic, automatic gesture. Like an ancient relic, the work quivers with the untold mysteries of its making. As the critic John Russell has claimed, these are works that ‘seemed 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’, in The New York Times, 6 February 2012).
Tàpies’ slashed and punctured picture plane may be said to recall the work of Lucio Fontana, whom the artist had met several years earlier. Indeed, the two artists were motivated by a similar desire to access a deeper reality by wounding and lacerating their pictorial surfaces; indeed, 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 caustic mark-making 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 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’, 1971, reproduced in K. Stiles and P. Selz (eds)., Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 1996, p. 56).