‘The mystical consciousness – almost indefinable – seems fundamental for an artist. 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.’ – Antoni Tàpies
Painted in 1958 and exhibited that year at the 29th Venice Biennale, Tàpies’ Pintura marró i ocre (Brown and Ochre Painting) is an opaque surface of leathery brown. A circle carved into the paint sits in the centre of the composition, above which Tàpies has engraved five short, curving incisions. Beginning in the 1950s, Tàpies used his native Catalonia as inspiration for his richly textured pictorial world. In these mixed media canvases, he combined earth, marble dust, paint and a variety of other materials, finding his symbolic image in the depiction of the wall. Growing up in Barcelona, the artist witnessed first-hand the fierce resistance and eventual capitulation of the Republican government to the oppressive force of Franco’s army; Tàpies wrote, ‘All the walls of a city... bore
witness to the horrors and the inhuman reversals that were inflicted on our people... Each canvas was a battlefield on which the wounds were to multiply over and over again, to infinity’ (A. Tápies, ‘Communications on Walls’, 1973 reprinted in Y. Ishagpour, Antoni Tàpies: works, writings, interviews, Barcelona, 2006, p. 115). Indeed, Pintura marró I ocre at once absorbs and resists this history as
manifested in its stiff yet resilient surface. For these ‘wall’ works, Tàpies abandoned traditional painting techniques, instead allowing the canvases to record natural processes alongside the artist’s own spontaneous responses. ‘Like a researcher in his laboratory,’ he wrote, ‘I am the first spectator of the suggestions drawn from the materials. 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 the 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’ (A. Tàpies quoted in ‘I am a Catalan’, reprint 1971, K. Stiles and P. Selz, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, p. 55). These layered strategies, accordingly, allow for and open the works to myriad associations and resonances. Pintura marró i ocre asks for a profound engagement with materiality; within its surface, an entire world of experience is expressed.