Spanning almost two metres, the monumental surface of Antoni Tàpies' Gran ics gratada sobre gris (Large X Scraped into Grey) is filled with an entire geology of deliberate incisions and abrasions. In this incredibly textured picture, painted in 1965, Tàpies drags our gaze across its wealth of fissures and lines, over which are a number of vigorous brushstrokes. These swirls of paint give a sense of creation and destruction: they have been applied to the surface by the artist, yet paradoxically appear to efface it. Tàpies has used a range of techniques and media to create this scarred, pitted surface, which speaks so much of life, of experience, of the traces of humanity. Gran ics gratada sobre gris includes evidence of the objective world in the traces of cordage and of the cracking wall-like surface, recalling the works of some of Tàpies' contemporaries across the Atlantic such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, whose works he may have seen during his visits to his show's in the United States during the 1960s. However, in Tàpies' picture, these elements perform a different, more evocative function, providing infinite details for contemplation, points upon which to focus and meditate, recalling his interest in Zen Buddhism. Rather than probing the conceptual boundary between reality and representation as was done by some of his contemporaries, Tàpies has included these marks as parallels to the raked gravel or gnarled stones of a Japanese temple garden.
The composition of Gran ics gratada sobre gris is dominated by the X of the title, one of Tàpies' most recognised signs, an open symbol that speaks of both negation and creation, as does so much of the gestural paint. While the materiality in, say, Alberto Burri's pictures was intended as subject matter in its own right, devoid of narrative and adhering only to aesthetics, Tàpies created a vocabulary of signs that, while often incorporating shards of the real world in terms of mixed media, nonetheless contained allusions to wider issues and references to the wider world. This is evident in the vertical and diagonal lines in Gran ics gratada sobre gris, which may recall windows; the X also reveals Tàpies' interest in graffiti and the marks that accumulated on the walls of his home city of Barcelona. Graffiti was often a mark of defiance, the X a sign of anonymous protest; at the same time, as a cross, it carried potent overtones of religion, death, and crucially resurrection. This theme was crucial to Tàpies, an artist working at odds with the dictatorship then ruling Spain. His involvement with Spanish and Catalan politics was a constant backdrop to his work during the 1960s and early 1970s. His own experiences of the Spanish Civil War and the marks that both time and violence left on the cityscape and on the walls would come to influence works such as Gran ics gratada sobre gris.
This year marks the ninetieth anniversary of the birth of Tàpies, who died last year and was one of the most important Spanish, and indeed Catalan, painters of the Post-War period. Tàpies' role as one of the great luminaries of Art Informel had been recently recognised when he had, a year shy of his fortieth birthday, been granted an international retrospective in 1962, held at Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hanover, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Kunsthaus in Zurich, a reflection of his international status when Gran ics gratada sobre gris was painted. During the 1950s, Tàpies had developed a potent visual language involving signs and materials which continued evolving over the subsequent decades. This picture's materiality is emphasised by the deliberately restrained palette, largely confined to a modulated variety of greys as the various strata of the picture are revealed. The X that dominates the composition appears incised into the thick surface: this is the spirit, the ethereal, penetrating the realm of matter. Yet even this void is textured, apparently resulting from Tàpies' inventive use of rope, the traces of which are still in lyrical, haunting evidence.