Last seen publicly at the 1993 Venice Biennale, where the artist was awarded the prestigious Golden Lion prize for painting, Pintura del cubell (Painting with Laundry Bucket) is an important example of the object assemblages that dominated Antoni Tàpies’ oeuvre between 1970 and 1975. Above a vast textured surface, incised with symbols, markings and footprints, a solitary bucket protrudes into space, poised above a splash of vibrant blue paint. Following on from his abstract ‘matter’ paintings of the 1950s and 1960s, the artist began to incorporate everyday objects into his works, extending his quest to distill the raw essence of human reality. Included in his 1973 retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and subsequently shown in solo exhibitions at the Nationalgalerie Berlin (1974), the Hayward Gallery, London (1974) and the Museo Español de Arte Contemporáneo, Madrid (1980), the present work captures the dawn of this new approach. Part sculpture, part painting, it transforms the humble bucket into an enigmatic, spiritual vessel, haunted by signs of human life. Combining base materiality with mystical allusion, Tàpies’ assemblages aligned his practice with developments in both Europe and America, echoing the spirit of Arte Povera and Post-Minimalist sculpture, as well as the Pop-inflected Combines of Robert Rauschenberg. Speaking of the present work, the critic Andreas Franzke notes that the artist ‘equates the integrated object with the painterly material surface’, thereby uniting the physical and metaphysical worlds (A. Franzke, Antoni Tàpies. Werk und Zeit, Stuttgart 1979, p. 30).
Inspired by his youth in war-torn Catalonia, whose streets bore the visible scars of conflict, Tàpies was fascinated by the notion of human trace. Believing that earthly matter could act as a cipher for invisible existential forces, he began to forge raw mixed-media apparitions, inscribing his surfaces with a range of mysterious symbols, letters and forms. Having achieved widespread international recognition with these creations, by the late 1960s Tàpies began to make increasing use of found objects, including furniture, clothes and household paraphernalia. He saw these worn, worldly items as ‘soaked with life’, imbued with a kind of elemental purity and truth. ‘Let us take, for example, an old chair’, he explained. ‘Although it seems to be nothing in particular, think of the whole universe it contains: the hands and sweat involved in cutting the wood of what was once a robust tree, full of energy, in the middle of a verdant forest high up in the mountains, the toil of the carpenter who lovingly made it, the thrill of the purchaser, the weariness it has relieved … All, all of this is part of life and has its own importance. Even the oldest chair carries inside it the initial force of the sap that rose from the ground’ (A. Tàpies, La Pràtica del Arte, Barcelona 1973, p. 87). The bucket in the present work is similarly charged: seemingly once full of paint – now discharged upon the ground below – it becomes a signifier for limitless creative possibility.