Antoni Tàpies, ‘Extensio’, 1999. Mixed media and collage on wood. 78 3/4 x 86 1/2 in. / 200 x 220 cm. © Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona/VEGAP, Madrid, 2012 / Photography by Gasull Fotografía, Barcelona. Since the earliest stages of his career in the 1940s, the paintings of the late Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies Hon RA have comprised of much more than just oil on canvas.
Chalk, newspaper, string, sand, tar, wax and soil were just some of the materials used to extraordinary effect in his canvases, bringing the stuff of the outside world into highly tactile wall-hung works.
The way he moved beyond collage – manipulating sediment, for example, as if it was impasto paint – placed him at the forefront of the European avant-garde and helped set the stage for the mixed-media art of movements such as Arte Povera in the 1960s.
Antoni Tàpies, 'Tassa sobre gris', 2001. Mixed media on wood. 78 3/4 x 78 3/4 in / 200 x 200 cm. © Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona/VEGAP, Madrid, 2012. Photography by Gasull Fotografía, Barcelona. Timothy Taylor Gallery’s presentation of ten works from Tàpies’ last two decades – obtained directly from the artist’s estate a year after his death – reminds us of the artistic gold this Barcelona-born alchemist was able to refine from the most unrefined materials.
Sometimes the meaning these substances carry from their previous lives remain in their new arrangements. Prajna-Dhyana (1993) and Extensio (1999) employ real curls of hair to represent the pubic hair for a female and male respectively; in the latter the male body is an expanse of sand, and the phallus a calligraphic swoop of black. In Tassa sobre gris (2001) spray-paint marks out a coffee cup in a similar style, the form applied to a thick grey ground and hovering in the picture plane above a foreshortened white table.
Antoni Tàpies, 'Espai-visio', 1996. Mixed media on wood. 98 1/2 x 118 in / 250 x 300 cm. © Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona/VEGAP, Madrid, 2012. Photography by Gasull Fotografía, Barcelona.
But as former Royal Academy Exhibition Secretary Norman Rosenthal wrote in an essay of 2010, “His art represents the aesthetic that goes from the very particular to the general, from the descriptive to the philosophical and the political”.
The crucible for Tàpies’ philosophical concerns seems to be semiotics. In Espai-visio (1996), eight letters of the alphabet are scratched out on an earth-like ground in a diagonal line to form a word that makes no sense, above two gloops of poured white paint. Is Tàpies telling us that language is as essentially abstract as those white marks?
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine