Antoni Tàpies b. 1923, Barcelona; d. 2012, Barcelona
Mixed media on canvas
6 feet 6 3/4 inches x 19 feet 8 1/4 inches (200 x 600 cm)
Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa
2012 Fundació Antoni Tàpies/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VEGAP, Madrid
In the years after World War II, both Europe and America saw the rise of predominantly abstract painting concerned with materials and the expression of gesture and marking. New Yorkers dubbed the development in the U.S. Abstract Expressionism, while the French named the pan-European phenomenon of gestural painting Art Informel (literally "unformed art"). A variety of the latter was Tachisme, from the French word tache, meaning stain or blot. Antoni Tàpies was among the artists to receive the label Tachiste because of the rich texture and pooled color that seemed to occur accidentally on his canvases.
Tàpies reevaluated humble materials, things of the earth such as sand—which he used in Great Painting—and the refuse of humanity: string, bits of fabric, and straw. By calling attention to this seemingly inconsequential matter, he suggested that beauty can be found in unlikely places. Tàpies saw his works as objects of meditation that every viewer will interpret according to personal experience; he sought to inspire a contemplative reaction to reality through the integration of materials unexpected in fine art. The act of contemplation is also inspired by the grand scale of much of Tàpies's work. For example, the two panels of the gestural and atmospheric Ambroisie, completed nearly 30 years after Great Painting, extend the painted space to completely encompass the viewer.
These images often resemble walls that have been marred by human intervention and the passage of time: the scumbled gray and white surface of Ambroisie, for example, suggests concrete that has been scrawled with graffiti. In Great Painting, an ocher skin appears to hang off the surface of the canvas; violence is suggested by the gouge and puncture marks in the dense stratum. These markings recall the scribbling of graffiti, perhaps referring to the public walls covered with slogans and images of protest that the artist saw as a youth in Catalonia—a region in Spain that experienced the harshest repression under dictator Francisco Franco. Tàpies called walls the "witnesses of the martyrdoms and inhuman sufferings inflicted on our people."1 Great Painting suggests the artist's poetic memorial to those who have perished and those who have endured.
1. Antoni Tàpies, La pratique de l'art (Paris: Gallimard, 1974), p. 59.