Political duty was something Tàpies always felt keenly, a concern instilled in him by his father, a staunch nationalist who worked for the Catalan republic in the 1930s: ‘I have always believed that a certain content of ideas - religious feelings, as well as political, together with social consciousness - must be present in art, though subtly so.’ In the post-war years he became indirectly linked with anti-fascist activists protesting Franco’s continued rule, and was even arrested and fined for attending a clandestine meeting with suspected subversives: ‘Franco’s dictatorship was very different from Nazism and Italian fascism. They didn’t consider modern art as dangerous; rather they wanted to use it to make the world believe Spain was a tolerant country. So my problem was to flee from these people who wanted to use me! The fact that I had achieved some distinction abroad granted me protection. They kept a close eye on me, but they were also afraid to meddle.’
Recognition came early for Tàpies, who took up art quite by chance during a prolonged convalescence in the early 1940s. Confined to his bed with a lung infection for almost two years, he read voraciously, from Dostoevsky and Nietzsche to Japanese poetry, and began to draw, making sketches of visitors and countless self-portraits. His doctor was a friend of Picasso, and so introduced him to the great Spaniard; a defining formative moment from which there was no turning back. Though prompted by his father to follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer, Tàpies abandoned his course not long after it had begun and set out to become a full-time artist.
His early work was heavily influenced by the Surrealists. Through Picasso he had met Joan Miró, who would become a great mentor and friend, and in the same year helped found the ‘Dau al Set’, the ‘Seven-sided Dice’ group. His first paintings, naïve and childlike in their depictions of daemonic figures and dancing symbols, reveal an obvious admiration for Miró’s work, as well as Paul Klee and Max Ernst. Ernst’s materialist techniques, in which he scraped paint over textured objects beneath canvas or made rubbings on paper from coarse surfaces, would prove a vital source of inspiration: from as early as 1949, Tàpies was trialling his own use of materials, combining paint with cleaning powders, chalk dust, and dried clay – with mixed results – and creating thick, granular, impasto surfaces through which he scoured, scarred, and gashed with the end of a brush.
Impurities in the various admixtures he tested, which caused the drying oil paint to burst or split, led him to experiment with marble dust. The technique was both excitingly novel and steeped in tradition: Tàpies, alongside members of the New York abstract expressionist and Parisian art informel movements, was among the first to properly advance this method of painting in the 20th century, though it had a historical precedent in the muralists of Ancient Rome, who had used layers of ground marble ‘fixed’ with lime in their frescoes.
Before long, Tàpies was fully immersed in developing a kind of pintura matérica, incorporating everything from non-artistic materials, such as synthetic resins, to everyday objects, from coils of rope to scraps of cloth, on assembled ‘paintings’. This materialist attitude was even taken into the print studio, where Tàpies produced astonishing editions of prints using embossed snippets of string and card in an effort to replicate the textural qualities that defined his work on canvas.
Nor was his approach merely stylistic, either; it offered a depth of meaning greater than the sum of its constituent parts: ‘If you look at the materials I use, they’re full of grains of dust. This grain of dust may contain the entire universe: this substance, which isn’t something unchanging, but in flux, morphing into organic forms…Some materials are quite liquid; when you pour them on the picture, they flow wherever they please. I just channel them a bit, and they turn into a foot or a shoe. All these objects are created from the materials. I love this, because it shows that the universe is one; it is both unique and diverse simultaneously.’
This essential, paradoxical duality – between division and connection, uniqueness and universality, fullness and emptiness – would become the driving force behind Tàpies’ art. It was derived, in part, from a merging of Zen meditation and the philosophies of the Far East – ‘far more refined than our Western thought’ – with modern-day science: ‘The questions of quantum physics have revolutionised the very idea of the subject and the object. You think you are distinct from the things around you, but they couldn’t exist without you. So one keeps adjusting, and the work responds to this worldview.’
This idea was woven into the very fabric of the work: paintings and sculptures that appeared as one were, in fact, built up from many millions of particles or constructed from a collection of disparate parts. Moreover, each painting, print, drawing and sculpture was considered in relation to the next, as if part of a cosmic chain: ‘What I do is always connected to what I’ve already made. I’m already envisioning a collection. I make each piece separately, but I see them as part of a whole.’
In their façade-like texture Tàpies’ works appear as if formed over great periods of time, like volcanic sediment or crumbling plaster walls; in fact, he worked quickly, drawing into gritty paint or lithographic blocks at great speed. One critic likened his painting method to a traditional Japanese archer: rapid release, preceded by long periods of contemplation and reflection. In his enormous studio in Campins, in the aptly named ‘Vallès Oriental’, Tàpies would review multiple works together, aiming for a collective balance of tones and colours.
His palette was earthy: ‘Pure colours – yellow, red, green, blue – have been overused…I’ve used other hues, usually darker, but some luminous too, with lots of white.’ Animating these muted surfaces was an esoteric language of signs, marks, letters and words, the earliest of which, and most frequently employed, was Tàpies’ recognisable cross. Typically ambiguous, suggesting both Christ and the cruciform ‘T’ with which Tàpies signed his name, it infiltrates a great many of the artist’s paintings and prints, a cryptic symbol as pleasing in its visual strength as it is evasive in its significance.
In the final decade of his life, Tàpies spoke of his, ‘Contempt for everything pretentious, grandiloquent, and supposedly very important’ in the face of ‘that which is small and modest.’ A small and modest man himself, it was a message endorsed by the many tiny scraps and sketches that pre-empted his vast, expressive, calligraphic works, and by his commitment to numerous graphic projects in addition to his better-known paintings and sculptures.
His gallerist, Daniel Lelong, spoke of the difficulty in reconciling this silver-haired sage, ever a youthful twinkle in his eye, with the extraordinary energy of his output: ‘He paints with his entire self, with all his soul, with all he’s got, and ultimately with great violence. And this very quiet man, in front of the canvas, becomes a demiurge.’