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Antoni Tàpies. The acid is my knife

‘When I dip a copper plate in a bath of nitric acid, the acid becomes the knife.’

Barbara Catoir. Converses amb Antoni Tàpies. Barcelona: Edicions Polígrafa, 1988: 121

 

This exhibition shows a set of prints and artist’s books made between 1988 and 1990, focusing on Antoni Tàpies’ experiments in the field of printmaking. The material aspects of an artwork were of prime importance for Tàpies, hence his interest in constantly trying new elements and techniques. In this sense, chalcography offered him a wide range of possibilities.

For the artist, one of the biggest challenges of this medium was to transfer onto paper the variety of textures that he was able to achieve in his paintings. This was done by using a copper plate that Tàpies treated as though it were a piece of cardboard or paper, and by performing the same operations with his fingers and brushes. It was just another way of attacking the surface by which, as Tàpies said, submerging the copper plate in acid replaced the knife.

Of all the techniques with which Tàpies experimented, this exhibition focuses on chalcography, that is, the process of biting an image into a metal plate through the action of acid. There are two types of chalcographic process: etching and aquatint.

An etching is made by incising a plate covered with a layer of acid-resistant varnish; wherever the varnish has been scratched away, the metal is exposed. The corrosive action of a diluted nitric acid solution bites into the exposed metal, with the immersion time determining the depth of the line. Once the remaining varnish is removed, the plate is ready for printing.

The process of aquatint is similar, but here resin granules are spread over certain areas of the plate and heated. The resin melts and adheres to the plate, leaving minute spaces between the granules. When acid is applied to the exposed metal, the grainy ‘bite’ leads to a tonal effect in the final print.

Unlike much traditional printmaking, most of the works in this exhibition are large-format. Because they were made using standard-sized copper plates, two or even three had to be used to create the different parts of each print. The same applied to the paper, where several sheets where joined, often using heavy-weight paper to increase its resistance. Sometimes, Tàpies even emphasised the joins by allowing the stitches to show.

The etchings and aquatints, as well as the engravings from artist’s books, show a series of images that are related and which establish a common pictorial thread. Motifs such as crosses, feet, letters, etc., reoccur in various forms. However, they do not have a narrative character with a beginning, a middle and an end, but are rather variations on a theme.

The exhibition includes the screening of the documentary Tàpies (1990), directed by Gregory Rood and produced by BBC – TVE Catalunya. It shows Antoni Tàpies’ creative processes using various media (painting, printmaking and ceramics) at different times during his life and career.