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Tàpies. Foregrounding Reality

Tàpies’ production in the 1960s and 1970s is characterised both by the consolidation of the language of the ‘matter paintings’, begun around 1954–55, and by his determination to incorporate the object into his work. In common with a new generation of artists working in the late 1950s, reality came to the fore as a reaction against the predominance of Informalism and Abstract Expressionism over the preceding two decades.

Tàpies had been interested in matter since the beginning of his career in the 1940s. He was attracted to non-traditional pictorial materials, the ordinary, ‘poor’ and humble objects he found in his everyday environment. While initially these were intended to be interpreted from a symbolist perspective that emphasised metaphor, allegory and myth, from the mid-fifties they assume a more specific reading. Although Tàpies’ mature work was labelled as Informalist and abstract, in fact it appealed directly to reality, since the materials ceased to be subject to an idea and became the idea itself, in which form and matter coincided. The canvas was no longer a window onto the world, but had become a physical wall.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Tàpies like many of his contemporaries looked to the influence of Marcel Duchamp while seeking new forms of expression to extend the idea of realism. While the readymade reflected the impact of industrialisation on the work of art, blurring the traditional boundaries between painting and sculpture, Duchamp also highlighted the gap between the artist and the viewer, leaving the latter to complete the work, so opening up new possibilities and redefining the creative act. Both in Europe and in the United States, this context resulted in a wide range of new approaches that became known collectively as New Realism and which stretched from turning the painting itself into a form of object, or even replacing it with an object, to actions, happenings or performances, or the removal and manipulation of torn posters, known as décollage.

In the 1960s and especially after 1970, the presence of objects in Tàpies’ work grew exponentially, while his first designs for the stage linked him to the world of theatre. Tàpies was drawn to used objects – old furniture, household utensils, dirty clothes – that carried the traces of the passage of time and human manipulation. These are real, everyday objects that make reference to the world around us. They are deliberately anti-modern, and in selecting them the artist expresses a rejection of consumer society. Some critics have noted that Tàpies’ use of ‘poor’ objects and materials anticipated certain traits that would come to the fore with the heterogeneous group of artists that from 1967 came to be known as arte povera, or even among the post-Minimalist reaction that began around 1969 – although the term was not coined until 1971 –. However, despite certain commonalities, unlike these artists Tàpies integrated his objects into his artistic language through interventions that almost invariably revealed the artist’s hand or gesture, and which imprinted his personal stamp on the work.


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