In Antoni Tàpies’s Empremtes de plats (Plate Prints) a thick cloth appears to be cast horizontally over the center of the painting’s field. A table has been set on top of a warm, mottled gray backdrop, where graphic marks morph into vague letters without coherence. The work is all surface and texture: The literal impression or “fingerprint” of two opposing table settings complete with plate, knife, fork, and a set of glasses, coexists with gouges, carved edges, and slices through thick impasto. As with many of Tàpies’ works, banal materials— plates, clay, dirt, mineral powder, cloth—are mysteriously elevated, revealing, as the artist himself said, “the most secret innerness of things.”
The landscape of the table is ghostly pale and marred by various marks. A quotidian dinner scene alchemized into a painting: abstracted, made vertical, flattened a bit, framed, imprinted by the things of the table with the invitation to dine still present. Simultaneously spectral and actual, the painting haunts its reference. Simultaneously indexical and symbolic, the piece delays immediate apprehension, with abstraction, thingness and language all hovering in a liminal gray space. This delay in apprehension is carefully calibrated by the artist to refuse totalizing legibility. As a voracious reader, noted writer, active political figure, iconic painter and printmaker, Tàpies himself defies singular categorization and, unsurprisingly, so does his work. It is a sophisticated example of Tàpies’ particular style of ambiguity, openness and pluralism, a stark contrast to the bludgeoning realism of fascist propaganda and the consequential aims of government-sanctioned culture.
Tàpies’ scene floats instead into the wide-open space of interpretation. A roughly triangular form cut through the raised white band suggests an exchange, perhaps the energetic relationship between two invisible diners. A domestic tableau, memorialized in marble dust, is intensified by this violent gesture, which evokes the quick expressive movements of the artist’s body. These slices and punctures nod to the symbols and letters at the bottom of the composition, each linear and loaded with the potential energy of meaning. The forensics of these marks of making speak to the scrawled letters, each more ideogram than alphabet, direct forms not in need of signification. Psychologically, these gestures and crackedopen letters point me outside the frame to an imagined pair of eaters…
These implied diners: Are they a married couple? Complete strangers? What is the nature of their exchange, loaded with all of these punctuating and energizing marks? Is it fertile, inscribed with a pubic triangle? Violent? Implying some kind of rupture or break? Is their conversation deflected by time or elemental forces? Or is the whole scene a relic from some Vesuvian explosion, a tableau frozen in time for vandals to graffiti and gouge?
The lines in Tàpies’s work are infinitely suggestible, their meanings shifting as you look and think and construct. As in his works Enveloppe(The Envelope) from 1967 or Chaises (Chairs) from 1981, among many others, the artist’s graphic handling projects an emotional and spiritual webbing onto otherwise muted surfaces and everyday objects. These linear linkages and pathways suggest energy and communication, a transfer of meaning or exchange, and construct a particular affect that inflects each piece. Five simple lines in Enveloppe produce a recognizable object, conveying a concealed message. The fibrous yet ephemeral lines in Chaises produce an accelerated dynamic, a frisson between two opposing chairs. Between the direct impression of two sets of things (two place settings, two chairs, the line turned envelope), a third thing emerges, as with metaphor. Two concrete things form an arc, a symbolic bridge to reach something else, otherwise ineffable, above the thingness of the world. This third thing appears and dematerializes, in my view, in the inchoate form inhabiting the middle of the triangular shape in Empremtes de plats— a collection of markings that appear to have been blotted out, but still haunt the surface. That vague, shapeless shape is the center around which the energy of the composition moves. Or the smudged hook form in the middle of Enveloppe, or the fragile tendrils that stretch taut against the blank field of Chaises. Ultimately, in all three pieces that third thing is the gestalt of the work itself.
In Empremtes de plats what is there to consume? What, really, is on the table? A specific void is on display: Everyday life is the tool, the template, to impress upon raw matter. Koanlike, the empty table is dynamic — blank, full, specific, abstracted, formless, formal all at once. The viewer is invited to this universal dinner table then loosed upon the world to inscribe her own mysterious hieroglyphs onto the transcendent humility of her daily life.
Published in Tàpies, today. Barcelona, 2019. Mayoral. p. 64 – 67
Picture: Empremtes de plats (1973) Mixed media on wood. 98 × 130 cm