More than a painted canvas Ochre with Six Collages is a hanging sculpture. Like other works from the same period it is seemingly made of stone dust, sand and pigment mixed with latex and applied directly onto a wooden panel. The surface has been etched, shaped and painted while still soft, allowing the cracks typical of the drying process of a natural material to appear.
The work, we are led to understand, is a landscape; it bears its maker’s signature in the lower left corner.
The five letters are mirrored, as if imprinted. A TAPIES is hand-etched, leaving the smooth surface scarred with the traces of the artist’s singular motion.
Numbers surround his name.
The logic of semantics would suggest that these numbers signify a date. They mark the moment the artwork was begun, or maybe when the artist made his final intervention. They point at something tangible, but they also look like primal, random, indecipherable symbols. Randomness is part of the experience, and prevents the viewer from entering either an associative realm or to fully recognizing any familiar form. But order is everywhere too; the precisely laid out forms and lines seem to follow a mathematical design, producing a sense of absolute balance.
Conceivably, the artist witnessed a penumbral eclipse of the Moon on Thursday 18 January 1973. It is hard to be certain about whether he found himself in Barcelona or Paris—the two cities between which he was navigating at the time—but a partial yet perceptible diminution in the light of the moon occurred in the European sky on that precise day at 9.17 pm. It’s even harder to ascertain how this phenomenon affected the turn of events on that evening, but Tàpies’s longstanding interest in Eastern culture might have included Vedic astrology, according to which an eclipse would symbolically bring rebirth.
There are more ciphers in the lower right corner of Ochre with Six Collages. Like a formula to which the key is missing, or never existed, we want to discover the logic behind the series, but meaninglessness catches up with us again. Technically, randomness is impossible to achieve, and getting closer to randomness requires an extremely high state of concentration, achieved through meditation for example. Once in a state of trance, the human brain can free itself from rationality and engage in a certain state of non-intentionality. So what we perceive as random is actually brought about by a higher state of consciousness, one that produces, paradoxically, a greater sense of order.
Floating above, almost at the top and middle of the composition, vertical black scratches that look like hash marks on a school blackboard impose themselves as the protagonists of the tableau. What are they counting?
These lines are also reminiscent of an infantile graffito, one that screams “I’m here” or “I exist.” In every element of Tàpies’s script-like inscriptions there is an underlying ambiguity. The secret message is not so much locked into the impossibility of reading but rather exists in the interaction between each visual element, which often results in what feels like a perfect, yet cryptic balance.
It is said that the work has been produced on a flat cement-like surface. In the process each element, while still in fluid state, has tended to float to where it belonged in order to minimize tension. In art, and everything else, the laws of physics dictate this inevitable harmony. Yet again our natural inclination towards order is tested when a disturbing thirteenth scratch lures the gaze away from the regular order. When deciphering this abstract sentence from left to right, the odd mark at the end of the line is slightly further apart than the other twelve.
Like trenches flanking the composition, rough strips are carved out, outlining a rectangle. At regular intervals this is interrupted by six white ribbons collaged perpendicular to the frame on all sides of the composition. The artist has often created sculptural reliefs on smooth surfaces, developing a materiality which pleases both the fingertips and the eyes. Either removed, added or agglomerated material is used to outline and shape a landscape in the most traditional painterly sense. Colour is toned down, almost absent, except for the natural pigment that provides a title and symbolic charge to the work. Ever since the Neolithic era ochre has been accorded magical powers. For example, this natural pigment made of clay was applied to the body during funerary rituals as a form of rebirth, granting access to the afterlife.
Tàpies often described how, while painting in a state of trance, his creativity was guided by cosmic forces. The artist was sensitive to the role of the unconscious, and in Ochre with Six Collages we see him inscribing a series of symbols though which reality could be interpreted. By suspending the full meaning of his work, making art was not an end in itself but an ongoing method of investigation. Likewise, Tàpies’s work requires the viewer to take an active stance. While contemplating his work, our comprehension is always transitional, fluctuating between conscious and subconscious, rational and irrational, suspended in a state of ever-renewed amazement.
Published in Tàpies, today. Barcelona, 2019. Mayoral. p. 68 – 71
Image: Ocre amb sis collages (1973) Mixed media on wood. 130 × 195 cm