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Painterly Abstraction, 1949–1969: Selections from the Guggenheim Collections

June 14, 2011 – January 8, 2012

Themes | Antoni Tàpies, Great Painting (Gran Pintura), 1958

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"What I do attempt is to create images that will cause the observer to look upon reality in a more contemplative way."1

Art Informel (French, "art without form") was a postwar approach to abstraction that appeared to completely break with artistic tradition through its informal, improvisatory, and gestural procedures. It was also called Tachisme, from the French tache, meaning a stain or spot. During the postwar years, it spread throughout Europe and as far as Japan and is primarily associated with gestural painting styles and the use of nontraditional materials on canvas.

Antoni Tàpies (b. 1923) was often labeled a Tachiste because his pooled colors appeared accidental, like stains. He also used many unconventional and modest materials, such as sand, string, bits of fabric, or straw, implying that beauty can be found in the small, the unexpected, and the everyday.

Great Painting (1958) may have been inspired by the walls covered with protest graffiti that Tàpies saw growing up in Catalonia during a period of harsh repression by the dictator Francisco Franco. Made with oil paint and sand on canvas, the rough, marred surface pocked by puncture marks and gouges, suggests a wall damaged over time.2

Notes

1 "Antoni Tàpies. Great Painting. 1958," Guggenheim Museum, Collection Online, accessed May 27, 2011.

2 Ibid.

  • Look together at Antoni Tàpies's Great Painting. What do students notice about it? What questions do they have about it? They may ask, What is it made from? How big is it? How would it feel to touch?
  • Tàpies is considered a part of the Art Informel movement in postwar Europe. The name means "art without form." Ask students to discuss this term. How could it apply or not apply to this work? Tàpies was also labeled a Tachiste (from the French word for "stain") because his pooled colors appeared accidental. Ask students how they would apply this term to the work.
  • Tàpies was known for using nontraditional, modest materials, such as ground chalk, crushed marble, newspaper fragments, and cloth.1 These items could be found for free and were often the detritus of human activity. Why might an artist use these modest materials?
  • For this work, Tàpies first covered the canvas with a layer of varnish. Before it dried, he applied marble dust, sand, and other materials and pigments. Then he added paint to different areas, creating something representational or perhaps simply a stain. When the last layers dried, the material began to crack.2 Think about his process as a group and discuss what effect it has on the viewer. What does the artwork resemble as a result of the materials, colors, and process he used? What mood does it convey?
  • Curators have said that this work resembles the graffitied walls that Tàpies may have seen in Spain during repression by the dictator Francisco Franco. Tàpies has called walls the "witnesses of the martyrdoms and inhuman sufferings inflicted on our people."3 Ask students to discuss this quote. Why do you think he identified walls as "witnesses"? With this quote in mind, look back at Great Painting and think about what it could represent.

Notes

1"Antoni Tàpies," Museum of Modern Art, The Collection, accessed May 27, 2001.

2 "Collection," Fundació Antoni Tàpies, accessed May 27, 2011.

3 "Antoni Tàpies. Great Painting. 1958," Guggenheim Museum, Collection Online, accessed May 27, 2011.

Nontraditional Materials

  • Tàpies often incorporated natural materials, including sand, marble dust, and chalk, as well as discarded refuse, including metal wire, foam rubber, and newspaper fragments, into his paintings. Students will experiment with this technique for this activity.
  • First, ask them to collect a number of natural or discarded materials. Brainstorm possibilities together. Then, ask them to think about the materials visually or symbolically. What do they remind them of and how they can manipulate them in combination with paint?
  • Next, pass out pieces of Masonite to each student and allow them to experiment with combining their materials with paint as well as an adhesive of some kind to bind them to the Masonite.
  • When the work is complete, ask students to discuss what they have discovered. How do the materials change their painting? Which materials worked well as additions? Which did not? Why?
  • Reflect on the process and products by having students walk around the classroom to observe each other's work. How do the materials affect the final works, including their mood and meaning? How would less modest, or inexpensive, materials imply different meanings?

Writing without Form

  • For this activity, students will explore the ideas behind Art Informel through writing.
  • Ask them how they think they could "write without form."
  • Ask them to name the formal elements of writing, such as paragraph, sentence, and essay structures; grammar and spelling; logic; or rhyme in poetry. What would writing be like without these elements?
  • Share some work by poets who have broken with traditional form such as Guillame Apollinaire whose concrete poetry is more concerned with the arrangement of words than with their meaning or poetic qualities. For instance, concrete poets often arrange words in the shape of an image.
  • Now, ask students to brainstorm words inspired by Tàpies's Great Painting and arrange them in two different ways: 1) conforming to traditional form and 2) not conforming to traditional form, which could be "without form" or in a new form, as in concrete poetry.
  • Ask students to compare their results. What do students like or dislike about each approach? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
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