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Antoni Tàpies and the experimentation of engraving

Antoni Tàpies y la experimentación del grabado

The first incentives Tàpies received to explore the field of graphic printing came from various publishers, including Sala Gaspar and Polígrafa. Soon, the artist discovered the vast potential that this medium offered for experimentation with new techniques and materials. The material dimension of the artistic work always captured his interest intensely, becoming even the core of his creation. In this context, printmaking was presented as a window to a vast universe of expression.

Tàpies’ graphic work is distinguished by the expressiveness with which he approached the support, i.e. paper. Working with a white satin paper, completely smooth and without imperfections, contrasts significantly with the choice of papers that present spots or pronounced textures. This last type of support was the one that consistently captured the artist’s interest.

From a traditional perspective, one could say that the artist’s treatment of the support was irreverent. He constantly sought to transform the paper, giving it relief, incorporating foreign elements or even tearing it. Just as his painting moved away from the conventionally pictorial, his graphic work integrated elements generally considered antagonistic to this discipline. He counted on the valuable collaboration of technicians who fearlessly faced the challenges proposed by the artist. However, his exploration of different materials and techniques was not an end in itself. His interest lay in the expressive value that these technical innovations could bring, from a philosophical and experiential perspective.

ocher and black
Etching, “Ochre and black”, year 1970

The Gaspar family is distinguished for being the pioneers in publishing original engravings and lithographs by Tàpies in their gallery located in Barcelona. Entitled “Litos negras”, these works were produced at the Foto-Repro workshop in the same city. Tàpies remembers these projects not only as his initial incursion into the lithographic technique, which was new to him and required multiple tests and efforts before its realization, but also for the challenge of working on smooth surfaces. Despite the complications, he found this challenge exhilarating.

The artist himself positively valued the fruits of his energetic debut in lithography. He faced the challenge of an unfamiliar material, resistant to being mastered in his search for a new channel of expression. In his various lithographic creations, Tàpies individually explored the most recognized techniques: from spontaneous drawing with lithographic pencil on stone, through the creation of densely structured surfaces, to images that, by means of scraping, evoked the effect of aquatint. From this experimentation emerged works of large format and quality that were initially valued for their excellence as lithographs and, in the background, as creations by Tàpies. It would seem that, with a step forward, the artist sought, in his second approach to this medium, to stamp his personal seal using graphic tools. It is considered that his significant works of that period served as a reference for these compositions, which do not so much emerge from the intrinsic graphic capabilities, but rather seem to challenge them.

Black, gray, red, violet and yellow
Etching, “Black, gray, red, violet and yellow”, 1972.

The editorial trajectory of Tàpies’ graphic work

Antoni Tàpies began his incursion into the field of graphic art in the late 1940s, collaborating with Enric Tormo in the creation of his first etchings. About a decade later, towards the end of the fifties, he received an invitation from Sala Gaspar in Barcelona to produce his first lithographs. Shortly thereafter, in the 1960s, he began to collaborate initially with the Galerie Maeght in Paris and later extended his work to the Maeght galleries in Zurich and Barcelona.

In the early 1970s, Tàpies began to collaborate with Ediciones Polígrafa, where he produced etchings and lithographs. Later, in 1987, he began a close collaboration with the Edicions T Gallery in Barcelona, a relationship that was further strengthened in 1988.

Tàpies takes advantage of all available resources to experiment with traditional printmaking techniques, challenging them to achieve innovative results. This leads to the creation of prints of remarkable technical complexity. For this reason, printers have become essential figures in the process of making a print, collaborating closely with the artist, sharing their concerns, seeking solutions to the challenges that arise in each project and ultimately becoming accomplices in the artist’s creative process.

Antoni Tàpies often combined several techniques in a single print: etching, aquatint, roller, soft varnish, lithography, silkscreen, collage, among others. To execute these techniques, the artist has always relied on the experience of professionals who have assisted him in the task of altering conventional printing methods, with the aim of maximizing the expressiveness of the paper. These expert printers have been consulted, whenever possible, to reconstruct the technical process behind the prints.

The papers traditionally used in the field of engraving and lithography are “Vitelas”, a type of high quality cotton paper chosen for its ability to optimally reproduce all techniques. Tàpies preferred to use papers supplied by “ArjoWiggins”, although he also resorted to handmade papers, such as those of Aquari, Capellades, La Franca, Richard de Bas and Japanese papers.

Multi-color lithograph with suede leather application, “Mercuri”, 1978.

At the end of 1987, Antoni Tàpies began a close collaboration with the gallery “Edicions T” in Barcelona, directed by his son Toni Tàpies Barba. Since then, this gallery has been the main publisher of the artist’s prints. In January 2001, “Edicions T” was renamed “Galeria Toni Tàpies”, after a period of transition during which both names coexisted. At the same time, Galerie Lelong has played a crucial role in Tàpies’ graphic career, producing in collaboration with the artist numerous engravings, lithographs and artist’s books.

During these years, Antoni Tàpies maintained his collaboration with the Erker Galerie in Switzerland, continuing a relationship that began in the early 1960s. The Erker Galerie arose from a project led by Jürg Janett and Franz Larese, with whom Tàpies created numerous lithographs and woodcuts, as well as artist’s books in collaboration with various authors and artists.

Finally, Tàpies also continued his relationship with Edicions Polígrafa of Barcelona, with which he produced prints, lithographs and artist’s books on a sustained basis since 1970. In addition to these publishing collaborators, the artist participated in various publishing projects, detailed in each case, which resulted in the creation of prints, artist’s books, folders, catalogs, posters, and exlibris. These works linked Tàpies with various fields of culture, science, medicine, education and politics.

Aquatint and carborundum, “Z”, year 1979.

Peculiar stamping methods

Tàpies ‘ decision to employ traditional methods in his graphic work may derive from his emotional rejection of modern reproduction techniques, which probably prompted him to explore and later adopt classical technical means. This attitude of Tàpies is aligned with his notable distance from contemporary industrial design. However, he did not hesitate to resort to mechanical procedures when his compositions included elements such as newspaper fragments, fabrics or rigid materials.

Tàpies moves away from the traditional approach of highlighting the values of the inked surface through reliefs. Although he continues to use the relief printing technique, he gives it a completely different meaning. Relief becomes intrinsically valuable and becomes the vehicle for incorporating real objects into the composition. This form of abstraction is closer to reality than any representation that seeks a high degree of similarity. Elements such as a piece of string or a pair of scissors are not only represented, but have been a physical part of the work. In this context, the relief plays a role similar to that of the footprints left by a foot or other parts of the body.

The legacy of his engravings

There is often a tendency to underestimate the relevance of engravings and lithographs within the total corpus of his artistic work, relegating them to a secondary level or considering them as sporadic activities. However, it should not be forgotten that there are single prints that are of great importance to the artist, as well as illustrations designed specifically for bibliophile books and the books themselves, which in many cases constitute a work of art in their own right. Tàpies had a natural and profound relationship with the book, not only as a collector and reader, but his personal inclination led him to pay special attention to the artist’s book, driven by its very essence and character.

As far as his printing methods are concerned, the attention and relevance that the artist gave to the material is evident, but when delving into the visual aspect, the execution of his prints exudes a primordial strength that fully justifies the enduring popularity of his prints and the timeless impact of his art. These elements have consecrated Tàpies as one of the great modern masters of the 20th century. The use of red and black colors, together with carefully selected materials, results in works of an apparent simplicity that, together with the quality of his graphic prints, constitute part of the legacy that the Catalan artist has left for lovers of modern art.

carrer de wagner
Etching on suede leather, “Carrer de Wagner”, 1988.

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