He was born into a cultured middle-class Catalan family that had been involved in publishing and the book trade since the mid-nineteenth century, something that instilled a love of books and reading in the artist from a very early age. As a young man, he abandoned his law studies to devote himself to painting, creating art through collage (sheets of newspaper, tinfoil, rope) and earthy paintings using grattage (scraping off paint) and graffiti. In his early years, along with other Catalan artists and intellectuals, he founded the «Dau al Set group» (1948). This movement supported his first exhibitions, which were already clearly showing his interest in Surrealism.

Around 1949, renouncing the effects of the material, he devoted himself to painting in predominately grey tones punctuated by vivid colours (green, red) of variable importance, and paintings featuring textile prints, signs (semicircles, triangles) and deformed letters. In 1954, after teaching a course in abstract art at the Menéndez Pelayo International University in Santander, he once again began working with material. He used mortar (mixing crushed marble into the oil paint and using powdered pigments dissolved in latex) in his canvases to rediscover the age-old tradition of a fossilized world of faded colours, for which he won the 1958 Carnegie Prize.

His post-1965 work belongs to Neofiguration and Arte Povera: hessian, rustic objects and everyday objects become part of his works, which become known worldwide (Grey Matter in the Form of a Hat, 1966, Three Chairs, 1967, Two Crosses, 1967). In the seventies, his “sculptures in space” make the subject (assembled timber, chairs, clothes, burned books) stand out from the canvas to remain fixed in space and present a harsher look. These had previously been sunk into the material on the canvas or modelled in it. Through this work, Tàpies brings a very important emotional charge to Arte Povera.