The Worlds of Joaquín Torres-García


Joaquín Torres-García, Arte constructive universal [Universal Constructive Art], 1942. Tempera on wood, 60 9/16 × 60 1/2 inches © Alejandra, Aurelio and Claudio Torres, Sucesion J.Torres-García, Montevideo 2017.

Acquavella’s The Worlds of Joaquín Torres-García is a wide-ranging and substantial look at the Uruguayan master’s career, drawing on material executed as early as the artist’s youth in the late nineteenth century and as late as 1949, the year of his death. One might assume that the titular Worlds refers to the artist’s peripatetic lifestyle—by the mid-1930s he had resided in Barcelona, New York, Livorno, the French Mediterranean coast, Paris, Madrid, and his native Montevideo. The layout of Acquavella’s four gallery spaces, spread across two floors and separated by hallways, could have lent itself to geographical compartmentalization: it would have been easy to present the various phases of Torres-García’s career as separate and self-contained. However, Acquavella has instead emphasized continuity, choosing to focus each space on pictorial and material practices that recur over several decades. This allows surprising connections to emerge and makes it clear that Torres-García carried his Worlds with him wherever he travelled: a rich stockpile of subject-matter, materials, and formal structures that he drew upon freely—habitually revisiting them even as he assimilated fresh intellectual and artistic resources.

Joaquín Torres-García, Constructif avec homme blanc [Constructive Composition with White Man], 1931. Tempera on canvas, 28 13/16 × 23 15/16 inches. © Alejandra, Aurelio and Claudio Torres, Sucesion J.Torres-García, Montevideo 2017.

The most focused of the exhibition rooms showcases Torres-García’s best-known body of work: the powerful, near-monochromatic grids developed in the 1930s and 1940s. Packed with evocative and allusive symbols, works like Infinito (1943) bring the primal, timeless, and archetypal into contact with a paradigmatically modern visual structure. Such collisions are central to Torres-García’s Constructive Universalism, the aesthetic philosophy associated with these paintings. After returning to Uruguay in 1934, Torres-García dedicated himself to teaching, and his constructive paintings had a decisive influence on the evolution of geometric abstraction in Latin America. However, the schematic grid structure Torres-García favored and the vocabulary of “construction” that he used to describe it grew, in part, from the time he spent in Paris between 1926 and 1932.

In Paris Torres-García found himself at the heart of the interwar avant-garde. He established the influential artist group (and publication) Cercle et Carré with Michel Seuphor, became acquainted with figures like Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg, and Jean Hélion, and familiarized himself with the principles of International Constructivism. One of Acquavella’s four rooms focuses on this intellectual and artistic milieu. The abstractions shown here are dominated by the primary colors—Mondrian’s calling card—and compositional structures that oscillate between Neo-Plasticism’s linear networks and the flattened interlocking planes characteristic of late Cubism. In addition to works completed in Paris, this room also includes several executed years later in Montevideo that renew coloristic or compositional principles of the Paris period. Torres-García was not one to cast aside potentially useful tools in the name of a tidy career trajectory.

Joaquín Torres-García, Desnudo de mujer con frontón [Nude Woman with Pediment], 1926. Tempera on canvas, 47 × 29 inches. © Alejandra, Aurelio and Claudio Torres, Sucesion J.Torres-García, Montevideo 2017.

Acquavella’s exhibition goes beyond the easy association of Torres-García’s grids with European abstract modernism. Other, older, and less obvious sources are also presented. One of the two remaining rooms surveys Torres-García’s activities outside of painting. Wood constructions share wall space with clothing and an assortment of works on paper. Among these are two drawings, Suits (1920) and Downtown New York (1919 – 21), that were executed in New York City, and render urban crowds or architecture as tightly-packed assemblages of geometric forms. Given the schematic figures that often appear in Torres-García’s constructive paintings, it is difficult not to see such drawings as anticipating those iconic later works.

Joaquín Torres-García, Objet plastique (Barco abstracto) [Plastic Object (Abstract Ship)], 1928. Oil on wood, 15 5/8 × 9 1/2 × 1 1/2 inches. © Alejandra, Aurelio and Claudio Torres, Sucesion J.Torres-García, Montevideo 2017.

The last of the exhibition’s four rooms focuses on Torres-García’s sustained interest in representation. A design for a wall painting (1914) and a work in tempera titled Maqueta (1914) both display a distinctly classicizing style—think Pierre Puvis de Chavannes—informed by Noucentisme, a Catalan art movement fascinated by pastoral Mediterranean antiquity. This suggests yet more remote points of origin for Torres-García’s later abstractions and near-abstractions. Beyond the important shared emphasis on formal discipline and clarity of composition, Torres-García also lifts specific forms from the repertoire of the Classical tradition. For example, the wood support of Maqueta takes the form of an ancient Greek temple façade, a motif that also appears frequently in Torres-García’s grids. Its presence is conspicuous, for example, in Arte universal (1949), the latest work included in the show.

Joaquín Torres-García, Representación de la Tierra-Pachamama [Representation of Earth-Pachamama], 1944. Oil on wood, 20 × 34 5/8 × 2 inches. © Alejandra, Aurelio and Claudio Torres, Sucesion J.Torres-García, Montevideo 2017.

The importance of the figure in Torres-García’s classicizing and otherwise representational works throws his abiding interest in the body into sharp relief. Consider a work like Composición cosmica con hombre abstracto (1933), in which an abstracted, schematic figure dominates the painting, transformed into a theoretical diagram of mental, emotional, and sensory experience. This impulse to transform the body into an expression of aesthetic philosophy is perhaps most poignantly expressed by New York Suit (1921), an outfit that Torres-García covered with grid patterns and the iconography of industrial urban life. Here, the stuff of modernity is inscribed on the primal humanity of the body, and the artist makes himself over into an hombre abstracto—a materialization of Constructive Universalist principles as potent as any painting in Acquavella’s exhibition.


Benjamin Clifford

Benjamin Clifford is a PhD candidate at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.