tempera on canvas
Estate of the artist, Nº 489
Estate of Ifigenia Torres, Montevideo
Jan Krugier Gallery, New York
Sale: Sotheby's, New York, 19th and 20th Century Latin American Paintings, Drawings, Sculpture and Prints, November 6, 1980, lot 15, illustrated in color
Private Collection, Guayaquíl
Sale: Christie's, New York, Latin American Sale, November 20, 2002, lot 18, illustrated in color
Sammer Gallery, Miami
Diane and Robert Moss, New York
Joaquín Torres-García's artistic career spanned much of the first half of the twentieth century and developed across continents from Europe to North and South America, and intersected with such leading modern artists as Stuart Davis, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, David Alfaro Siquieros, Joseph Stella and Max Weber. While living in Paris from 1926-32, he became a major protagonist in the development of early European vanguard movements, most notably as co-founder of the Cercle et Carré, a loose association of artists who included such luminaries as Jean Arp, Fernand Léger, Wassily Kandinsky, Kurt Schwitters, George Vantongerloo, and Mondrian, and whose members subscribed to a range of views about geometric abstraction. In 1934, he returned to his homeland of Montevideo and through his unique art, teachings and writings centered on the notion of "Constructive Universalism"— a new language based on a shared tradition of abstraction rooted in Western and non-Western principles—became a lightning rod for introducing modern art practices to artists in the Southern Cone region and beyond.
Executed in 1931 during what was arguably Torres-García's most fertile and active period, Constructif avec rythme dentelé is a classic work from Torres-García's Parisian years. And, while he began exploring abstraction and other vanguard practices prior to his arrival in Paris in 1926, it was most certainly his immersion into that cultural and intellectual milieu that marked his definitive embrace of modernism and the crystallization of his mature style. Coming into contact with the two dominant groups of the time—the surrealists and the adherents of abstraction—Torres-García absorbed aspects of both but ultimately felt a greater kinship to the former. He was particularly drawn to the ideas of the creators of Neo-Plasticism—Theo Van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian—both of whom he met in the late 1920s and whose rigorous geometry and use of pure colors coupled with mystical spiritualism and a utopian vision would resonate well with his beliefs about the intersection of art and life. (Refer to Lot 16 for an excellent example of one of the purely abstract paintings made by Torres-García during this period).
But, ultimately Neo-Plasticism proved to be too constraining and overly rational for Torres-García and while he would adhere to its fundamental principles, he would soon look elsewhere for the missing ingredient that would complete his search for a timeless and universal art. That search would lead him to the study of Mediterranean, ancient and most significantly pre-Columbian cultures. Interestingly, according to art historian Cecilia de Torres, Torres-García's affinity towards Amerindian art was probably triggered by his encounter with the Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros whom he met in Barcelona in 1919 and with whom he collaborated on an issue of Vida Americana devoted to the indigenous traditions of the Americas.1 This interest was no doubt further nurtured by his first-hand exposure to pre-Columbian art and artifacts while in Paris, including the monumental 1928 exhibition Les arts anciens de l'Amérique at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs which included over one thousand objects—the first exhibition of this scope to be presented in a European museum. That following year, the artist's eldest son Augusto Torres secured a position at the Musée d'Ethnologie de Trocadéro cataloguing their collection of pre-Columbian pottery. The young Torres's position at the museum gave the elder Torres-García unlimited access to the collection which he feverishly studied including such objects as Nazca pottery and Peruvian textiles, as well as the monumental ancient stone carvings of Bolivia's Tihuanaco Gate of the Sun. 2
This immersion into the ancient arts of the Americas provided Torres-García with the crucial element that would enable him to transition from pure geometry to a particular approach to abstraction simultaneously rooted in European vanguard practices and the archetypal and timeless forms of pre-Columbian art. Executed in 1931 at this critical juncture, Constructif avec rythme dentelé is an extraordinary example of this groundbreaking moment of innovation and experimentation that led Torres-García to develop his trademark style and which defines his unique contribution to the history of modern art—"Constructive Universalism." Indeed his interest in Amerindian cultures, as art historian Cecilia de Torres has rightly articulated, resided not in a superficial desire to "extract decorative, exotic or folkloric elements from earlier art. [But rather] by understanding the metaphysical faith of the Indians and sharing in the transcendental essence of that faith, and particularly by sensing the way the relative or the particular was illuminated by a universal concept, Torres-García sought to enter into the spirit of the Indoamerican cultures so they could more accurately isolate and consolidate the geometry and the particular proportions that defined American art."3 That search for a quintessentially American perspective distinct from the European approach to abstraction would likewise resonate with post-War North American artists, most notably among key members of the Abstract Expressionist movement, including Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb all of whom absorbed aspects of the archaic and the "primitive" as a key source for evoking the essential and universal in their art.4
Torres-García's remarkable transition to this new art is evident in Constructif avec rythme dentelé in which the pure structure of geometric abstraction is infused with a timeless language that asserts the universality and humanistic values of non-figurative art across all cultures and ages. The word "dentelé" in the title is French for "shaped like teeth" and here refers to the jagged or serrated edges of the bands that separate various sections of the pictorial surface. The latter reflects the artist's absorption of the geometric forms of Nazca ceramics and the complex patterns of Wari (or Huari) textiles he had studied. Likewise Torres-García's use of an earth-toned palette of reds and ochres muted with white overtones suggest the polychrome surfaces of ancient artifacts. And, while the composition's overall proportions correspond to Torres-García's adherence to the principles of the classical practice of the Golden Section, the alternating horizontal and vertical bands suggests the intricately woven patterns of Peruvian textiles. Here too, the artist seamlessly combines the structure of Neo-Plasticism with the careful selection of a limited range of archetypal motifs positioned within the compartments created by the grid-based composition. The schematic, yet highly recognizable pictographs include a house, man, spade, irrigation pump, clock, ladder, ship, fish, and anchor—each employed for their symbolic import, rather then their mimetic function. Indeed, here Torres-García relied on the teachings of surrealism with regards to the power of the subconscious and associational. Upon encountering these images they inevitably trigger our imagination and experience. Despite their simplicity, their symbolic strength resides in their ability to communicate across civilizations—to convey the timeless and universal values of humanity. Therein lies the genuine contribution of Torres-García's unique art—his extraordinary ability to draw upon myriad traditions and sources in order to assert the common threads that unite all cultures and beings—a truly humanistic and utopian vision fueled by the spirit and promise of modernism.
1 Cecilia de Torres, "Joaquín Torres-García, Constructif avec rythme dentelé," Latin American Art, November 20-21, 2002 (New York: Christie's), Lot 18, p. 34.
2 For a more in depth discussion of this topic see Valerie Fletcher, "Joaquín Torres-García" in Crosscurrents of Modernism: Four Latin American Pioneers, Diego Rivera, Joaquín Torres-García, Wifredo Lam and Matta (Washington, D.C.: Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in association with the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992) pp. 111-113.
3 Cecilia de Torres, "The School of the South: The Asociación de Arte Constructivo, 1934-1942" in Mari Carmen Ramírez, ed., The School of the South: El Taller Torres-Garica and Its Legacy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992) p. 15.
4 For a more in depth discussion of this topic see Irving Sandler, "The Myth-Makers" in Irving Sandler, The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism (New York: Icon Editions, Harper and Row Publishers, 1970), pp. 62-71.
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