PROPERTY OF PATRICIA PHELPS DE CISNEROS, SOLD TO BENEFIT THE LATIN AMERICAN INITIATIVES OF THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK
Axel Stein: Cecilia, what are we looking at, what do we see?
Cecilia de Torres: You see HUMANITY, man and woman in the COSMOS, look at the sun and the moon, you see SCIENCE and a nod to the SPIRITUAL in the triangle with the number one…LIFE! This painting is a human figure. You have in the upper center the head surrounded by symbols and two hands opening on the sides reaching out to a clock and a compass, TIME and PLACE. Then you see a key, that is the key to REASON and the anchor for HOPE and sound ethical behavior. Now this, in the center is very enigmatic, almost like a primitive being. There are a number of paintings with this entity at the center of the composition; I remember Constructivo avec Figure Etrange, catalogued as circa 1931 and sold by Sotheby's in 1995. On the sides, you have more LIFE, animal life represented by the fish and the shell. But, let’s look at the axis of this quite symmetric painting from bottom to top: the temple, then a bridge which signifies TRANSITION, QUEST, female genitalia (is it really?) then the primitive man and, above all, the triangle of ORDER and stability.
AS: The classical temple is at the bottom. (Fig. 1) Like many other symbols, it is a recurring theme. In the painting, it is obviously at the base and mirrors the top triangle “hat” of the primitive man's head/mask. The artist chose to sign and date in the temple area. What does the temple mean?
CdT: I brought with me a book written by Torres, Estructura of 1935. Here's what he says about the temple:
“The door is low and narrow. To enter into the truth, man must abstract himself from the outside: there is the origin of the temple. The temple could be a poem or a painting, music or sculpture.”
AS: Here, CdT interrupts her reading and adds: “how fantastic, how wonderful: a work of art can be your temple! You can enter it and be there, in a sacred place. The fact that the TEMPLE is at the base of this construction is just phenomenal. For Torres, the painting is a sacred place.”
JTG continues: "The way, then, is not lost. We see that a thousand doors can guide us, and we know them. But, have we truly realized that these were “doors” and not “art”? Aesop is as important to me as Archimedes or Bach. Because they will tell me the same thing. … we must understand everything. And to understand we must be." (1)
AS: The construction is quite architectural, the double lines of the grid gives more “air” to the composition but it also suggests a sense of dimension. Also, the painting is obviously very graphic but it is also very “painterly."
CdT: The use of the pink palette is very unusual. We need to remember here that Torres-García had almost turned his back on color because he thought it would be too distracting. In this same year of 1932, Torres ventured -again- into color. I remember a very powerful painting from a Chicago collection that had greens, violets and acid yellows. In this painting you see grays, pinks and blues gently modulating the composition.
AS: Constructivo doble línea is dated 31 December 1932. What does that date say to you?
CdT: This is quite interesting indeed! This means that it was one of the first works painted in Madrid, not Paris. Remember that Torres and his family settled in Madrid in November of that year. Paris was submerged in the economic crisis started by the 1929 crash in New York. Torres had to move out of Paris with his whole family. He could not sell a single painting. The early 1930s, after a decade of ruthless dictatorship, Madrid seemed to be the new (and shortly-lived) center of hope for Spanish intellectuals and artists. The king fled the country in 1931 and the first “progressive” government of the so called Second Republic was sworn in. A few notable intellectuals joined the government. For instance, Ortega y Gasset was considering giving Torres a job as an art professor but he was hesitant to take the job...
AS: This painting closes the year 1932. What does 1933 bring?
CdT: You are right; he closes a door and opens a new one. In 1933 he is looking at something completely different which is the discovery of Pre-Columbian art in the National Archaeology Museum of Madrid. This is the time when he executes the large paintings with Pre-Columbian figures and geometric motifs. (Fig 2).
AS: This work could be catalogued as a Modern painting but we have chosen to include Torres in our Contemporary Art sale. Torres' constructions were influential in early Madi and other movements related to the contemporary zeitgeist. Although many artists from the 1940s in Latin America were not aware of Torres-García's work, by the 1950s, much of the Latin American avant-garde was looking at fundamental constructions, progressions, structures and a sense of rationality which could arguably be related to JTG . That is the spirit that defines the Concrete, Neo-Concrete and the Kinetics to mention a few.
CdT: Torres-García not only opened doors in Latin America, he also opened doors in the United States. Remember that Sidney Janis exhibited Torres in 1950 in his New York gallery and we know that Barnett Newman fell for Torres. There is record of his impromptu lectures in front of the paintings and even if Gottlieb often denied it, he saw several Torres paintings bought by [famous art collector, artist and modern art promoter] Albert Gallatin at the Gallatin Museum of Living Art in New York, before MoMA was even open! (Fig 3) We are talking about the 1930’s! In fact the US knew about Torres-García before he was known and recognized in Latin America.
We are thankful to Cecilia de Torres for taking the time to meet with us for this interview.
(1) Joaquín Torres-García, Estructura, Ediciones La Regla de Oro, Montevideo, 1974, p. 171
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