Pontevedra, Museo de Pontevedra, J.Torres-García, obra constructiva, 1996, no. 5
Lisbon, Fundação Arpad Szènès-Vieira da Silva, Torres-García, obra constructivista, 1996, no. 3, illustrated in color in the catalogue
Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Heterotopias: Medio siglo sin-lugar: 1918-1968, 2000-01, n.n., illustrated in color in the catalogue
Houston, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Inverted Utopias, Avant-Garde Art in Latin America, 2004, n.n., illustrated in color in the catalogue
New York, The Museum of Modern Art; Madrid, Fundación Telefónica & Málaga, Museo Picasso, Joaquín Torres-García: The Arcadian Modern, 2015-17, n.n., illustrated in color in the catalogue
“The revelation came to him about 1930,” the French writer Jean Cassou recalled, “when he revealed himself as committed to abstraction, in full possession of his truth, of his simplicity.... His abstraction is of the philosophic and geometric order. A primitive freshness, a luminous and ingenious clarity, a reason which is the immediate reason of things, enchant us” (J. Cassou, “Un apôtre: Torres-García” in XXième siècle, Paris, December 1959, n.p.). Torres-García had begun to apprehend the vast philosophical enterprise of contemporary abstract art upon his arrival in Paris in September 1926 and his acquaintance two years later with the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg, co-founder of the De Stijl movement. “Quite simply, we met within the universal,” van Doesburg wrote of their intellectual rapport in 1929. “That is the palette which Torres-García uses.” The rapid, prolific progression of his work from 1928 to 1930 evinced his absorption of De Stijl’s utopian vision, distilled in an axiomatic geometry of straight lines and blocks of primary colors. “In true painting, like that of Torres-García, everything can be expressed and understood in terms of composition and purely pictorial means,” van Doesburg continued. “At this stage of plastic expression, we go beyond the world of things that can be weighed and measured. Structure and structure alone sustains the painting” (T. van Doesburg, reproduced in Torres-García: Grid-Pattern-Sign, Paris-Montevideo, 1924-1944 (exhibition catalogue), Arts Council of Great Britain, London, 1985, pp. 101-02).
For Torres-García, cosmic order was embedded in the gridded, relational structure of the image; but unlike van Doesburg, he never committed to non-objective art, a disagreement that surfaced in their correspondence by the year’s end. “You know I am incapable of staying totally within a framework of completely abstract and pure art,” he wrote, reproaching his friend for privately organizing a group—the short-lived Art Concret—inimical to the diversity of Constructivist practice (J. Torres-García to T. van Doesburg, December 3, 1929, reproduced in The Antagonistic Link: Joaquín Torres-García, Theo van Doesburg (exhibition catalogue), Institute of Contemporary Art, Amsterdam, 1991, p. 34). Torres-García’s mixture of referential and pictorial language was of course anathema to orthodox Neo-Plasticism and its apogee of grid lines and primary-colored planes. Yet in their passing from geometry back to nature, his paintings and contemporaneous wood constructions belied the inevitability of art’s evolution from representation to abstraction, marking a seminal, if still largely unacknowledged critique of modernism’s teleological vision. In hewing to his maverick position, Torres-García resisted the reductionist endgame of Neo-Plasticism and, moreover, cleared the philosophical way for Constructive Universalism, consolidated in his paintings of 1931.
In this seminal year, he crystallized the theoretical and structural basis of his abstraction, integrating a compendium of symbols within the frieze-like, compartmentalized composition of his now most iconic paintings. The expression of his expansive worldview, the grid structured ideograms from three cosmic realms: reason and intellect, soul and emotion, and the natural world. In their totality, Torres-García’s register of signs—snail, star, mask, boat, bridge, fish, clock, ruler, anchor, man—conveyed archetypal ideas and knowledge, sometimes overlaid with autobiographical markers that charted, and universalized, his own peripatetic experience. “Taking the term ‘structure’ onto the universal plane, we can define the nature of the sign, and then recognize that it (the sign) is where the life affirming and the abstract converge,” he explained. “This would be the best explanation for what we consider Constructive Art.” To Torres-García, these synergies of structure and symbol simulated the ideal order and equilibrium of the universe in their “true realization of symmetry…which by relating the abstract to the real, finds its own unity of life within universal laws. Reason and Nature. Intuition and life on one side, Order and Universality on the other” (J. Torres-García, reproduced in ibid., pp. 110-11).
In its dynamic equilibrium and architectonic order, the monumental Construcción en blanco manifests the vital humanism and classicism that cohered in his “cathedral-style” paintings of 1931-32. “It’s a matter of style that I might call cathedral,” Torres-García wrote in 1931. “Something quite strong, quite mature (a synthesis of all my work), quite proper, in a constructive sense, and even better, it’s something new because as [Cubist sculptor Jacques] Liptchitz [sic] says, it is the most ancient prehistory” (J. Torres-García to G. del Torre, November 8, 1931, reproduced in Joaquín Torres-García: The Arcadian Modern (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2015, p. 29). As in the smaller 1931 works Composition symétrique universelle en blanc et noire and Constructif symétrique avec étoile, the strong vertical orientation of Construcción en blanco suggests the stone façade of an ancient building or temple. Symmetrical and almost hieratic in feeling, the painting is inscribed with numerous pictographic symbols, some of them indecipherable, in bas-relief: the clock (time) and schematic columns and edifices (architecture) at the center of the grid are flanked by Universal Man and Universal Woman and, around them, masks (tribal art), fish (nature, life), and the paired anchor (hope) and key (reason, threshold). This composite symbology, equilibrated within a linear scaffolding that sometimes corresponded to the Golden Section, implied universal order and transcendence, projecting Torres-García’s neo-Platonic vision of art as an ideal representation of reality.
Construcción en blanco just preceded the formalization of Torres-García’s theory of Constructive Universalism, expounded in innumerable lectures and writings following his celebrated return to Montevideo in April 1934. A catalyst of geometric abstraction in the Southern Cone, the Taller Torres-García promulgated an idea of American art based on a radical inversion of the South American map—“our North is the South,” Torres-García declared—and, implicitly, a New World order (J.Torres-García, reproduced in El Taller Torres-García: The School of the South and Its Legacy (exhibition catalogue), The Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, 1992, p. 53). Implicit in his reorientation of American—or “Indo-American,” as he preferred—art was the reclamation of its indigenous patrimony, in particular from the cultures of the Peruvian altiplano. He had seen ancient Andean art in Paris at the Musée du Trocadéro, including a cast of the Tiwanaku Gate of the Sun, a monolithic portal that doubtless also served as a point of origin for his cathedral-style paintings. The limited tonal palette of Construcción en blanco, delicately shaded in grey and ocher, may recall the granite surfaces of similar carved-stone reliefs; it anticipates the prevalence of monochrome in his Montevidean period and the primacy he later accorded to structure and symbol over color. In foregrounding the archaic sources of Indo-American art, Torres-García arrived at ideographic abstraction a decade before the “myth-making” Abstract Expressionists, among them Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb, and Mark Rothko. Indeed, the enormity of his hemispheric project resonated from his School of the South to the New York School, marking an indelible and original contribution to the history of American abstraction.
Associate Professor, Latin American Art, and Director of Undergraduate Studies
University of Maryland, Department of Art and Archaeology
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