Painted in 1943, the same year he established the Taller Torres-García (TTG) in Montevideo to build a school dedicated to his aesthetic language, Constructivo a cinco tonos
is an emblematic example of Torres-García’s artistic philosophy of Universal Constructivism.
This language of pictograms and symbols is built upon what European artists found to be an uneasy harmony, at once “a geometric grid system based on the Golden Section [Ratio]… [yet] too figurative, too humanistic, too emotional” (Margit Rowell, “Order and Symbol: The European and American Sources of Torres-García’s constructivism,” in Torres-García, Grid-Pattern-Sign: Paris-Montevideo 1924-1944
, Hayward Gallery, London, 1985-86, p. 9). Having moved to Barcelona from Montevideo at 18, Torres-García spent the majority of his early career between Spain, Italy, New York, and most critically the French capital of Paris. There, in 1926 he encountered geometric abstraction, and in 1930 founded (alongside Michel Seuphor) the influential group and publication Cercle et carré
, dedicated to a utopian approach to geometric abstraction. He built a close, albeit contentious relationship with Theo van Doesburg, whose restriction to primary colors and severe “reduction of objects and figures to their essential contours, axes and relationships” inspired him and echoed his own search for harmony and order, but whose calculated and rational compositional approach conflicted with Torres-García’s belief in the centrality of balance between intellect and emotion in artmaking (ibid.
, p. 12). As Torres-García later built his pictorial language of Universal Constructivism, in which he embeds a universally legible series of symbols drawn from diverse realms of human experience within a perfectly balanced grid, he continued to employ van Doesburg’s strategy of reduction and purity.
In Constructivo a cinco tonos, Torres-García’s Universal Constructivism is fully realized. A tightly knit grid of figures, symbols representing time and the cycle of death, alongside many other icons, it presents an infinite number of potential readings. The geometric and architectonic harmony of this vibrant grid is emblematic not only of the influence of Mondrian and van Doesburg, but also of Inca masonry, which is based on certain spiritual and architectural principles that allowed architects to build complex, massive structures able to withstand earthquakes using only perfectly cut stones. “The grid is neither rigorous nor systematic. On the contrary, the gridded forms and geometric configurations appear intuitive and expressive” (ibid., p. 15). The marriage of rational geometry and ancient resonances found in Constructivo a cinco tonos embody the utopian spirit of Universal Constructivism and represent the work of a modern visionary at the height of his career.