The Menil Collection, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Sicardi Gallery
J. Torres-Garcia, Man with Red Chest, 1929; painted wood; 6 1/8 x 3 1/8 x 2 inches; private collection
Construcción (Construction), 1935; oil on wood; 17 1/8 x 7 ¾ x 2 5/8 inches; IVAM, Institut Valencià d’Art Modern Generalitat, Spain
If Joaquín Torres-García is still less well-known in North America than he is in South America, a trio of recent exhibitions in Houston made a strong attempt to remedy that situation. The centerpiece of this triad was Joaquín Torres-García: Constructing Abstraction With Wood at the Menil Collection, curated by Mari Carmen Ramírez in collaboration with Menil Director Josef Helfenstein. Its pendants were Joaquín Torres-García: Paintings in Houston Collections at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, brought together by Ramírez, the MFAH Curator of Latin American Art, to balance the principally sculptural bias of the Menil exhibition, and Constructivism in Relief: Taller Torres-García at Sicardi Gallery, which considered the influence of Torres-García through the studio (taller means “workshop”) he established in his native Uruguay.
Joaquín Torres-García came of age in Barcelona, having been born to a Spanish immigrant father and a Uruguayan mother in Montevideo in 1874. The family relocated to Barcelona in 1891 to escape the economic uncertainty of the New World, thus positioning Torres-García to be witness to, if not always exactly a participant in, the European Modernist revolution. In Barcelona he received his first formal art training and met Julio González and Pablo Picasso; he also worked in Antoni Gaudí’s studio and began his career as an artist, writer and teacher. At various times, Torres-García lived in France, Italy and Switzerland, even making a brief two-year sojourn to New York. The bulk of the work in the Menil show is from this period, before the artist returned to Montevideo in 1934.
As a teacher of arts and crafts in a Montessori-style school in Barcelona, Torres-García was captivated by the innate creativity of children, and his first explorations with wood began with a project to manufacture educational toys of interchangeable wooden parts. This project never really proved successful, but in 1924 he produced a small, Cubistic wooden construction, Figure in a Café. Though it would be three years before he produced another such construction, wood would become a significant medium for Torres-García to express his ideas and concerns.
Part of the attraction was the humbleness of wood. As Torres-García developed his aesthetic, he preferred the man-made to the machined, privileging the human and the finite over the absolute and the infinite. As he moved around Europe, he absorbed everything: Cubism, Surrealism, Constructivism, De Stijl and Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism. But all of these various movements and influences are filtered through Torres-García’s lens. Sculptures like Planes of Color (1929), Structure in Primary Colors (1929) and Wood Construction (1934) obviously reference Mondrian’s trademark primary-color grids, which are intended to be understood as expanding into infinity. However, Torres-García’s sculptures are distinctively finite in that they are three-dimensional works having definite boundaries where the planes of color end and the surrounding space begins.
Joaquín Torres-García, Two White Men, 1929 ca.; oil and iron tacks on wood; 10¼ x 3½ x ¾ inches; private collection, New York
Monument, 1944; incised wood; 53 x 39 ½ x 2 inches; private collection
The grid becomes a recurrent organizing motif for Torres-García (Modernist that he was) from about the late twenties onward. The appearance of the grid is roughly coincident with, or may have instigated, the development of what Torres-García called “Constructive Universalism.” Constructive Universalism fused the grid, representing reason, with pictographs drawn from ancient civilizations, representing nature, and asserted that an impulse toward abstraction was fundamental to human nature.
Torres-García’s assertion rested on the example of the so-called primitive arts of African sculpture, Egyptian hieroglyphs and Pre-Columbian South- and Central American artifacts, as well as religious symbolism. The aptly named work Constructive Universalism (1937) illustrates this, and then some. On a vertically oriented wood grid with a thin wash of white oil paint, incised pictographs of the sun, an ankh, a spoon, an eye, an indeterminate animal that may be a dog, a heart, vases and similar receptacles are joined by carvings of more modern symbols such as an anchor, a clock and a pipe (think Magritte), along with the Spanish words for year, light and world. The grid is also the principle format for the paintings at the MFAH; even in the representational Untitled (Faces) (1940), the faces of the crowd are arranged in an orderly fashion and have the appearance of masks, another motif favored by the artist.
In 1943, Torres-García founded the Taller Torres-García, laying the foundation for what Ramírez elsewhere has called the School of the South, and Sicardi Gallery brought together a nice sampling of some of the Taller’s more notable alumni: Julio Alpuy, Gonzalo Fonseca, Francisco Matto, José Gurvich, Manuel Pailos and the maestro’s son, Augusto Torres. They largely continued Torres-García’s constructivist aesthetic, although Alpuy seems less loyal to the grid than his fellow Tallerites. Most of the works at Sicardi are from the 1950s and 1960s, so it wasn’t surprising to find in the grid of Gurvich’s painting, White Constructivo (1956), a “pictograph” of an atom. And Alpuy’s Construction with Red Man (1945) had a correlate in the Menil show, the more diminutive and more abstract Wood Board with Red Man (1931). But the piece most resonant of Torres-García’s work was Augusto Torres’ Constructivo (1968), a busy pictographic grid incised in a thin layer of cement, remarkable both for its form and unconventional medium.
These three Houston exhibitions advance impressive arguments for Joaquín Torres-García as a significant artist, theorist, teacher and mentor. They also advance an argument for a full-scale Torres-García retrospective, though finding a venue large enough might prove daunting. Similarly, an exhibition at the MFAH this past summer mounted to fill an unexpected hole in the schedule, also curated in part by Ramírez, made an unexpected and, in a way, improbable case for Torres-García’s wider influence on the course of Latin American art. North Looks South: Building the Latin American Art Collection contained a single painting by Torres-García, Abstract Tubular Composition (1937). But that single painting hung with a number of works by the Brazilian Constructivists of the 1960s, and not far from the work of Venezuelans like Carlos Cruz-Diaz and Jesús Rafael Soto. The influence was evident. It is not too much of a stretch to say that Joaquín Torres-García occupies a place in the history of twentieth-century Latin American art akin to that of Picasso in European Modernism: he is the wellspring.
John Devine is a freelance writer based in Houston.