New York

Joaquin Torres-Garcia

Royal Marks Gallery

When Adolph Gottlieb’s pictograms of the ’40s were first seen, discussion centered—quite properly—on their Jungian implications, although the compositional type made up of grid and ideograph (which Gottlieb arrogated unto himself) was, in fact, not novel at all but had been fully articulated in the painting of Joaquin Torres-Garcia from the 1920s on. Gottlieb must have encountered this production in his early stays in Paris during the 1930s. If not, he certainly could have become acquainted with Torres-Garcia’s work in New York, as it was on view both at the Museum of Modern Art and the old Museum of Non-Objective Art, as the Guggenheim Museum used to be called. Torres-Garcia’s compositional precepts had been subsumed into the painting of the now ignored Jean Xceron, who enjoyed enormous prestige as a vanguard figure in the 1940s and through whom Gottlieb also could have been made aware of Torres-Garcia’s paintings and theories. (I might add that the pictogram as it is employed in Landes Lewitin’s paintings must also be traced back to Torres-Garcia.) I make these observations partly to enlarge the number of possibilities ascribed to the pictogram by Diane Waldman in her essay on Adolph Gottlieb for the joint retrospective of his work held at the Guggenheim and the Whitney last year, as well as to signal the exhibition of Torres-Garcia’s paintings from 1931 until 1946, recently held at the Royal Marks Gallery.

Joaquin Torres-Garcia died in 1949, in Montevideo, Uruguay, the city in which he was born in 1874. He left South America for Spain at the age of 17, arriving in the Barcelona of Gaudí, whose florid architectural extravagance Torres-Garcia rejected in favor of the tectonic stasis of the Puvis de Chavannes internationalism which was deemed, almost without exception, to be the model of public decoration from the late 19th century until the Second World War. Puvis de Chavannes’s muses, treated more flatly and awkwardly, perhaps are especially important since they testify to a long tradition in Torres-Garcia’s painting of a reticent planarity, a frontal composition, and a play of vertical and horizontal elements which, on Torres-Garcia’s arrival in Paris in 1922, would finally be transformed into a flat grid structure used to box in small pictograms.

In this connection of course, one cannot underestimate Torres-Garcia’s intimacy, one might even go so far as to underscore his racial affinity with Hispanic folk culture, both in South America and in Spain. It is from this widely diversified source that Torres-Garcia’s resolute adoption of a clear primitive and decorative character receives its confirmation. And like such primitive art, Torres-Garcia’s pictures are based on isolated ideograms of universalist import. In this light it is easy to draw a similarity between, say, the pictograms of Torres-Garcia in the early ’30s and certain diagrams of, say, Le Corbusier’s human notations for the Modulor—so clearly are they both schematized and involved in universalist terms, symbols if you like, rather than in niggling particularities. By the 1930s, Torres-Garcia’s work had become direct, architectonic, easily “readable” but in no sense narrative as his earlier Puvis-like work had been.

In 1932, Torres-Garcia published a lyrical summation of his views in Raison et Nature, Théorie, an artisanal, pamphlet of heady and immaculate idealism. “What is REASON?” Torres-Garcia queries. “I can define it thus: Our ability to generalize. By this means we pass from matter to spirit, from reality to the ideal, from life to thought . . .” But Torres-Garcia is able to draw from his spiritual generalities conclusions of a modern dogmatism, views and procedures which remain vital and which are in no sense artistically dated. “With regard to PAINTING. The REALITY on which it must rely admits of no false representation. The picture must remain on the surface, a third dimension not being REAL. The two dimensions of the rectangle, HEIGHT and WIDTH, when in RAPPORT, constitute at the beginning, the single REAL BASE, the basis of the proportions of all that will be inscribed afterward on the surface.” It is of singular consequence that Torres-Garcia arrived at these systematized views partially through his awareness of primitive art—interesting because, despite their origins, they display enormous features in common with the dogmatics of Mondrian.

Certain of the more radical features of Torres-Garcia’s views become more evident in the later paintings—the complexly elaborated surface grows more simplified, the pictograms reduce in number and enlarge in scale. The earlier earth-colored washes are replaced by a more totalitarian and thickly applied range of black to white and are of a starker modulation of form. The picture surface also subdivides in response to abstract rather than ideographic pressures. The style verges on the monumental (the heritage still of Puvis) although it is realized in works of easel scale. The effect is like that of a stele relief. Clearly, Torres-Garcia had achieved one of the major pictorial contributions of the 20th century, similar to that of both Mondrian and Klee, not only in its clear development but, like theirs, also in its deeply pedagogic character.

I hope that my observations will sufficiently testify to the importance of Torres-Garcia’s retrospective at Royal Marks. This private dealer’s effort deserves to be followed by a more ambitious and full resume under museum auspices. Nothing short of this would do justice to Torres-Garcia’s genius.

Robert Pincus-Witten