Joaquín Torres-García

Hayward Gallery

Joaquín Torres-García was born in Uruguay in 1874; in 1893 he moved with his family to Barcelona, where he studied at the Academia de Bellas Artes. Following close to 19 years of almost continual travel throughout Europe, he settled in Paris in 1926, and subsequently became involved in the circle of avant-garde artists that included Georges Vantongerloo, Piet Mondrian, and Theo van Doesburg, whose geometric abstractions influenced Torres-García's development of a “Universal Constructivism.” Torres-García believed that an ideal representation of reality could be achieved through the integration of abstract ideas of objects, or pictographs, into an ordered grid. In a 1929 essay, van Doesburg quotes the artist as saying,

There is no time, no space, no matter. There is no relationship between things, no separation. Far away from any fatherland, there lies the universal, the place where art, science, religion are one and the same.

Painted in a restricted palette of chalky grays, browns, and greens, and obsessively stuffed (like Louise Nevelson's cupboards) with a hodgepodge of personal symbols, Torres-García's paintings waver between blank abstraction and veiled symbolism. They are concrete objects somewhat debased by rigid conceptualization. As with the essentials about life on Earth inscribed, in abbreviated form, on the side of the US space probe Voyager, one wonders if Torres-García's sign language is as universally intelligible as he had hoped.

While men and women are reduced to paper dolls, sexually differentiated by breasts or trousers, Torres-García better retains the essence of animals, even in the cartoon of a bovine creature whose head has been placed in the middle of its hunky body in order to make it fit into its square niche. Indoamerica, 1941, is an even livelier incarnation of nature. Painted in black oil pigment on a brown animal hide, fish, boats, pyramids, mathematical symbols, and arrows are interspersed with zigzag waves and underbrush; oddly, the painting is dominated by a square, rudimentary face in an upper corner—a rather empty-looking Quetzalcoatl to have created such a world.

Torres-García felt that art, and artists, ideally advanced from imitation (naturalism), through spiritualism, to abstraction, and his own work became more visually striking as his doctrinaire symbolism softened. His grids, based on the sublime proportions of the Golden Section, are like details of pre-Columbian temple walls. But the slabs of “stone” in Metaphysical Thoughts, 1941, are violated by European-influenced graffiti: Pitágoras, Beethoven, Crisfo, El Greco, and so on. Torres-García's subject seems a little broad. But it resists his efforts to reduce it. Even when words and symbols are abandoned altogether for plain networks of tight-fitting squares and rectangles, his paintings materialize into human limbs and torsos, life inadvertently wrung from the philosophers' stone.

Lucy Ellmann