New York

View of “Joaquín Torres-García: Toys,” 2022. Photo: Timothy Doyon.

View of “Joaquín Torres-García: Toys,” 2022. Photo: Timothy Doyon.

Joaquín Torres-García

Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949) was a roving messiah simultaneously ahead of and behind the curve—a didactic, derivative pioneer who sought nothing less than to beget a common language that could transcend time and culture. He was also great with kids. Combining these qualities, the Uruguayan-born artist established a toy-making business during the interwar years, a pursuit explored earlier this year in an outstanding survey at Ortuzar Projects. Spurs to children’s imaginations on both sides of the Atlantic, his fanciful playthings were, the show argued, key to Torres-García’s quixotic program of Universal Constructivism, a style that mingled pre-Columbian iconography with strains of the European avant-garde into a novel modernism that aspired to turn “America” on its head (as demonstrated in his iconic 1943 drawing América invertida [Inverted America]). The movement was his second wind, and in the 1930s and ’40s it swept many Latin American artists up in a gust of decolonial fervor.

Working as a schoolteacher and frescoist in Barcelona, Torres-García had by 1917 broken with the reactionary classicism of Catalonian Noucentisme and had finally yielded to the spirit of the new. “Everything is toys and painting!” the forty-three-year-old artist exclaimed in a letter to his friend, artist Rafael Barradas. Under the spell of Friedrich Fröbel’s and Maria Montessori’s progressive pedagogy, he designed his toys to be disassembled and, with interchangeable parts, put back together again. (As metaphors for a war-torn world primed for transformation, his reconfigurable constructions sit somewhere between the ill-starred idealism of the Bauhaus and the gleeful nihilism of Dada.) He handmade all his objects from wood, a material steeped in memories of his family’s carpentry workshop in Montevideo: The past would always belong to Torres-García’s future. Ever the dreamer, he called his start-up Aladdin Toys.

In 1920, the Torres-García family moved to Manhattan, where they lived for two cash-strapped years before returning to Europe. Despite its hardships, New York proved its own playscape: a teetering grid of verticals and horizontals and mechanized speed. The artist sketched everything (storefronts, bridges, people) and met everyone (Stuart Davis, Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney). He drew the city on white overalls and wore them to a gala. He furthered such spatial experiments through his toys, fusing the collage-like geometrization of Cubism with the comic strip. These objects commanded a large white stage at the gallery—a miniature carnival of zoo animals, tropical birds, automobiles, and caricatured metropolitans. Among these more than sixty feats of charisma and pictorial economy were a duck with three swappable heads, a pride of jagged lions and leopards, a wishbone-shaped giraffe, a gray-suited man whose blocky silhouette appears lifted from the Manhattan skyline, and a harlequin worthy of the Cirque Calder (which Torres-García attended with his son in 1928, when the family lived in Paris). Their modular, frontal aesthetic proliferated across nearby drawings and paintings, such as Formas trabadas con figura humana (Interlocked Forms with Human Figure), 1933, whose rather Lego-like configuration apotheosizes a protean New Man.

“Task of childhood: to bring the new world into symbolic space,” wrote critic and toy collector Walter Benjamin, to “recognize the new once again.” Like many modernists inspired by the ideal of the child, Torres-García delighted in the categorical contradictions embodied by toys, things animated by creativity and consensus, progress and ritual: universal yet deeply personal cultural ciphers that manage to sidestep distinctions between abstract and figurative art, not to mention art and nonart (transitional objects, indeed). Accordingly, the transformables Torres-García produced for children can be understood as totems akin to the masks, anchors, fish, suns, and other “primitive” pictographs that fill the irregular Mondrianesque grids of his signature canvases à la Universal Constructivism, whose South American adherents yearned to revive a “pure” Amerindian tradition that had been disrupted by colonization. Shadowed by this nostalgic movement as well as by the current war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine—eighty-eight years after Torres-García’s fateful homecoming to Montevideo in 1934, as fascism crept across Europe—this show’s whimsical creatures walked a curious line between naïveté and disenchantment, the wide-eyed prodigies of a utopia that never stood a chance.