Joaquín Torres-García, Composition

Joaquín Torres-García, Composition, 1931, oil on canvas, 91.7 x 61 cm (The Museum of Modern Art) © estate of the artist

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re at the Museum of Modern Art, looking at a painting by Joaquin Torres-García called “Composition.” It was made in 1931, between the First and the Second World War. He was born in Uruguay, but as an adolescent, he moves with his family to Catalonia in northeastern Spain, where his father was from. He travels a lot during this early period.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:26] He spends much of his life up until he’s 60 traveling. He’s in Madrid, Barcelona, New York City. He spends a great deal of time in Paris.

Dr. Zucker: [0:37] When he’s in these cities, he’s in the center of the avant-garde. In New York, he makes connections with some of the most radical artists and the most adventurous collectors. When he’s in Barcelona, he’s spending time with Picasso and Joan Miró, and he’s working with Gaudí.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:54] In Paris, he’s similarly engaging with a lot of different artists. He forms a group with some of them called Circle and Square.

Dr. Zucker: [1:01] We’re looking at almost a kind of writing painting, a painting that is drawing on a set of ideas.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:06] Torres-García is trying to reconceptualize the grid.

Dr. Zucker: [1:10] This grid is so different from the grids of fellow Circle and Square member Piet Mondrian, whose use of yellows and reds and blues, blacks and whites, are tremendously formal and remove all representational form.

[1:23] Here, Torres-García is reconstructing the grid so that it becomes a mosaic of elemental forms.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:31] The lines in Mondrian’s painting have been developed using some type of straight edge. Torres-García wanted to draw even more attention to the handmade nature of his art. So he hand-paints the lines.

[1:42] We can see very visible brushstrokes in black, in gray, in white, this roughness of texture. It also gives the different individual grids architectural or three-dimensional qualities.

Dr. Zucker: [1:55] Each rectangle and square contains a recognizable form. These are basic things. A ship, an arrow, a house, a man, an anchor, a fish, a key, a heart, the face of a clock, perhaps a ruler, a bottle, a ladder, a vessel, and a man’s face.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:12] These are symbols, or what technically we should refer to as pictograms, that Torres-García believes are universal symbols that transcend time, that transcend geography.

Dr. Zucker: [2:25] Which he calls Constructive Universalism; this idea that our experiences are the experiences of people in the past at an elemental level and that our experiences in the future will also be tied and connected, that time itself and human experience are not fragmented as is so often represented in the modern industrial world with our precise calendars and clocks, but instead as part of a great and deeply human continuum.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:53] This is not a recognizable ship. This is not a clock that’s telling us a specific time about a specific event. This is not a recognizable human figure. What Torres-García has done is built up these forms using this grid-like structure to give us a sense of universalism.

Dr. Zucker: [3:09] Striving for this ideal of core and universal human values and human experiences as opposed to the political fragmentation that had done so much damage during the First World War and that was again asserting itself in the early 1930s.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:24] Torres-García’s use of these pictograms is borrowing from a number of different traditions. While he’s in Paris, for instance, he’s at the Ethnographic Museum and looking at African art, art that dates to the Americas prior to the invasion of Europeans.

Dr. Zucker: [3:41] So the fact that the artist, who had been born in Uruguay, is rediscovering American culture in Paris is such a perfect example of the colonial condition. For me, this work is an example of the way the artist is grappling with these complex historical circumstances.

[3:57] I think that when people see this painting, there may be a degree of frustration. What does each symbol mean? Should this be read as if I’m reading text? But I think it’s more subtle and more complicated than that.

[4:08] The artist wants a degree of ambiguity here, although art historians have referenced, because of the artist’s copious writings, some symbolic equivalencies. For example, the fish, which is a well-known symbol in the Christian tradition as a reference to Christ, is transformed also to include perhaps the relationship between man and nature.

[4:28] The house in the upper right is the fundamental idea of shelter. Then there’s the clock. He’s thinking about time as a historical force.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:37] This is why he’s drawing on these pictographic forms from across cultures and time. He’s making this larger statement about temporality to create something universal that will be here beyond his time.

Dr. Zucker: [4:49] In fact, his art would have a profound impact on the later South American avant-garde.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:54] He returns to Uruguay at the age of 60 and continues to be extraordinarily active. He writes manifestos, establishes a school. He’s training artists. He has this profound legacy that influences the next generation of artists in places like Brazil, in Argentina, in Uruguay.

Dr. Zucker: [5:14] His impact is also felt outside of South America, most obviously in the work of the US-based Abstract Expressionist Adolph Gottlieb, who creates a series of grids that are clearly informed by Torres-García.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:26] Despite being this artist who is transnational, he’s traditionally been omitted from conversations about geometric abstraction.

Dr. Zucker: [5:35] So many people know the names Picasso or Mondrian, but it’s past time that we also know the name Torres-Garcia.

[5:41] [music]

This work at the Museum of Modern Art

Joaquín Torres-García catalogue rasionné, a scholarly resource dedicated to the documentation of the paintings and sculptures

Torres-García on Google Arts and Culture

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”garciacomposition,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Joaquín Torres-García, Composition," in Smarthistory, April 7, 2022, accessed May 18, 2024,