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Joaquín Torres-García (1874-1949)
Joaquín Torres-García (1874-1949)

Composition Nord - Art Constructif

Joaquín Torres-García (1874-1949)
Composition Nord - Art Constructif
signed 'J. Torres-GARCIA' (upper left) and dated '31' (upper right)
oil on board laid on masonite
31 1/4 x 23 5/8 in. (79.3 x 60 cm.)
Painted in 1931.
Estate of the artist, Montevideo.
Rose Fried Gallery, New York.
Private collection, Europe.
J. Cassou, J. Torres García, Paris, Fernand Hazan, Bibliothèque Aldine Des Arts, vol. 36, no. 9, November 1955 (illustrated in color and on cover).
W. George, "Joaquín Torres-García Un Maitre de l'Art Amérindien," in Revue Francaise, Paris, November 1955, p. 12 (illustrated).
J. Prossor, "An Introduction to Abstract Painting," in Apollo, London, vol. 66, no. 392, October 1957, p. 84 (illustrated).
J. Torres García, Obras Expuestas en el Museo, Montevideo, Museo Torres-García, Boletin no. 3, March 1959, no. 10 (illustrated).
Exhibition catalogue, L. Gomes Machado, V Bienal do Museu de Arte Moderno de São Paulo, São Paulo, Museu de Arte Moderno de São Paulo, 1959, no. 7 (illustrated).
G. de Torre, 37 Obras Comprendidas en el Período 1929-1947, Montevideo, Sala Torres-García, Museo Torres García and New York, Rose Fried Gallery, 1959, no. 16 (illustrated). This publication was issued in conjunction with the 1959 V Bienal de São Paulo.
Exhibition catalogue, D. Robbins, J. Sutherland, T. Messer, Joaquín Torres-García 1874-1949, Providence, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1970, p. 53, no. 20 (illustrated).
S. Torroella, "Con Mondrian al Fondo," "Extraordinario Dedicado al Pintor Torres-García." in Mundo Hispánico, Madrid, no. 326, May 1975, p. 69 (illustrated).
A. Maslach, Joaquín Torres-García: sol y luna del arcano, Caracas, UNESCO, 1998, p. 351, no. 191 (detail of painting illustrated).
C. de Torres and S.V. Temkin, "Art constructif, 1931 (1931.46)" in Joaquín Torres-García Catalogue Raisonné, (accessed on September 9, 2015).
Venice, XXVII Biennale Internazionale d'Arte di Venezia, Sala LIX: Uruguay, June-October 1956, no. 7.
São Paulo, V Bienal de São Paulo, Museu de Arte Moderno de São Paulo, Sala Torres-García, September-December 1959, no. 16.
Montevideo, Museo Torres-García, March 1959, no. 10.
New York, Rose Fried Gallery, J. Torres-Garca Paintings from 1930 to 1949, 1-26 March 1960.
Ottawa, The National Gallery of Canada, Joaquín Torres-García, 3 October–1 November 1970, no. 20. This exhibition also travelled to New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 11 December 1970– 31 January 1971, Providence, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 16 February–31 March 1971.

Lot Essay

“A great School of Art ought to arise here in our country,” Torres-García declared upon his return to Uruguay, in 1934, following forty-three years abroad. “I say it without hesitation: here in our country. . . . I have said School of the South; because in reality, our North is the South. There should be no North for us, except in opposition to our South.” Later rendered schematically in his now iconic, inverted map of South America, his radical topographic reversal challenged the long precedence of European and North American art centers in favor of a New World modernism, radiating from the Southern Cone. “That is why we now turn the map upside down, and now we know what our true position is, and it is not the way the rest of the world would like to have it,” he continued. “From now on, the elongated tip of South America will point insistently at the South, our North. Our compass as well; it will incline irremediably and forever toward the South, toward our pole.” Made while Torres-García was still in Paris, Composition Nord - Art Constructif anticipates this inversion of the map—“the North is now below”—in a classic example of Constructive Universalism, his idiosyncratic vision and theory of art.1

“As the painter Torres-García says, we must live within the universal,” Theo van Doesburg wrote in 1929 of his friend, with whom he shared a commitment to Neo-Plastic (and Platonic) precepts of ideal and balanced harmony. “Quite simply, we met within the universal,” he explained. “That is the palette which Torres-García uses.”2 Following stints in New York, Italy, and southern France, Torres-García moved to Paris in September 1926 and quickly gravitated toward a group of artists exploring paths within geometric abstraction—among them, Piet Mondrian, Georges Vantongerloo, and van Doesburg. He drew closest to van Doesburg, whose progressions within abstraction and humanist universalism suggested a natural, intellectual kinship. Torres-García’s first Constructivist paintings of 1929 evolved out of his engagement with this international avant-garde, which culminated in his co-founding, with Michel Seuphor, of the group Cercle et Carré in 1929. “Creating with no intermediary but the means specific to painting gives us the only freedom worthy of the universal spirit,” van Doesburg declared of Torres-García’s early Constructivist practice. “At this stage of plastic expression, we go beyond the world of things that can be weighed and measured. Structure and structure alone sustains the painting.”3

Torres-García defined his mature practice around the ideal schema of the Neo-Plastic grid, whose geometric austerity—primary colors, straight lines—epitomized the totality of the universe and its highest, utopian vision. In its linear and spatial relationships, structured to embody an invisible, metaphysical order, he posited the oppositional relationships of the cosmos: male and female, material and spiritual, active and passive. Neo-Plasticism offered rigorous logic and spiritual transcendence, but by the end of 1930 Torres-García no longer believed that its purified forms could adequately express the humanist values needed to reconnect modern art to its ancestral and universal past. Amid the tremendous interest in primitive art in Paris during the 1920s, he began to recognize affinities between aspects of pre-Columbian art and avant-garde European abstraction. His awareness of New World art dates at least to 1928, the year of a major exhibition, Ancient Art of the Americas, held at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris; and he quickly recognized the importance of the pre-Columbian tradition and its relevance for the modern art of the Americas. His assimilation of pictographic (“universal”) symbols within the grid, beginning in 1929, marked a watershed moment: recovered from pre-Columbian art, the ideograms became archetypal signs, transformed by geometry into a new paradigm for Latin American, or alternatively his own Amerindian abstraction.

Torres-García soon consolidated this integral aesthetic—Constructive Univeralism—in his practice, and he produced many of his most outstanding paintings in 1931. His repertory of pictographs was well established by this time, with signs ranging across the physical and spiritual worlds and distilling the emotions of space, time, and direction (as here: heart, house, clock, fish, anchor, ladder). In Composition Nord, these ideograms are arranged within shallow, rectangular subdivisions, their forms shaded by short, painterly passages in muted tones of red, blue, ocher, and black. A microcosm of unity and creation, the painting’s humanist synergies converge in the geometricized person of Universal Man, at left, tasked to restore harmony to the world. Torres-García placed his signature above the sailing vessel in the upper left-hand corner, suggestively anchoring the grid from above; at the corner diagonally opposite, the inscription “Nord” suggests the inverted axis of his School of the South and its New World order.

Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park

1 Joaquín Torres-García, “The School of the South,” in El Taller Torres-García: The School of the South and Its Legacy, ed. Mari Carmen Ramírez (Austin: University of Texas, 1992), 53.
2 Theo van Doesburg, “Torres-García’s Planism,” in Torres-García: Grid-Pattern-Sign, Paris-Montevideo, 1924-1944 (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1985), 101.
3 Ibid., 102.

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