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

Composición constructiva

Joaquín Torres-García (1874-1949)
Composición constructiva
signed ‘J.Torres-GARCIA’ (lower left) and dated ‘32’ (lower right)
oil on canvas
21 ¾ x 18 ¼ in. (55.2 x 46.4 cm)
Painted in 1932.
Private collection, Rome, Christie's, New York, 21 November 1988, lot 50.
Galería Jorge Mara, Madrid.
Private collection, New York.
T. Riggs, editor, St. James Guide to Hispanic Artists: Profiles of Latino and Latin American Artists, Detroit, St. James Press, 2002, p. 599 (illustrated).
J. W. Reid, Pre-Columbian Peruvian Textiles: The First Modern Art, Lima, Industria Textil Piura, 2008, p. 237 (illustrated in color).
C. de Torres, S. V. Temkin, "Composición constructiva, 1932 (1932.19)," Joaquín Torres-García Catalogue Raisonné. (accessed October 11, 2017).

Lot Essay

Composición constructiva is a classic example of Joaquín Torres-García’s signature Universalismo Constructivismo (Constructive Universalism). Created in 1932 while the artist was living in Paris, the elegantly composed canvas reflects Torres-García’s confidence in his distinct stylistic language, which he had only refined and consolidated after a period of intense exploration and experimentation. As later summarized in the artist’s autobiography, Historia de mi vida, his search to resolve the tension between nature and abstraction had eventually led him to “put, as in the construction of barracks, like a wall of stones, the [schematic] design of a thing in each compartment. And that was it! It had to be so.”[1] This seemingly simple and straightforward explanation is precisely captured in Composición constructiva, which depicts the modernist grid embedded with pictographic symbols.

Torres-García’s application of the grid as the foundation of his artwork reflects his close relationship with various abstract painters while in Paris, including Michel Seuphor, Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg, and other collaborators with whom he established the short-lived Cercle et Carré group. The grid in the well-balanced Composición constructiva is further structured in accordance with the Golden Ratio, an ancient system of proportions. The bold black lines defining the various compartments of Composición constructiva make this harmonic system of proportions particularly discernable. Indeed, the proportion echoes throughout the canvas, and applies both to the structure as a whole as well to smaller, individual parts (see for example, the upper left section in which the squares containing the three triangles, the key and keyhole, and the house illustrate the essential proportions of the golden ratio). Torres-García had long been interested in the golden ratio, and even alludes to its occurrence in nature through his inclusion of the spiral snail shell in the lower right of the Composición constructiva.

In addition to the painting’s structure, the palette of red, yellow, black and white serve to create a stable surface, as each tone is punctuated throughout the canvas. The symbols themselves also serve to balance the composition. Each scaled to the size of its individual compartment, the vertical thrust of such images as the ladder, the man, and the grater, are tempered by the rooted horizontality of the house, bridge, and boat. All of these symbols are reduced to their essential form and represent among the most classic images from Torres-García’s vocabulary of Constructive Universalism. Yet, although each of the symbols in Composición constructiva are rendered very legibly, the canvas itself cannot be read. Despite the pictographic nature of the imagery of Constructive Universalism, Torres-García did not conceive of his style in terms of narrative. Instead, the arrangement of the symbols in his canvases reflect a more intuitive process, though at times certain relations seem to reveal themselves as is the case in Composición constructiva, in which the lower left section of the canvas includes compartments featuring the hull of a boat and an anchor. Notably, the boat is a frequent motif throughout Torres-García’s practice, whose form often appears in the same position as in Composición constructiva, extending back to his very first nautical painting dating to 1910.

Like the boat, the fish located near the center of Composición constructiva is an important emblem in Torres-García’s work. Approximately a decade after this canvas was made, this fish would later be reproduced by the artist in painted wood and hung in his eponymous workshop, the Taller Torres-García, in Montevideo. In fact, dating to 1932, Composición constructiva is from a decisive moment in the artist’s career, as the effects of the Great Depression began to affect the Parisian art world. Thus, despite being a high point in the artist’s development and a year in which he participated in three exhibitions, including a solo show at the Galerie Pierre, by the end of the year he and his family had moved to Madrid. Approximately one year later, Torres-García embarked for his native country of Uruguay after over five decades abroad, where he would go on to establish his so-called School of the South.

Susanna Temkin, Ph.D., Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

1 Joaquín Torres García, Historia de Mi Vida (Barcelona, Paidós, 1990): 210. “Pone, en la construcción a cuarteles, a modo de pared de piedras, y en cada compartimento, el diseño de una cosa. ¡Y ya esta! Debe ser eso”

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