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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 speakers: Dr. Lauren Kilroy Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(light jazz piano music) - [Dr. Zucker] We're at The Museum of Modern Art, looking at a painting by Joaquin Torres-Garcia 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 this family to Catalonia in northeastern Spain, where his father was from. And he travels a lot during this early period. - [Dr. Kilroy-Eubank] 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] And 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 Miro, and he's working with Gaudi. - [Dr. Kilroy-Eubank] And 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] We're looking at almost a kind of writing painting, a painting that is drawing on a set of ideas. - [Dr. Kilroy-Eubank] Torres-Garcia is trying to reconceptualize the grid. - [Dr. Zucker] But 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. Here, Torres-Garcia is reconstructing the grid, so that it becomes a mosaic of elemental form. - [Dr. Kilroy-Eubank] The lines in Mondrian's painting have been developed using some type of straightedge, and Torres-Garcia wanted to draw even more attention to the handmade nature of his art. So he hand-paints the lines. 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] Its rectangle and square contains a recognizable form, and 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-Eubank] And these are symbols, or what technically we should refer to as pictograms, that Torres-Garcia believes are universal symbols that transcend time, that transcend geography. - [Dr. Zucker] 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 is part of a great and deeply human continuum. - [Dr. Kilroy-Eubank] And so 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-Garcia has done is built up these forms using this grid-like structure to give us this sense of universalism. - [Dr. Zucker] 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-Eubank] So Torres-Garcia'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] 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. And for me, this work is an example of the way that the artist is grappling with these complex historical circumstances. 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. I think that 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. And the house in the upper right is the fundamental idea of shelter. And then there's the clock. He's thinking about time as a historical force. - [Dr. Kilroy-Eubank] And 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 timing. - [Dr. Zucker] And in fact, his art would have a profound impact on the later South American avant-garde. - [Dr. Kilroy-Eubank] 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, and he has this profound legacy that influences the next generation of artists in place like Brazil, in Argentina, in Uruguay. - [Dr. Zucker] And 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-Garcia. - [Dr. Kilroy-Eubank] Despite being this artist who is transnational, he's traditionally been omitted from conversations about geometric abstraction. - [Dr. Zucker] So many people know the names Picasso or Mondrian, but it's past time that we also know the name Torres-Garcia. (light jazz piano music)