November 25, 2015

Joaquin Torres-Garcia: Painting in Three Dimensions

Aladdin Transformable Toys, ca. 1920; painted wood

In this season of giving thanks I am grateful to the museums and galleries which mount great, and even not so great, shows. I am especially grateful for the joy of discovering art that I love that is new to me. I was thrilled recently while seeing the current exhibition at MoMA, Joaquin Torres-Garcia: The Arcadian Modern. The first thing that caught my eye were painted abstracted figures, and a group of wonderfully fanciful toys!

Grafismo Infinito, 1937; oil on cardboard mounted on wood, 21 1/4 x 33 1/4 in.
Image courtesy Sotheby's

What I'd known of Torres-Garcia's work were paintings such as the one above, which are like complex hieroglyphics, hidden stories of life. He was born in Uruguay in 1874 and died there in 1949, but between those years he lived for many years in Europe, and was active in the avant-garde; he also lived in New York from 1920-22. The toys grew out of his teaching at a progressive school in Barcelona. While in New York, he exhibited his toys at the Whitney Studio Club.

Forms on White Background, 1924; painted wood 

The work by Torres-Garcia that most excited me––work I'd been completely unaware of––were painted wood constructions: simple, lively, sophisticated, playful, beautifully composed and colored.
Many were wood reliefs, painted in subdued colors. The one above was somewhat unusual in the variety of its forms.

Abstract Form, 1929; painted wood

Some of the pieces were free standing, and to my eye, although abstract, related to the figure.

Wood, 1929; oil on wood

This work has a very spare geometry, with beautifully balanced elements, painted in subtly rich hues.

Structure in White and Black, 1930; oil and nails on wood

I so enjoyed seeing the range of Torres-Garcia's ideas for his constructions: this one freestanding, the painted elements making it seem as though it's made of several pieces of wood; but, moving to the back, it's one board, with a shelf. This is an interesting kind of illusionism: making a whole feel like parts put together.

Superimposed Forms, 1931; painted wood

Here a complex layering of forms is made even more lively by the addition of color shapes within each physical shape. It is playful, and serious.

Two Superimposed Forms, 1931; oil and nails on wood

A curved shape atop a rectangular one, this is another work playing lightheartedly with allusions to the figure, an amusing portrait.

Construction with Curved Forms, 1931; oil and nails on wood

Another aspect of these works that makes them so rich is the rough character of the wood, all looking as though it was salvaged from scrap heaps and utterly transformed. There is a lively contrast between the irregular surfaces of the wood and the carefully balanced compositions.

Abstraction, 1932; oil and nails on wood

I love the way the small yellow circle stops the red vertical on its way down. It's a small emphasis within the vertical and horizontal geometry.

Assembled Abstract Forms, 1937; tempera on cardboard

There were many paintings in the show, but the ones that most interested me were those that felt influenced by the wood constructions in their dramatic illusion of form; these were painted after Torres-Garcia returned to Uruguay. This painting feels built to me, sculpted rather than painted.

Abstract Tubular Structure, 1937; mixed media on canvas

This very large painting (perhaps 6 feet wide or more) has a powerful presence. Its masterly construction of closely packed forms gives it a sizzling energy. It references architecture....

Abstract Tubular Structure detail

....and when seen closely, the paint looks like the artist was feeling the solidity of these forms as he worked. You'll notice that the color in my photos is different in the detail and entire painting: I'm not sure which is closer to the actual painting, so I left them a bit different.
This show was very exciting, a real treat, and it's on until February 15.


  1. Great Post Altoon....Thank You for sharing your most interesting discoveries.

  2. I'm glad you liked this work, Rich and jenwiggs. I enjoy writing about work I've seen; it helps me to think.

    1. Wonderful, inspiring stuff to look at.
      And your comment about writing-helping-thinking affirms my assertion: if you can not diagram a sentence (however creatively), you can not think.

    2. I'm glad you agree with me, JBS, about writing. And glad you enjoyed the work.

  3. These are wonderful--thank you for introducing this aspect of his work. It's truly elegant and rich.

    1. You're very welcome, Emily; I'm happy to spread the enjoyment.

  4. The painted wood constructions by Torres-Garcia are simply wonderful! Direct, not fussy, and very satisfying. Thank you!

    1. Aren't they great!
      You're very welcome; it's a pleasure to share them.

  5. Constructions by other members of the "taller" merit our attention and scrutiny. There are many great examples which will prove to be a revelation...

    1. Thank you, Sergio. I didn't realize that Torres-Garcia started a Bauhaus-like group in Montevideo. Unfortunately there isn't much information about it. But happily, there have been more shows of Latin American artists in recent years in New York.

  6. Images are not as great, but see what you can get from them and the links to the many other artists who were part of the "taller":

    1. Thanks for the link to that show, Sergio; a lot of interesting work.