Joaquín Torres-García (1874-1949) is revered today as one of the most influential artists and theorists of the early twentieth century to have emerged from Latin America. A charismatic figure in the international art world, he exhibited with the most famous artists of his time, including Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg, Jacques Lipchitz, and Marcel Duchamp. Organized by The Menil Collection
in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Joaquín Torres-García: Constructing Abstraction with Wood will offer to North American audiences for the first time an exploration of the artists wooden constructions known as maderas.
Curated by Mari Carmen Ramírez, the Wortham Curator of Latin American Art and Director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in collaboration with Josef Helfenstein, Director of The Menil Collection, the exhibition will include more than 80 works. Most of these date from the 1920s to the 1940s, when Torres-García lived in Italy, France, Spain, and Uruguay, creating toys and developing the vocabulary for his wooden constructions. These three-dimensional works will be accompanied by a small selection of Torres-Garcías oil paintings and a few drawings, demonstrating the connections between his experiments in two- and three-dimensional forms.
We are very proud to present this exhibition, said Menil Director Josef Helfenstein. Though Torres-García is not as widely known as some of his European peers, he was a crucial figure in the development of an international avant-garde. For many, this exhibition will be a revelation. As Mari Carmen Ramírez writes in the exhibition catalogue, the art of Torres- García still carries an aura of mystery if not downright eccentricity in the United States. Largely circumscribed to a devoted circle of initiated art historians and dealers, and a handful of daring collectors and institutions, his work despite its noteworthiness does not yet command in this country the level of either criticism or museological attention accorded to other modern art masters of his generation.
Recognized as a modernist painter, teacher, and author, Torres-García also broke new ground in the realm of wooden constructions or maderas. These deceptively simple arrangements of three-dimensional grids and planes made of painted and natural wood are unconventional with regard to prevailing avant-garde trends that dominated the international arts scene in the 1920s and 1930s. The maderas functioned for the artist as a kind of research laboratory through which he synthesized a number of ideas encompassing geometric and constructive trends, leading to the development of his own idiosyncratic form of abstraction. The maderas include small-scale boxes, abstract male and female figures, masks, boxed reliefs, incised and painted wood panels, constructions with painted or superimposed grids, self-standing structures, and assemblages. Their prevalence in Torres-Garcías work attests to the artists lifelong penchant for the aesthetic qualities of wood and brings attention to a host of formal and conceptual issues critical to the overall development of abstraction in Europe and Latin America. By isolating the maderas, the exhibition reveals the scope of this aspect of Torres-Garcías work and also provides valuable insights into his oeuvre.
Born in Montevideo, Uruguay, one of the most intellectual and cultivated cities of the Americas, Torres-García found his artistic voice while studying at Barcelonas Academia Baixas and Cercle Artístic de Sant Lluc from 1893-1898. He delved into Catalan Modernism and collaborated with Antoni Gaudí in the workshops of the Sagrada Familia (1904-1905).
In 1920 the artist moved to New York with plans to manufacture the wooden toys he had designed, and the following year exhibited at the Whitney Studio Club. He returned to Europe in 1922, settling first in Italy, which he hoped would be a better place to develop the toys, then, four years later, in Paris. He participated in the 1928 exhibition, Cinq refusés par le jury du salón dAutomne ("Five refused by the jury of the Autumn Salon"), which placed him in the company of prominent constructivist painters. Together with the writer and critic Michel Seuphor, he founded the short-lived but influential group, Cercle et Carré (Circle and Square), which included such prominent artists as Mondrian, Jean Arp, Georges Vantongerloo, and Kurt Schwitters. While in Paris, he also became interested in the African and pre-Colombian objects on display at the Musée du Trocadero (the artists son, Augusto, worked at the museum, making drawings of Nazca pottery for inventory files). In 1934 Torres-García resettled in Montevideo, where he founded the Sociedad de las Artes del Uruguay and the Asociación de Arte Constructivo. Almost a decade later the artist established the Taller Torres-García, a workshop school that promoted avant-garde experimentation, influencing an entire generation of South American artists.