Joaquín Torres García’s Constructive Composition

What does it mean to reconstruct the cosmological order of the universe on the two-dimensional surface of a canvas? Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García offers a remarkable explanation in his painting, Constructive Composition, a centerpiece of the permanent collection of the Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, D.C.

A foundational figure of modern art in Latin America, Torres-García catalyzed the development of abstraction in the Southern Cone beginning in the mid-1930s. Toward the end of a long sojourn in Europe, during which time he worked alongside artists such as Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, who advocated a pure form of abstract art, Torres-García began to innovate using the formal language of geometry and the gridded composition.  In Constructive Composition, Torres-García’s use of primary colors – yellow, red, and blue – pays tribute to the classic building blocks of Mondrian’s Neo-plasticism.  But here, in a conceptual breakthrough, the floating passages of color combine with pictographic symbols, drawn from the universal ideographic language of ancient American art and architecture.

By the time that Torres-García returned to Montevideo in 1934, he had further consolidated this new approach to art, which he named Constructive Universalism.  Its original synthesis of archetypal motifs and pictographs with the formal values of modernism would mark an important point of origin for abstract art in the Americas. Constructive Composition is exemplary of Torres-García’s theory and practice of Constructive Universalism.  The pictographs, universally recognizable, populate the flat, gridded space of the painting. Torres-García describes a range of recognizable objects – including the clock, the ship, the anchor, the train, and the building – using basic geometric shapes and lines. Alongside these objects, the artist introduces numbers, letters, and other symbols, such as the star and the heart, which have an abstract or conceptual resonance.

The deliberate arrangement of flattened, schematic forms and symbols into a grid suggests creative synergy between the formal structure of the painting and its symbolic meanings. These symbols may be understood as archetypal images of voyage and discovery, stability and love, time and measurement. The clock, for instance, connotes the passage of time; the scale alludes to notions of order or balance. The appearance of Universal Man, described by a configuration of rectangles and triangles, exemplifies the humanist orientation of Constructive Universalism. In his representation, the metaphysical harmony of the universe, as communicated through the Constructivist grid, merges with the ancient and universal iconography of the Americas in an ultimate expression of cosmological order and creation.

By Kishan Mistry.