Modernist Mash-up Master: Joaquin Torres-Garcia at MoMA

“Joaquin Torres-Garcia: The Arcadian Modern”

Museum of Modern Art, through February 15, 2016

One art historical context for the Frank Stella retrospective at the Whitney: the mash-up modernist paintings and constructed reliefs (along with a few sculptures), of Uruguay-born Torres-Garcia (1987-1949), fortuitously on view concurrently at MoMA. Torres-Garia spent much of his career in Europe and the U.S. absorbing the latest stylistic, sometimes utopian, trends in painting. He ended up with a kind of catholic abstraction that carried Cubism through De Stijl (closely) and Russian Constructivist tendencies (among others) into a personal idiom that added recurring pictographic symbols.

Torres-Garcia started out in Barcelona (his Catalan father had decided to repatriate when the artist was 17), and the earliest works here show the post-impressionist modernisme of Picasso and the El Quatre Gats gang–street scenes and figures with fluid contours and deft, minimal description.  An anomaly, before he moved definitely into quasi-geometric intuitive abstraction, is a classicizing fresco study on view (also recalling Picasso); the project to which it was related did not come to fruition and apparently set him off naturalism for good.

I like the muddied Mondrians, in which black skeletal contours are smudged into variegated  white, yellow, red and blue “windows” with subdued painterly gusto; and also some incredibly simple and raw constructed reliefs that convey the utmost respect for the nuanced visual mystery of juxtaposed shapes and textural surfaces. A number of tawny, analytic cubist-type compositions include proto-Jasper Johns number schemes; playful numeric and alphabetic elements are strewn across the later work more boldly. It seems the pictorial cryptography of Paul Klee also made an impression, especially in a few linear townscapes with fish flying overhead among the stars.

The fish symbol became a mainstay of Torres-Garcia’s finally signature style.  Later glyph-studded, loosely grid compositions recall those of Adolph Gottleib from around the same time (c. 1940s-early 1950s).  An anchor is another symbol woven throughout that perhaps alludes to his perpetual literal and artistic travels.  A few black and whites feature linear figuration that isn’t so far from Keith Haring’s paint-drawing sensibility on an intimate scale. There is also a display of charismatic rough-hewn toys made for his kids that fit right in as art the way those by Picasso do.

The show provides both an engaging crash course on directions in abstraction in early 20th-century art and comprehensive exposure for an artist who, it seems, collegially and respectfully followed and led, experimented thoughtfully in small increments, and came up with an accomplished, compact oeuvre that now also signifies a link between an international network of artistic peers.

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