Log in to
Email Address
Forgot your password?
Not a member? Sign up now!

Part 3: "The Anonymous Rule: Joaquín Torres-García, the Schematic Impulse, and Arcadian Modernity"

Curator Luis Pérez-Oramas considers the roots of the classicizing and modernist impulses in the work of Joaquín Torres-García. The essay examines a driving paradox of the artist's work--the will to be modern while working against the grain of modernity--following episodes in his life, writings, and works. This is the final part of three.


L perezoramas1

Luis Pérez-Oramas

The Estrellita Brodsky Curator of Latin American Art for the Department of Drawing The Museum of Modern Art Luis Pérez-Oramas was appointed The Estrellita Brodsky Curator of Latin American Art for the Department of Drawing at The Museum of Modern Art. He received his PhD in art... Read more »
Show Less

Part 3: "The Anonymous Rule: Joaquín Torres-García, the Schematic Impulse, and Arcadian Modernity"

Curator Luis Pérez-Oramas considers the roots of the classicizing and modernist impulses in the work of Joaquín Torres-García. The essay examines a driving paradox of the artist's work--the will to be modern while working against the grain of modernity--following episodes in his life, writings, and works. This is the final part of three.

Show More

Curator Luis Pérez-Oramas considers the roots of the classicizing and modernist impulses in the work of Joaquín Torres-García. The essay examines a driving paradox of the artist's work--the will to be modern while working against the grain of modernity--following episodes in his life, writings, and works. This is the final part of three.

A pine table—a clay pot: when Torres left America, he moved not to a European city but to old rustic Europe, to Fiesole, Livorno, and Villefranche-sur-Mer. These smaller towns gave him a tranquil environment, as if he were looking to heal after the frenzy of New York: to heal by returning to interiority, as opposed to the inescapable and absolute exteriority of the modern rush of life in the big city, that mirage of the future hidden in the present.

Ch2015.4445 torresgarcia
Joaquín Torres-García. Construction. 1931. Painted wood

Indeed, Torres’s paintings from the period of his return to Europe are strikingly internal: but for occasional landscapes of these small towns, they are still lifes of unremarkable objects, their Cubist style now fairly stereotypical and familiar. Along with these paintings, though, Torres began to produce his objetos plásticos: highly sculptural assemblages of rustic painted wood, surprising for their radically schematic quality. With these objects Torres cast aside the academic call for realistic representation, moving closer to the ancient forms—the stele, the bas-relief—that would make up his own approach. He would continue to filter his experience of the 1920s avant-gardes, one after another, through this rustic quality, just as the pine table and clay pot were figures of a metonymy through which the modern city located its opposite.

Torres found his own voice and approach in the 1920s, and within those his unified sense of time, a compressed time that integrated many different temporalities. This would become the key to his process, as he passed through a stylized Cubism, was seduced by Dada, returned to the dark, earthy palette of his first cityscapes, and approached the language of Constructivism. Like Fernand Léger, he imagined a world of machines and processes in perpetual motion, and he returned to earthly paradises and depictions of tribal life, becoming African, Iberian, and Polynesian, half Neo-Plasticist, half Neolithic. His work of this period and later would continue to combine these opposites: he would return to Cubism, and through that experience of temporal fusion, of time as symbol and convention, he would make his own path, or as he would put it, he would approach a way of being his own path. By the 1930s, he would find his typical model of a gridded construction with symbolic and pictographic inscriptions, but his work would remain voraciously eclectic, being characterized by a desire to work through no particular lens, no specific cannochiale aristotelico (Aristotelian telescope), no closed classificatory system. Fluid stylistic changes, a frequent revisiting of earlier forms that he seemed to have moved beyond: these practices would characterize his work until the end.

What might seem a narrative of progress was actually one of compression. A partisan of nothing and no one, not even in the pivotal moment before the creation of Cercle et Carré—amid “endless jousts,” according to Seuphor1 —did Torres succumb to the temptation of a group identity that would separate him from his individuality. In 1929, when Van Doesburg tried to enlist him in a campaign against Surrealism, he bluntly replied, “I do not want to join. . . . I must quickly tell you that for the moment I want to stay peacefully at home and not get involved in anything—after all, you all won’t lose much if I stay out, since my contribution is not exactly in your line: you know that I can’t stick strictly to a completely abstract, pure art.”2

When Torres wrote this, the modern avant-gardes had already dismantled the apparatus of representation (though not representation itself—just its classic enunciative infrastructure). He would filter the approaches of these avant-gardes through what I above called his “schematic impulse”: rather than trying to destroy representation, to annihilate it, transcend it, or even less to subsume it into something else, or into nothing, he found a schematic solution to it. He was compelled to touch the skeleton of things, the “thingness” of things, what gives things their quality of being a thing (which is different from their ideal essence). He would eventually strip symbolism of its “ism” and be left with the symbol alone, in all its schematic force.

This is clear in those paintings of the 1920s in which Torres resolves the composition through a ground organized into relatively geometric patches of color, chromatic fields whose abstract structure contains the ghost of a representational scene. Superimposed like a supplementary drawing against this ground is a network of thick black lines. The schematic approach here is clear, and equally clear is the apparently crude, jarring distribution of the color fields that support it. These paintings, which constitute an entire system within Torres’s art of the later 1920s, echo modalities of sight at work elsewhere in those years, notably in photography—in the work of Aleksandr Rodchenko, for example, or of László Moholy-Nagy, Umbo, and other artists of or around the Bauhaus. One needs no especially sharp eye to understand that the device of setting thickly drawn organizing lines against dark backgrounds gave Torres the principal source for most of his work, and one that he would continue to draw on until the end of his life.

It is tempting to ask whether Torres-García’s schematic impulse and his modern impulse are the same thing, or whether the former is something more primal, more primitive, layered over and imposed on the modern forms that moved him. But the idea of a binary opposition between the modern and the primal is on the wrong track. Rather, the structural drive in Torres’s work always involves a search for primal forms, primal schema—the “anonymous rule,” or to put it in Nietzschean terms, “the thinking of something that rehappens.”3 Many have tried to settle the debate by turning from the obvious contradictions in Torres’s work, and the sense of that work as unpredictable, as magma in motion, to the coherence of his written ideas, the scholarliness of his dogma and doctrine. But what artists write—and Torres was one of the most prolific writers among the artists of his time—shows only what they are able to conceptualize consciously at a given moment. (This is especially true in the case of a teacher, as Torres was.) Meanwhile, what an artist’s consciousness intuits—and, further, the part of their functioning that is not part of their conscious awareness—can never be written.

Ch2015.4217 torresgarcia
Joaquín Torres-García. Pintura constructiva (Constructive painting). 1928. Oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 28 3/4 in.

What cannot be written, or what can eventually be only badly written, can nevertheless be shown: embodied in a visible object, turned into a thing, constructed.4 Torres’s works contain much more than can be written, because one of the things in them, silently manifesting, is the “anonymous rule,” which belongs to no one in particular and at the same time to everyone who seeks it. In its purely ostensible and ostensibly visible eloquence, the artwork itself, insofar as it is a manifestation of that anonymous rule, is perhaps precisely the badly written: the call to the rustic truth of being—the pine table, the clay pot—that Torres was responding to when he returned from America, and that manifested in his resistance to modern seductions, his effort to translate them into a language whose universality would be grounded in a crude schematic representation.

The badly written—or, in Torres’s work, the badly painted, the badly assembled—must be articulated alongside his schematic approach and his primal graphic gesturality.5 These devices allowed him to stick to his attachment to the symbolic at a time when the avant-garde movements—the languages of modernity—were abandoning it, or at least proposing it be abandoned. Even more radically, they allowed Torres to fuse the primal and the modern, making them, if not synonyms, then at least accomplices.

Much has been said about the modernist fascination with the “primitive,” and about Torres-García’s address of this concern.6 The aesthetic court has heard and judged the case: modern art was possible only insofar as it “rediscovered” the arts of tribal and early peoples.7 The issue is ethically and ideologically thorny. The narrative of civilization-weary modern artists returning to degree zero, to the sources of intuition, to what cannot be conceptualized, and so on, is simplistic and obscures surviving elements and energies that have existed in culture since antiquity. But the facts persist: behind the modernist glass house lies Adam’s house in paradise;8 it was through African deities that Picasso and others discovered a path beyond classical representation. If this is so, why would the coexistence of the structural and the primal be problematic in Torres’s case? Why insist on seeing them from a binary perspective, as if they were different or opposed, or as if the “structural” could only be “modern” rather than primal? Why the effort to assert a hierarchy in which structure dominates the “primitive”? Why privilege the “abstract” over the “symbolic”? Why continue to be boxed in by a teleology according to which the “symbolic” existed first and the “abstract” and nonrepresentational only later, a view repeatedly questioned by the anthropological sciences?9 Why insist on separating—as if they were oil and water—the awe-inspiring mask and the Neo-Plasticist grid that Torres so often fused in a single work?10

Two potentially confusing terms persist in readings of Torres’s work: abstraction and constructivism. On the one hand, constructivism as a style was exhausted by the historical circumstances of the mid-1920s, when Torres established the foundations of his constructive language. If historical constructivism was to have an afterlife, it would have to wait until the early 1940s, when a “pure” abstraction would emerge in Argentina, in opposition to Torres’s legacy.11 In the 1960s, Brazilian Neo-Concretism and North American Minimalism were similar phenomena. Even when Torres established the principles of his Universalismo Constructivo (Constructive universalism), in the 1940s, he made no suggestion of a connection with constructivism; rather, this was a program of symbolic universalism grounded in his certainty that the basic elements of visual art, either concrete or abstract, were universal and therefore based on the idea of construction. What interested Torres, both as artist and as theorist of his art, was construction.

As far as “abstraction” goes, we already know Torres’s opinion from his letter to Van Doesburg in 1929: “you know that I can’t stick strictly to a completely abstract, pure art.” In any case, the term has served time and time again to refer to an art free of mimetic representations of reality. Torres knew that this kind of art was in no way limited to the twentieth century, as his approach to premodern symbolic forms confirms. But the issue is that the concept of abstraction—when addressed by art historians without solid epistemological protocols—ends up a kind of superstition, a belief in something that does not and cannot exist.12 It becomes an almost cultic constituent of a teleology in which modernity is the aspiration of all humanity and, in art, the “abstract” is a supreme value. There is no progression from representation to abstraction in Torres’s art, and even less so in his construction of highly plastic art objects like his maderas, the works in wood that he produced from the 1920s to the end of his life.13 His work is neither imitative nor abstract, nor does it progress from imitation to abstraction. What stands out in them is their schematic power, and thus their “figural” dimension.

The notion of the “figural” developed by Jean-François Lyotard, in a landmark essay of 1974, does much to clarify Torres-García’s approach to representation: from the very beginning the artist seems to have understood and acted out the principle that the real distinction at the heart of representation is not between the “abstract” and the “figurative” but, as Lyotard writes, between “the space of the text and the space of the figure,” a difference not of style or genre but of “ontological separation.”14 The idea that figuration is a manifestation of the figural as the opposite of the textual gives us a better understanding of Torres’s work of the 1920s, collections of lines and letters (or symbols and pictograms) in which the spaces of “figure” and “text” are mutually imbricated: one stops our eye, then the other suggests a reading, a decoding.15 Like a frieze or stele, the work operates in a dynamic between-place combining reading and visual stasis in the context of a structure. Its figures work as symbolic magnets, cohesive between each other and condensing rather than representing meaning.

Torres knew from the time of his youthful studies in scholasticism that abstraction is not an escape from representation but one of its multiple manifestations. We are not speaking here of indexical abstraction, present in many nonimitative approaches and styles in modernist visual art. We refer, rather, to abstraction as the capacity of intelligence to forsake the opacity of the perceptible and to analyze reality under a more optimal formal light, commensurate with the concept and the sign. Torres knew, his writings show, that images can be imprinted—found through sensory perception—or expressed, produced through a purely intellectual faculty. It is on this latter form of image—the “mental verb” that late scholasticism would call “species expressa”—that intentionality depends: that is to say, the capacity to represent ourselves to the world in ideal conditions.16 Thus we find the impressively clear body of work with which the late master Joaquín Torres-García made this ontological truth apparent to his students and followers in the Taller Torres-García, opposing the abstract and not the figurative but the concrete, in order to emphasize two distinct forms of structural organization, two possible options for arranging the same elements in the visual field figurally. In other words, by using the same formal elements differently one can achieve abstraction (nonmimetic) or concretion (mimetic). This is how Torres was able, without apparent contradiction, to contribute to the Neo-Plastic thought of Van Doesburg and Mondrian while continuing to seek primal forms. It was in the secret complicity between these two impulses that his definitive language would emerge.

This language crystallized, so to speak, in 1929. It is clear in a coherent series of four paintings in which the same grid of lines—the structure—used to establish the distributive scheme of the visual field forms a space for individually framed pictographic digressions. The chronological coincidence of these works with Torres’s participation in Cercle et Carré, a period of exchanges with Seuphor, Van Doesburg, Mondrian, and others, may have led critics to overemphasize the importance of the Neo-Plastic grid in this compositional model. The linear rhythms of Torres’s work would perhaps become more defined after his assimilation of Neo-Plasticism, but they actually preceded this moment by many years, appearing in works in which he demonstrated his fascination with facades, made not only during his New York period but at the turn of the century.

The idea of the facade, however, may be still more significant. In a letter to de Torre of 1931, Torres provided a surprising description of his pictorial style at the time:

"Someday when I’m able, I will let you know what I’ve been working on recently, through photographs or some other means. It’s a matter of a style that I might call cathedral. Something quite strong, quite mature (a synthesis of all my work), quite proper, in a constructive sense, and even better, it’s something new because, as [Jacques] Liptchitz [sic] says, it is the most ancient prehistory.”17

The terms of Torres’s project could not be more clearly expressed: both his figures and his grids are fed by the archaic and the ancient, to the point where the Neo-Plastic grid itself becomes a figure. In this light the anthropomorphic objects that seem to have emerged from Torres’s experience of toy-making become still more significant: these small, mutable modern totems—whose parts seem related to the quadrants in the grids of Torres’s paintings, as if liberated from the plane to become the limbs of an infinitely rearrangeable body—erase any effort to oppose figuration to abstraction, for these are anthropomorphic abstractions, abstract figures. What is crucial to understand here, though, is that Torres’s immersion in Neo-Plasticism coincided with his immersion in primitivism—they were simultaneous. To understand these phenomena as following each other in succession leads nowhere: what is involved is a compression of time, a temporality comprised of various contradictory time periods, condensing the archaic and the modern.

As if born out of the same impulse, created out of the same mold, the archaic and the modern were condensed in order to make something possible: a brutal clarity of expression, despite the darkness of the material or the form. The essential years in which this expressive clarity came together were the late 1920s and early 1930s, a period in which he pursued his impulse toward schematic representation and exchanged the symbolism of his early years for a symbolic toolbox he was more sure of. He also, as in an ancient disputatio, directly addressed an assortment of modern avant-gardes that would become canonical in the late twentieth century: Ultraism, Cubism, Dadaism, Neo-Plasticism, and others. These were the years of paintings and maderas simultaneously structural and primal, and of a handful of works in which he was able to find solutions at once structural and compositional, foundational and rhetorical. He learned to maintain a structure while varying his compositions, and established a foundation, a discursive platform: a solid yet irregular grid structure, sometimes three-dimensional, in whose interstices he inscribed signs and icons free of supplementary artifice—his schematic/symbolic arsenal’s toolset, limited yet enough.

281 1956 cccr
Joaquín Torres-García. Composition.1931. Oil on canvas, 36 ⅛ x 24 in. (91.7 x 61 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York

“Cathedral style”: the painting as facade or archaic stele, as carved rock or bas-relief—opaque and aniconic, its frontality allowing an unfolding of schematic icons. This is what Torres developed in 1931–32, two years of plentiful production in which he left behind the byzantine labyrinth of the modern disputatio, with its militancies and movements, its ideological aspirations and isms. Often in the center and at the base of the paintings there was indeed a facade, something like a building or a classical temple, on which Torres spun many variations. Particularly emblematic signs reappear: key, keyhole, clock, fish, anchor, sailboat, steamboat, ladder, snail, sun, abstract figure with heart or star, and certain powerful words: universus, montevideo, europa, abstracto, concreto (concrete), sur (south).

The fascination with the esoteric in these works was shared, of course, by a good number of artists of the time. The narratives of modernism have long tried to subordinate this esoteric dimension to the secular religion of formal autonomy, but it is a foundational part of artistic modernity, from Hilma af Klint to Vasily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich to, in South America, Torres and Xul Solar. Torres’s interest in numerology, astrology, and hermetic traditions has been much studied.18 He was attracted to freemasonry and more generally to secrets and codes, as some of his writing explicitly states, for example when he remarked, in 1932, that the ultimate objectives of his artistic project—already on its way to becoming a school and an academy—coincided with those of freemasonry.19 This spiritual interest, though, had one basic motive: the need to understand what structure—upon which all potential for construction lies—can embody as symbol.

In 1932, then, toward the end of his stay in Paris, Torres-García created a book of collages, an important work that has received too little attention. More than a study of the meanings of symbols, in fact something other than a book—since it contains not a single mark made or word written by Torres—it is an atlas of images comparable in some respects to Warburg’s unfinished Atlas Mnemosyne, which, though, Torres could not have known. Like Warburg’s project, Torres’s atlas, simply titled Structures, is a purely visual “text,” an art history without words, idiolectic and deeply personal. Following an analogical syntax, it juxtaposes figures (collages of printed reproductions) that are temporally remote yet structurally similar: archaic forms, steles, stone inscriptions, topographical descriptions, electrical circuits, modern buildings, African textiles, masks, numerical charts, old maps, diagrams for the making of musical instruments, boundary markers, signs or milestones with historical inscriptions, ocean liners, hieroglyphs, airplanes, alphabets for the blind, Romanesque paintings, and so on.

This atlas is impossible to decode. Indeed, perhaps its most significant quality is the variety of visual consonances and dissonances among its images, all brought together under the generic name “structures.” What might an Expulsion from Paradise painted by a Renaissance master have to do with a map of Gdańsk? What is the relation between a Cambodian temple and an alphabet for the blind? Between cave-art figures and a diagram of emissions from telegraph antennas? Between an African mask and an electrical circuit? As an imaginary portable museum, the album is more than a catalogue of symbols; it is a little diary of fascinations. Structures once again posits modernity as a compressed temporality, as one more of the times that beset us and constitute us—just one more, and in no way the last, of our many avatars.

Ch2015.4466 torres garci%cc%81a
Joaquín Torres-García. Pages from notebook Dibujo escritura (Drawing scripture). c. 1933. Ink and watercolor on paper, 5 7/8 x 16 1/8 in. Museo Torres García, Montevideo.

In 1932, Torres left Paris, with the idea of moving to Madrid. What he found there was that Europe—sunk in the effects of the Great Depression in those years before World War II, the second great human bloodbath of the twentieth century—had little more to offer him. In 1934 he returned to Uruguay, the unassuming country he had left at the age of seventeen. Back in his land of origin, he would continue to develop variations on his pictorial approach, his universal pictographism, his iconic constructivism. It was as if the man who had worked with Antoni Gaudí on the stained-glass windows for the Majorca cathedral were still making stained-glass windows but making them with paint, opaque and blind, or as if he were sculpting primal steles hiding the secret of a primitive civilization yet to come into being. He also returned to the landscapes of his youth, sculptural objects, toys, and strange digressions into portraiture whose subjects may reflect the anxiety of the conflict beginning to take shape in 1939.

The work became markedly textural, as in the carved maderas and the paintings on wood, which were mostly white and monochromatic. As Torres alternated back and forth between the figural and the textual, his pictograms operated as “pictorial texts”: on the one hand his works were primarily structures, and on the other, in structural terms they were writing. On the one hand the structure created a space for the writing of signs, and on the other, that writing manifested as structure. Images and symbols written—sometimes literally carved, even with fire—into the pictorial or sculptural texture permitted a contemplation of the value of delineation, and of the diagrammatic dimension of Torres’s aesthetic.

This chiasma between the structure of symbolic writing and the writing of pictorial structure would largely steer the direction of Torres’s work until his death, in 1949. He seems to have cultivated a boundless spirit of contradiction, however, and there are notable exceptions to the rule. Between 1935 and 1938, he dedicated himself to paintings without pictograms, signs, symbols, or writing-related elements, compositions that were almost purely structural. These works constitute one of South America’s most influential and consistent catalogues of late-modern pictorial abstraction. At first glance, they would seem a temporary concession to pure abstraction on Torres’s part, but there is something in them that surprises, and makes them protokinetic.20 To “move” the plane, to create dynamic motion in the visual field, Torres evokes the illusion of relief and shadow— elements he had left behind quite early on.21 The paintings suggest architectural fragments, and some have been linked to Torres’s interest in pre-Columbian cultures, notably those of the Peruvian altiplano.22 The dark lines that in other works found form in pictograms and signs, the incisions in the wooden works that here mark the confluence of gray and sepia planes or shadows, delineate pure structure. They are identified only as structure; even as writing, they are purely structural. Did Torres imagine them as solid, physical foundations for his Americanist ideology? Had he arrived at an abstraction that was finally, uniquely his own, having lost all trace of the tentative and polemical ventures of his Paris years? These friezes say nothing beyond their mere presence, containing no figures, functioning to communicate no message or code. Some see their solidity and gravitas—“like a stone wall,” he said—as one of the most inspired achievements of Torres’s career.23 As Merleau-Ponty put it, these works—depictions of timeless structures—already contained the future of painting.24 They are anachronic in that they could belong not only to the 1930s, when they were made, but to any other point in the history of modern painting. They have, in the end, achieved timelessness.

Indeed, in Torres’s last decade, which he dedicated to establishing his legacy through the founding of a school (in both the specific and the general sense), he worked eclectically through his own stylistic history. He returned and regressed in every possible way, to the point where on the day he died, he painted a touching little Arcadian scene, a maternity with birds in flight, in the schematic style of the 1920s—as if his last day were also his first, and he had allowed himself the unusual liberty of finishing where he began.

Some of these last works remain striking for their expressive clarity, and for their emphasis on the badly written, the badly painted, the badly constructed. Their making shows an antimonumental precariousness. Even when Torres revisited conventional forms or methods he had used earlier but then had surpassed, he excelled at a kind of diagrammatic nakedness, as if there were no need for rhetorical or pictorial additions in order to get to what he needed to express. There is a brutal clarity in the late sculptures in which the chaotic deities of an American civilization combine with the ideational germinality of Western culture. That clarity reappears in a drawing for his book Universalismo constructivo, with its steles inscribed with words and ideograms for concepts and ideas; here “form” appears at the top, like a perpetual north star, and is the link between the “abstract” and the “concrete.” Equally clear is the emblematic drawing América invertida (America inverted, 1936), in which the utopia of the North is embodied in the geographic South, claiming a destiny for Torres’s continent and prefiguring political and poetic voices that would prevail after his death: “and more than South/isn’t she our North/and her far end/pinnacle/revealed/to those/who first climbed it?”25

In all of these works, the schema functions to allow the projection of a type of space onto the potential categories of understanding.26 Torres has reached the bones of the matter—that which makes things universal—without stopping them from being things, without transforming them into pure ideas. His work seems less concerned with offering representations of space than with using the tools of stripped-down diagrammatic writings and inscriptions to project the form of space—whatever it might be, in whatever medium—onto certain figural structures. The figure in his art is not embodied but inscribed in space; there is no atmosphere in these categorically frontal constructed works. And the figure is always maintained on the surface, which it skims like a hieroglyph.

Returning to Lyotard’s distinction between the textural and the figural, the question may be how Torres’s figures—his signs, his patches of color, his “schematic approach combining atmospheric logic and geological memory”—preserves or attains a figural dimension.27 Why does our eye rest on the figure as if it were not simply a set of codes to be decoded? The answer may be its structural precariousness, and the ostentatious display of that precariousness: we so often see a crude writing, a ruinous architecture, a thickly sketched painting, basic, transitory-looking constructions in which the transparency of the sign flounders in the density of the material.28 This kind of precariousness was already present in the rough forms Torres produced in his youth, as well as in countless examples of construction through assemblage in the work of other artists of the modern avant-gardes: from Picasso to Kurt Schwitters, from Miró to Jean Arp, poverty of means was an enduring part of modern Edenism.29 I think, though, that Torres’s schematic impulse actually has more to do with the diagrammatic dimension of painting. It was through the the practice of the diagram that he embraced his ideas, even when they were purely visual. The diagram is key in Torres’s work, throughout the abyssal and vertiginous multiplicity of time periods condensed in that anonymous rule. The diagram is the key to Torres’s commitment to an abstraction within representation and to a form of representation that can be called abstraction: “To the abstract there should always correspond, like the idea of a thing, something also abstract. What might that be? To be represented graphically, it will either have to be the written name of the thing or a schematic image as far from the apparently real as possible: like a sign.”30

In his last lectures, Gilles Deleuze wondered what legacy painting had to offer to philosophy. His answer: the diagram, and specifically the diagram articulating two ideas, chaos and germ, a parallel to Torres’s obsession with the primal and the rough. And for Deleuze, the diagrammatic dimension of painting depended less on line and color than on strokes and patches of color. The only hand that could undertake these marks would be an “unchained” hand—a “main déliée,”31 or perhaps the mano desasida (hand let go) in Martín Adán’s landmark poem about Machu Picchu, a hand about to suffer a kind of collapse, forever on the edge of an imbalance: “stone that represents me/stone that is being worn down.”32 And Deleuze added: “in order to unmake likeness itself.” In a conveniently Torresian formulation, he went on:

"Painting provides us with this: the image without likeness. If we were to look for a word to designate an “image without likeness” . . . I would ask: isn’t that what we call an “icon”? In effect, the icon is not representation, it is presence. And nonetheless it is image. It is image as it is presence, the presence of the image. The icon, the iconic, is the weight of the presence of the image. I would say, then, that the diagram is the instance through which I unmake similarity in order to produce the image presence."33

Since everything can—and often does—end up where it began, I would like to recall a letter that Torres-García wrote to Prat de La Riba in April 1912, describing things he had seen on a trip to Italy: Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s stanze in the Vatican, works by Giotto, Masaccio, Taddeo Gaddi, Fra Angelico, Ghirlandaio. He added, “But as I have said, my preferences don’t tend toward all this. I’ve been more interested—thousands of times more interested—in the small paintings in the catacombs, the Pompeian and Roman mosaics. . . . I felt great joy as I saw all that, because, though it may not good for me to say it, many of those paintings share a great deal with my own work—in both their process and their style—or, if you prefer, my paintings share a great deal with them.”34

Torres-García was certainly always fascinated by what is chaotic, in terms of form, and what is germinal, in terms of sign or cypher. He never relented in his quest to reach that utopia in which likeness would be unmade, in which a distance, however minimal, would be marked between representation and likeness. His is an abstraction that is not concrete yet is rooted in reality—an abstraction that is an instrument of representation, providing an account of reality, yet does not depend on its mundane circumstances: its moment, its fashions, its moralities, its passions.

This is the final section of the essay. Read the first part here and the second part here. Excerpted from Luis Pérez-Oramas's essay "The Anonymous Rule: Joaquín Torres-García, the Schematic Impulse, and Arcadian Modernity" in the exhibition catalog Joaquín Torres-García: The Arcadian Modern available at the MoMA Bookstore.


Seuphor, Le style et le cri, p. 112. On this period of Torres's work see Pedro da Cruz, Torres-García and Cercle et Carré: The Creation of Constructive Universalism. Paris 1927-1932 (Ystad: Hansson &Kotte Tryckeri AB, 1994) and Marie-Aline Prat, Cercle et Carré. Peinture et avant-garde au seuil des années 30 (Paris: L'Age d'Homme, 1984).


Torres-García, letter to Theo van Doesburg, December 3, 1929, in Eduardo Lipschutz-Villa, ed., The Antagonistic Link (Amsterdam: Institute of Contemporary Art Amsterdam, 1991), p. 35.


See Friedrich Nietzche, Fragments posthumes sur l’éternel retour (Paris: Allia, 2006), p. 31.


I am grateful to André Severo for the notion of the “badly written,” important in his work as both artist and theorist, which I have transposed to this discussion of Torres-García. See Severo, “Notas sobre o (i)mêmore,” unpublished ms. On Severo’s thinking more generally see his book Deriva de sentidos, Documento Areal 9 (Rio de Janeiro: Confraria do Vento, 2012), and his Website www.andresevero.com/#!constelaes/c1khf.


The idea of the “badly assembled” appears often in descriptions of Torres’s constructions, as in Llorens’s mention of his “impatience with finishes” (in “Raque de la Atlántida,” Torres-García, Valencia: Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, 1991, p. 31) and Ramírez’s of his “con-structed precariousness” (in “A Constructed Precariousness: Abstraction against the Grain,” Joaquín Torres-García: Constructing Abstraction with Wood, p. 39).


See Margit Rowell, “Torres-García and ‘Primitivism’ in Paris,” in Ramírez, Joaquín Torres-García: Constructing Abstraction with Wood, p. 119; Marc Domènech Tomás, “Torres-García: Tras la máscara constructiva,” in Torres-García: Tras la máscara constructiva (Murcia: Centro Cultural Las Claras Cajamurcia, 2008), pp. 7–17; and Llorens, “Raque de la Atlántida.”


Foundational texts here include Franz Boas, Primitive Art (1927), Carl Einstein, Negerplastik (1915), and many others.


See Joseph Rykwert, On Adam’s House in Paradise (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1962).


Boas for example wrote, “The theory has been advanced that geometric ornament developed through the degeneration of perspective designs. . . . It is assumed that the symbol, or the object represented, was misunderstood and that in course of time through a process of slurring, by careless and inaccurate representation the forms became fragmentary and finally lost all semblance to the original. It is not possible to accept this theory, because the conditions under which the supposed slurring occurs are seldom realized. . . . When the purely decorative tendency prevails we have essentially geometrical, highly conventionalized forms; when the idea of representation prevails, we have, on the contrary, more realistic forms. In every case, however, the formal element that characterizes the style is older than the particular type of representation.” Boas, Primitive Art, 1927 (Eng. trans. New York: Dover, 1955), pp. 352–54.


For a recent example of this “binary” understanding of Torres, privileging the abstract—in this case the maderas (woods)—over other elements of his work, see Ramírez, “A Constructed Precariousness: Abstraction against the Grain,” in Joaquín Torres-García: Constructing Abstraction with Wood, pp. 34, 41.


See Alexander Alberro, “To Find, to Create, to Reveal: Torres-García and the Models of Invention in Mid-1940s Río de la Plata,” in the present volume. See also, e.g., Tomás Maldonado, “Torres-García contra el arte moderno,” Boletín de la Asociación de Arte Concreto Invención (Buenos Aires) no. 2 (December 1946); Carmelo Arden Quin, letters to Torres-García, November 15, 1946, and March 30, 1947, C-46-35, C-47-30, Archivo Museo Torres García, Montevideo; Guido Castillo, “En defensa de la pintura, de un artista y del arte moderno,” Removedor no. 16 (January–February 1947):2; and Torres-García, “No sean majaderos! . . . ,” Removedor no. 18 (July–August 1947):2, and “No hubo remedio . . . ,” Removedor no. 19 (September 1947):2–3.


For an analysis of the notion of abstraction from a contemporary perspective, see Hubert Damisch, “Remarks on Abstraction,” trans. Rosalind Krauss, October 127 (Winter 2009): 133–54.


In other words, there is no progression such as that implied in phrases like “. . . the evolution of Torres-Garcia’s maderas—from figure-based constructions to plastic objects that are, nevertheless, imbued with meaning.” Ramírez, Joaquín Torres-García: Constructing Abstraction with Wood, p. 46.


See Jean-François Lyotard, Discurso, figura (Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 1979), p. 219 ff. (first published in French as Discours, figure, Paris: Klincksieck, 1974).


In ibid., p. 223, Lyotard argues that “what is legible is that which does not stop the eye in its course.” This suggests that everything that stops the eye is figural, independently of whether or not it has a mimetic dimension.


The notion of the species expressa comes from the repertoire of scholastic philosophy, which makes distinctions among esse naturae, esse intentionale, and esse cognitum, See Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles, 1260–64, book IV, chapter XI; Aquinas, Opuscule XIV, Sur la nature du verbe de l’intellect, thirteenth century (Paris: Vrin, 1984), p. 147; Jean de Saint Thomas, Cursus Theologicus Thomisticus, 1637, I, question 12; and Jacques Maritain, Les Degrés du savoir (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1963), pp. 136–263, esp. pp. 200, 221 ff., and 238, as well as the Anexo I (“A propos du concept”), pp. 769–819. For nonscholasticist uses around the notion of mental intention or “intentionality,” see Edmund Husserl, Recherches Logiques, Book V, Chapter II (Paris: PUF, 1982), p 165 ff., esp. p. 168; Emmanuel Lévinas, Humanisme de l’autre homme, Fata Morgana, 1972, pp 11–16, 70 n. 4; and Jacques Derrida, La Voix et le phénomène (Paris: PUF, 1967), pp. 4, 24, 30–31, 57–60, 91–95. For an analytical philosophical framework see John Searle, L’Intentionnalité (Paris: Minuit, 1983), pp. 15–55, 141–71, 194–274; Hilary Putnam, Représentation et réalité (Paris: Gallimard, 1990), p. 21 ff., n. 1 (first published in English as Representation and Reality, Boston: The MIT Press, 1988); Wilfrid Sellars, Intentionality and the Mental, in: Concepts, Theories, and the Mind-Body Problem, Vol II, Feigl/Schriven/Maxwell, Minnesota, 1958.


Torres-García, letter to Guillermo de Torre, November 8, 1931. Mario Gradowczyk Archive, Buenos Aires.


See, e.g., Mario Gradowczyk, Torres-García: utopía y transgresión, p. 234 ff., and da Cruz, Torres-García and Cercle et Carré, p. 36.


“For us, there can be just one tradition: that of esoteric philosophy, which unifies everything.” Torres-García, Raison, 1932, unpublished ms., N-32-4, Archivo Museo Torres García.


I thank my friend Alejandro Corujeira for this observation and for his excellent painterly analysis.


Torres remembered dreams in which “the shadows of objects pursued him”—a typical childhood fear. Torres-García, Historia de mi vida, p. 31.


See César Paternosto, North and South Connected: An Abstraction of the Americas, exh. cat. (New York: Cecilia de Torres, 1998), p. 13.


Torres-García, Historia de mi vida, p. 269.


See Merleau-Ponty, “L’Œil et l’esprit,” 1964, Eng. trans. as “Eye and Mind” in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting, ed. Galen A. Johnson, trans. Michael B. Smith (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1993), p. 149.


Amereida (Valparaíso: Ediciones Universitarias de Valparaíso, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, 2011), p. 41. Amereida—a coinage combining “America” and “Aeneid”—is a long polyphonic poem originally conceived by Godofredo Iommi in 1968. Considered the founding text of the Ciudad Abierta-Comunidad Cultural Amereida in Ritoque, Valparaíso, it can be read as a poetic gloss of Torres’s map—and project—of America inverted to make the South the North. Amereida includes extensive commentary and variations on Torres’s image.


In his analysis of the complex articulation of the cycles of Piero della Francesca’s frescoes at Arezzo, Louis Marin provides an interpretation of the notion of the “scheme” that encompasses the idea of a temporality that is not linear but stratified. In this sense “scheme” is more than a formal way to figure out an object; it is a spatial and intellectual category that functions as a representational matrix in which temporality is not anchored by a specific moment in history. See Marin, Opacité de la peinture (Paris: Usher, 1989), p. 104.


Pierre Fédida, “Le souffle indistinct de l’image,” in Le Site de l’étranger. La situation psychanalytique (Paris: PUF, 1995), p. 212.


“The more modest the material, the more visible the thinking inscribed within that modest material.” Torres-García, Raison, n.p.


On Torres’s precarity in the context of the historical avant-gardes, see Ramírez, Joaquín Torres-García, pp. 39–41.


Torres-García, Historia de mi vida, p. 269.


See Henri Focillon, “Eloge de la main,” in Vie des formes (Paris: PUF, 1984), p. 103.


Martín Adán, “La mano desasida, Canto a Machupicchu” (first version), 1964, in Obra Poética (Lima: Edubanco, 1980).


Gilles Deleuze, “Los cinco caracteres del diagrama, lección del 28 de Abril de 1981,” in Pintura. El concepto de diagrama (Buenos Aires: Cactus, 2007), p. 101.


Emphasis added. Torres-García, letter to Enrique Prat de la Riba, May 12, 1912, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (photocopy), accession no. 960087. See also García-Sedas, Joaquín Torres-García y Rafael Barradas, p. 23.

Discuss Print

Latest discussion on:
Part 3: "The Anonymous Rule: Joaquín Torres-García, the Schematic Impulse, and Arcadian Modernity"

Sign in or create your account to participate in the discussion.