Joaquín Torres-García - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Wednesday, November 16, 2022 | Phillips

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  • "Torres-García was certainly always fascinated by what is chaotic, in terms of form, and what is germinal, in terms of sign or cypher […] 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 fashion, its moralities, its passions."
    —Luis Pérez-Oramas on Joaquín Torres-Garcíai

    Painted in 1937, Tres figuras en estructura uniquely showcases Torres-García’s signature Universalismo Constructivo (Universal Constructivism)–the movement he fathered in South America. After more than forty years traveling between Barcelona, Madrid, New York, and Paris, this work was created upon the artist’s return to Montevideo, Uruguay in 1934, one of the most important periods in Torres-García’s career. In 1935, he founded the Asociación de Arte Constructivo (AAC), and in 1943, he spearheaded the Taller Torres-García (TTG, or School of the South). Through these organizations, Torres-García began his mission to distinguish Universal Constructivism from the European Constructivist Abstraction—a movement influenced by artists like Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg—advocating for an independent style of constructivism in Latin America. Belonging to this final Montevidean period, the present work beautifully embodies Torres-García’s distinct language and style, combining the tenets of geometry with the spirituality of man and nature.


    Universalismo Constructivo


    By 1937, Joaquín Torres-García had experienced three fruitful years back in his native Uruguay, after decades spent among the avant-garde circles of Europe and New York, but most importantly, Paris. Torres-García first encountered geometric abstraction when he moved to Paris in 1926, and by 1929, he was a founding member alongside Belgian artist Michel Seuphor of the artist group Cercle et Carré (Circle and Square), accompanied by an esteemed publication under this same name. Dedicated to a rational approach to geometric abstraction, the group eventually became broad enough to include artists like Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Jean Arp. In Torres- García’s words, their mission was to find “the search for equilibrium, for unity, equivalent relationships between forms, planes, colors, between the simple elements that compose the work of art.” The influence of artists like Mondrian and van Doesburg became apparent in Torres- García’s work, evident primarily in his gridded compositions, which represent a reduction of form to its most essential lines. But their influence also served as inspiration for the Uruguayan artist to find his own artistic language. Their purely rational approach conflicted with Torres-García’s belief in a balance between the rational and the emotional in artmaking. From 1931 onwards, Torres-García mastered this equilibrium as it matured into his "definitive language” as an artist,ii  Universal Constructivism—modern grids filled with pictographic universal symbols, of which Tres figuras en estructura is a prime example. 


    [left] Piet Mondrian, Composition in Brown and Grey, 1913, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY
    [right] Theo van Doesburg, Composition in Gray (Rag-Time), 1919, Peggy Guggenheim Museum, Venice


    Breaking Down the Symbols


    In the works created after his return to Montevideo in 1934, Torres-García was actively concerned with bringing human emotion to the constructivist abstraction he encountered in Paris. He believed this sensitivity had gotten lost after the Enlightenment took hold in Europe in the late 17th century. To embrace a more emotional sensibility, Torres-García turned to two main sources of inspiration—Western Medieval Art and Pre-Columbian Art. He began to incorporate motifs and symbols derived from the art and architecture of Pre-Columbian civilizations, particularly from the Andes, but also from Mexico and North America. In Tres figuras en estructura, the pictograms and symbols, some of which are recurrent in his oeuvre, are rendered in black. Most of the symbols used by Torres-García refer to humanistic notions. Here, he references the cosmos (represented by the sun, a powerful pre-Columbian symbol), nature (represented by the fish), humanity (represented by the man and woman), infinity (represented by the spiral), and the unity of the individual and the cosmos (represented by the number “1”). The compositions created during this Montevidean period are housed within a geometric structure that echoes Incan stonework. They are also characterized by their restricted color palette to mostly earth tones–evidenced here in the present work with different shades of brown, ochre, and maroon.


    Torres-García and his students, c. 1946. Image: Courtesy of the estate of Joaquín Torres-García

    "Our North is the South"
    —Joaquín Torres-García

    During the last decade of his life in Montevideo, Torres-García dedicated himself to teaching and promoting the Latin American aesthetic of constructivism. Upon his return to Montevideo, he said: “I come to achieve something concrete, something that ought to come about…something that is already fermenting.” Torres-García actually references the Asociación de Arte Constructivo (AAC), in the present work—“AAC” is inscribed in the lower right corner. This artistic decision cements his dedication to the ideology, which he codified with his first theoretical text, Estructura in 1935. Less than ten years later, El Taller de Torres-García (or the School of the South) furthered Torres-García’s mission to define Latin American art on its own terms, rather than on those from the United States and Europe. Through these efforts, Torres-García became the single most important figure in establishing Constructivism as a key movement in South America. For almost a century, his work has encouraged the next generations of artists to continue his teachings, making him one of the most influential Latin American artists of the 20th century.


    i Luis Pérez-Oramas, “The Anonymous Rule: Joaquín Torres-García, The Schematic Impulse, and Arcadian Modernity” in Joaquín Torres-García: The Arcadian Modern, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2015, p. 37.
    ii Ibid, p. 11.

    • Provenance

      Estate of the artist
      Augusto Torres, Montevideo (acquired directly from the above)
      Rose Fried Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Rose Fried Gallery, Joaquín Torres-García 1874-1949: 15th Memorial Exhibition, January 6–February 13, 1965, n.p. (illustrated)

    • Artist Biography

      Joaquín Torres-García

      Uruguayan • 1874 - 1949

      Joaquín Torres-García was born in Montevideo and moved to Barcelona with his family, studying at the Escuela Oficial de Bellas Artes. The Catalan Noucentismo movement provided the foundation for his artistic development. His work was also influenced by Neo-Plasticism, Cubism and Vibrationism, which fused Cubism and Futurism with urban imagery.

      Torres-García returned to Uruguay after a 43-year absence. While at home, he continued to develop his iconic style of Constructive Universalism, a chief contribution to modernism that affected many younger generations of Uruguayan artists. This style aspired to establish a universal structural unity through synthetic abstraction. In order to accomplish this, Torres-García synthesized rather than analyzed the quotidian elements and urban scenes from reality. While remaining in the world of figuration, he integrated abstraction's structural grids within the composition, also incorporating pre-Columbian aesthetics.

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Property from a Distinguished London Collector


Tres figuras en estructura

signed and dated “J. Torres 28 Julio 1937” lower left; signed “AAÇ” lower right
tempera on cardboard
31 7/8 x 39 3/4 in. (81 x 101 cm)
Executed on July 28, 1937, this work is no. 1937.19 in the Joaquín Torres-García Online Catalogue Raisonné.

Full Cataloguing

$600,000 - 800,000 

Sold for $604,800

Contact Specialist

Annie Dolan
Specialist, Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
+1 212 940 1288

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 16 November 2022