In the third floor of the Modern Wing at The Art Institute of Chicago, in the 393 A gallery, stands, between a Malevich and a Mondrian, a small and discrete hand-crafted trophy made out of rough wood. At first sight, it looks foreign. Except, maybe, for the material relationship –wood– with the Hat Rack from Duchamp. This last one is hanging from the ceiling and you can only notice it when you raise your regard into its phantasmagoric shadow, projected on the wall.
I´m referring myself to an abstract little totem locked inside one of the museum showcases and made by the Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García in 1932 when he was living in Paris. Object number 1 is the title of this vertical, almost 16 inches tall sculpture, built with 10 uneven blocks of wood. Each rectangle looks like a discarded or residual chunk from another object. Those shapes, badly chopped and clearly eroded by time, where apparently painted in oil and precariously assembled with nails that look, now, completely rusted. The base is black and the higher piece, which had a gray number one inscribed, is carmine red while the rest seems to be beige or rose. You can barely see it because of its deterioration.
At first sight is difficult to understand its form or meaning. You can only think in a structure, maybe a sketch for a bigger piece or a work in progress. Aesthetically it disturbs. It doesn’t seem to be well constructed or composed and you have the sensation that it is going to fall apart. Moreover, you think it will look much better and peaceful in a table, probably in the artist studio, as part of his exercises or ongoing ideas. Then it makes you curious, you relate it to some kind of primitivism or foundational myth but its geometric elements make you doubt. The way it is presented appoints to an ancient discovery and non-necessarily to a modern work of art.
In accordance to the information in the sheet, the piece “suggests both an architectural and human form”. You realize it is the abstraction of a man, at the same time human being, or soul, but also body and machine. There is in this object a metaphysical understanding of human condition and an attempt to reduce our whole spiritual and physical nature into the simplest forms, colors and shapes. So, the relationship of the author with Mondrian, Le Corbusier, Kandinsky, Léger and others, starts to make sense, as well as the creation of the group Cercle et Carré, back in 1926, as an attempt to develop abstract art in a sort of mystic way.
In a further analysis, it’s interesting the possible associations of this piece with a stone sculpture that stands in the 391 B gallery, called Wisdom (1908), from Constantin Brancusi and also with a painting by Max Ernst, Human Figure with two birds (1925/29), in 395 C. Both, mirrors of some ideas present in Object number 1. In relation to Brancusi, I found appealing this idea of using the sculpture material directly, in its crude nature and without a mold or cast. The difference is that Brancusi is using the stones which have an academic European tradition while Torres is using the wood, that directly relates to pre-Columbian cultures and indigenous roots. That´s why it looks so different in comparison with the other works in all these rooms of the museum. On the other side the painting of Ernst shows the importance of geometry in relation with spirituality and human understanding of the world. The Grid makes it appearance in both cases as a container of symbols. For Ernst, it contains the “birds” and for Torres the number “one” which in other of his works transforms, or is replaced, by hieroglyphic signs that he calls universal language. In both, and remembering the text of Rosalind Krauss The originality of the Avant-Garde and other Modernist Myths: “the grid serves not only as emblem but also as myth. The grid´s mythic power is that it makes us able to think with materiality (or sometimes science, or logic) while at the same time it provides us with a release into belief (or illusion, or fiction)”.
Another consideration that seems important is how this piece relates with the precepts of German School Bauhaus and the Russian constructivism. While the Bauhaus was starting to understand the role of the artist as a designer and engineer, Torres, years before in New York, started to build wood toys. In some way, he was starting to design functional objects for kids with the idea to approach them to a different learning method. This also reminds me a research from the Spanish sculptor and academic Juan Bordes, called The infancy of Avant-garde: their teachers from Rousseau to the Bauhaus, as well as other books from him, where he explains the rise of modern artists as a consequence of liberal education but also, and more important, the games they played when they were kids. As for example The Tangram, puzzles and the Four Architectural boxes. This becomes another argument to explain Avant-garde, in addition to the ones depicted by Meyer Shapiro in Nature of Abstract art, who believed that this movement is a response of artist to the traditional labor routine and industrial revolution.
In this same way, the piece also condenses a romantic idea of empiric learning, which Torres will use as the key trigger for writing, teaching, and discussing once he went back to Uruguay in 1934. His decision of using basic colors, the wood, the grid and Aurea proportion, gives you a frame of how he was trying to depict this idea of Universal Constructivism, in other terms, the possibility for us to communicate in a simple manner. In this sense, the work starts to fit better with the narrative of the Armory Show and opens new paths of possible research, based in the encounter with artists from other geographical locations beyond Europe. As well as it is urgent, and I mean as soon as possible, the inclusion of more women that where key figures in modernism, as for example, Barbara Hepworth, that could perfectly replace, in the entrance to this floor, The Working Model for UNESCO Reclining Figure, from Henry Moore.