Monday, January 04, 2010

cercle et carré (or circle and square)...

My formal art education consisted of the "greats". That meant Picasso, Dali, Degas, Monet, Velázquez...all European, all men. That is what Cooper Union in New York City taught me. Art was never the graffiti I saw in books like Subway Art or at the NYC Graffiti Hall of Fame, which was in the courtyard of my high school. The art of NYC in the 1980's was that of Basquiat, Haring, and Kenny Scharf. Not only the downtown art scene of Warhol but also Case 2, Phase 2, Crash, Ezo, Seen, Taki 183, Dondi, Haze, and Burn1. What is considered "classic" could also serve as a dividing line between the "classist" world of art dealers, agents, galleries, and museums and the art brut, naïve art, and art primitif of "urban" (re: non-European or conventional) artist.

I grew up buying fat and skinny caps from stores in Queens and Montant paint markers from Bomb the System/Scrapyard NYC in Lower Manhattan before acrylic paints and linen canvases ever entered my life. I was fascinated by the graffitied trains from the early 1980's, the colors, burners, whole cars, throw-ups, tags and the skill required to control the flow of condensed/pressurized paint. But most of all, these graffiti artists, which include Basquiat, looked like me and spoke like me. Even as a young child I was aware of the inferiority complexes that mass-mediated culture and the status quo tried to push upon individuals. I knew of, and lived within the world described by Frantz Fanon before being aware of who a Frantz Fanon was.

But by the late 1990s, after NYC trains were replaced by stainless-steel exteriors and the dreaded "buff monster" acid bath that tagged trains were given daily, meant that achieving artist notoriety would have to be achieved in some other form. So on to the next one...did an internship with James DeLaVega, out here in New York City and began painting on canvases, eventually studying art in Madrid in between Marketing degrees and grad school. But who would be the prototypical third-world genius who I would refer to, and claim as my own. Not necessarily the most well-known or popular but one that would constantly serve to inspire me throughout the years. I found him while out studying abroad in Barcelona at El Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya.

There he was on the wall (well, his work at least): a pioneer of modernism, Joaquin Torres-García who was born in Montevideo in 1874 of a Catalan father and Uruguayan mother. His family moved to Spain in 1891 and settled in Barcelona. Torres-García studied at the Escuela Oficial de Bellas Artes de Barcelona (the "Llotja"), (where all the bourgeois Catalans hung out) and at the Academia Baixas. He was a contemporary of Pablo Picasso and Ramon Casas, part of the bohemian milieu of the café Els Quatre Gats. In 1903 Torres-García assisted Antoni Gaudi with stained-glass windows for the cathedral of Palma de Mallorca and later with the windows for the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

On April 30, 1934, when he arrived in Montevideo after forty-three years of absence, Torres-García told the press that he had returned to Uruguay in order to "develop a wide range of activities, to lecture, to teach courses, to achieve...on walls what I have already achieved on create in Montevideo a movement that will surpass the art of Paris." Soon after arriving in South America, Torres-García made a drawing of the map of the continent upside down. This radical image illustrates how important it was for him to establish his place in the world. This illustration became a centerpiece in the history of Latin American efforts at reclaiming themselves in a world vision. He placed the South Pole at the top of the earth, thereby suggesting a visual affirmation of the importance of the continent, and in an effort to present a pure revision of the world.

His ambition was to create with the students of his workshop an independent art movement in Uruguay which he hoped to export to the rest of the Americas. By stating that the South was from now on his North, he was challenging the supremacy of European culture at the time in peril due to the second world war. The South because it is our North. We place the map upside down, then we have the right idea of our hemisphere, not the way they want it on the other side of the world. The tip of America points insistently South, which is our North. The same with our compass: it leans irremissibly always South towards our Pole. When ships leave from here going North, they go down not up as they used to. Because North is now under, and Levant is to or left.

The zeal and joy in art making that Torres-García inculcated in his students, gives evidence of what a vibrant creation Latin American modernism was. It was technically at least as accomplished as its counterpart in the pre-Abstract Expressionist New York of the 30's and 40's, but improved upon it in one crucial respect: it transformed a borrowed European style into one deeply expressive of a New World culture. By Torres-García's standards, the work produced by El Taller was the genuine utopian article, and for anyone interested in modernism today, it is certainly an art to be reckoned with. Recently, I paid homage to Torres-García as part of my series of artists that have influenced me, a series that includes Joan Miró, Basquiat, and Dalí (painting shown above).

After a long development, during which his painting evolved from the Mediterranean classicism of his Barcelona frescoes of 1913 and passed through periods of Vibrationism, Cubism, and Fauvism, culminated in 1929, what was to become his characteristic incorporation of symbols into a geometric grid based on the golden section. For Torres-García, the symbol was a way of synthesizing idea and form while bypassing narrative, which would interfere with the unity of the work. He called this conjunction of idea and form the nexus between the vital (or living) and the abstract. By inserting a symbol representing humanistic values into the antithetical rational structure of neoplasticism (which was devoid of human references), Torres-García succeeded in creating a style that constituted a major contribution to modern art, that of Constructive Universalism.

What Torres-García envisioned as the new art for the Americas would encompass all expressions from architecture to the most humble utilitarian object. This was not an American version of the Russian constructivist movement or the Bauhaus; his aim was to create a modern art for the new continent equal in scope to the art of the greatest civilizations of antiquity. Structure means recognition that unity is at the foundation of everything. To say structure is also to say Abstraction: geometry, rhythm, proportion, lines, planes, idea of object. These are elements of work—they act, they form, they construct and gain significance through the law of unity. The uniqueness of Torres-García's proposal consisted of his incorporation of essential elements of indigenous American art into the basic principles of European constructivism and geometric abstraction. His conception of art had a metaphysical and spiritual dimension - a faith in the spiritual value of art as a creative act bound to a universal law, and, in the independent existence of a work of art, apart from its naturalistic contents.

When the racial leaders of twenty years ago spoke of developing race-pride and stimulating race-consciousness, and of the desirability of race solidarity, they could not in any accurate degree have anticipated the abrupt feeling that has surged up and now pervades the centers of the third-world art scene. Neither would Torres-García know the distant impact of his own exhortations. Unlike Fernando Botero, Torres-García did not live to see the 1970s, when a significant portion of the energy that was the Latin American Arts Movement emanated from the geographic centers that he had indeed awakened.

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