The Taller Torres Garcia

It’s getting on two years now that I’ve been writing this blog and I have yet to write about one of my greatest influences and interests, a school of painters known collectively as the Taller Torres Garcia. So for my 50th post, I thought I’d address that omission.

Not too many people in western Canada have heard of them, but the Taller Torres Garcia are tremendously well known in Latin America, particularly in Uruguay and Argentina. Functionally you could compare them to the Group of Seven, in that they are highly significant regionally but not as much elsewhere. Stylistically however they derive from a later moment than the Group of Seven, taking their starting point from Constructivism rather than Art Nouveau and post-Impressionism.

Taller_Torres_Garcia,_Leccion,_Montevideo,_1947

Their founder, Joaquin Torres Garcia, was born in Uruguay but moved to Spain as a young man. He didn’t return to Uruguay until he was 60 or thereabouts, having spent the intervening years moving peripatetically around Europe and spending a couple of years in New York. Along the way he met and was influenced by a lot of the big names of the period, even working as Gaudi’s assistant at one point. After a number of false starts and setbacks, he eventually attained his definitive style during a highly productive period in Paris in the 20s, where he worked with a number of more or less like-minded painters grouped together loosely under the name Cercle et Carré.  Then for reasons that are somewhat obscure he decided to return to Uruguay, where he spent his last 15 years or so spreading the Modernist gospel in the New World. He formed the Taller Torres Garcia, or “Torres Garcia Studio” six years before he died, so as to pass the torch to an entire generation of young Uruguayan painters and sculptors. In this he was largely successful, and in fact the Taller as a formal organization outlived its founder by 13 years before winding down in 1962.

There were a lot of artists associated with the Taller, one way and another. Many worked productively within the rather rigid guidelines laid down by Torres Garcia, but others built on his ideas in various ways and some jettisoned his precepts altogether. Some of better known Taller artists included both of Torres Garcia’s sons, Augusto and Horacio, as well as the sculptors Gonzalo Fonseca and Francesco Matto, and the painters Jose Gurvich, Manuel Pailos, and Julio Alpuy. And there are a number of other artists who weren’t strictly speaking members of the Taller but who were in one way or another informed by it, like Adolfo Nigro (who studied with Gurvich) and Marcelo Bonevardi, a colleague of Gonzalo Fonseca when both of them lived in New York. Interestingly, a surprising number of the ex-Taller artists wound up relocating to New York, where there is to this day a gallery devoted to their work and the work of their contemporaries and successors.

My first encounter with the Taller happened back in the early 80s, when the Edmonton Art Gallery mounted a show of the late works of Horacio Torres, Torres Garcia’s youngest son. They were amazing paintings as I recall. Horacio had started out painting in the manner of his father but had all but given up painting by the late 60s. Then he had a major change of direction, and spent the last ten or so years of his career (he died young, in his early 50s) painting nudes inspired by the great masters of the Renaissance, but still reflecting his modernist heritage. The paintings were endorsed and encouraged by no less than Clement Greenberg, perhaps surprisingly given Greenberg’s rather hardline stance toward anything remotely backward looking. But in no sense could Horacio Torres’ paintings be labelled kitsch.

I assume Greenberg’s endorsement was one reason why the Edmonton Art Gallery felt it was OK to show them, since the gallery was very much a proponent of late modernist aesthetics in those years. But to me they seemed highly anomalous, unlike either the large, spare abstractions or the pop-inflected works which largely filled the gallery, and the art magazines, back then. They seemed to come from another world entirely, and in a sense they did. The Taller artists have almost universally been at odds with prevailing trends since the school’s inception back in the 40s.

However I didn’t really become aware of the Taller as a group until a few years later when, working as an assistant in the art library at UBC, a book of Augusto Torres’ paintings surfaced in the pile of new books I was sorting through. I experienced a kind of shock of recognition, seeing in Torres’ work the solution to a number of painterly problems I had been wrestling with, largely unsuccessfully to that point. I’ve studied Torres’ paintings ever since, finding in them a tremendous source of inspiration and encouragement. (The introduction to the book, an interview between the artist and Guido Castillo, is one of the sanest and most interesting discussions of painting I’ve ever read. The rest is refreshingly free of text, just page after page of reproductions). I’ve seldom had the opportunity to see Augusto Torres paintings for real, but I did see a couple in Barcelona when I was there a number of years back. Unlike his New York based colleagues, Augusto kept studios in Barcelona and Montevideo.

Having discovered the work of the sons, it was easy to trace their lineage back to the elder Torres-Garcia, as the library had several monographs devoted to him. And his prodigious output, consisting of paintings, sculptures, books and wooden toys, began to cast its own spell. A subsequent acquisition of a monograph on the Taller artists considerably rounded out the picture.

One of the really fascinating things about the Taller is that it still exerts a strong influence over a wide range of geographically dispersed artists. We’re all familiar with the standard trajectory of Modern art movements: a creative outburst lasting a few short years, followed by years of decline while the second and third generation hangers-on churn out increasingly derivative works, followed by the inevitable collapse. Sometimes it happens quickly, as with, say, the Fauves; other times it takes decades, as with the Surrealists. But although the Taller has been gone these fifty years and more, you can still find really excellent painters who trace their lineage back to it and are recognizably working within its idioms.

The best known is probably Caio Fonseca, although it seems to me his work has over time become less about the Taller and more about New York abstraction (not that there’s anything wrong with that). His late brother, Bruno, worked very much within the Taller heritage, but tragically died just as he was coming into his artistic maturity at the age of 36. And in the case of these two, “lineage” means both genetic and artistic: Their father, Gonzalo, was one of the most important Taller artists, and they both studied with Augusto Torres in Barcelona in their formative years. Other contemporary Taller-influenced artists include Adolfo Nigro, Gustavo Serra, Rosanna Casano, Anke Blaue, and Alejandro Viladrich.

I think the secret to the Taller’s continuing influence is its ultimate openness to a wide variety of ideas and approaches. This can probably be traced back to its founder: according to Gonzalo Fonseca, Torres Garcia was a great one for expounding rules in a highly dogmatic way, and then going back to his studio and systematically breaking every rule he just laid down. In this, the students really did follow the master: they delved back into Renaissance painting, ala Horacio Torres, or moved back and forth between the poles of representation and abstraction, as Augusto Torres was prone to do. Despite having started with a highly recognizable aesthetic formula (such that it’s hard to distinguish between the works of many Taller painters in the 40s), the Taller ultimately was less about entrenching a method and more about, simply, good painting and sculpture.

Now, in claiming the Taller artists as influences, I’m acknowledging a debt, I’m not trying to suggest I’m in their league. And I’m not saying they’re my only influences, in fact I have lots of others. Disclaimers aside, one could I suppose question why a painter here on Vancouver Island would choose a group of Latin American artists for his inspiration, rather than sticking closer to home. To say simply that I like their work doesn’t say very much. Partly it’s that their work looks backward and forward at the same time, and that resonates with my own sensibility.  Partly it’s that their work has a defined aesthetic and formal vocabulary but doesn’t dogmatically insist on it, so you get structure and freedom in the same package. Partly because it exemplifies the DIY approach I discussed in my previous post. But mostly I think it’s that our influences choose us, not the other way around.

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