The Eternal Present

John Haber
in New York City

Joaquín Torres-García and Alberto Burri

For a moment, one might have stumbled on a second Picasso. Was something lost on the way to modernity?

A portrait from 1905 has the youth and sobriety of Picasso's self-portrait from just around then. It has the same drab background and the same darkness standing equally for clothes, hair, and piercing eyes. Both portraits owe something to Post-Impressionism, but just as much to an earthy Spanish realism in Barcelona. Joaquín Torres-García had arrived there only a few years before, from Montevideo. Alberto Burri's Bianco B (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1955)It was only the first stop on a lifetime search for a new art—but had it already come too late? As it happens, his retrospective coincides with that of a figure who slashed and burned his way through Modernism, Alberto Burri, so take each in turn.

Torres-García poses a challenging question: what if Picasso never broke through? What if he never got over a love-hate relationship with modernity? What if he kept encountering the styles of others just a little too long after the fact? Would Modernism have ever looked the same? The Museum of Modern Art means to put front and center a major artist and a central place for the Americas in Modernism. It ends up recovering instead a workmanlike artist with eclectic interests, but the strengths and weaknesses of sticking to his guns.

Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of the way up the ramp at the Guggenheim, Burri embraces the unseen. He made his Combustioni Plastiche (or "plastic combustions") in the 1960s from industrial plastics, in sheets straight from the factory, joined with polyvinyl alcohol and seared with a blowtorch. In at least two tall black works, though, the only combustion is in the mind. Each could pass for a single sheet, bundled inward and rippling outward from the motion of spirits or the wind. The reflections off plastic make them blacker still. Painting has seen its ghosts.

His retrospective aims to recover still another prestigious but easily overlooked artist. He and the Guggenheim have a long relationship, going back to studio visits in Rome from the museum's second director, James Johnson Sweeney. Each year after, Burri sent Sweeney a miniature of his latest work, as finely crafted as the original. Displayed together, they make a charming retrospective on their own. They help make the case for him as not a passer-by through successive postwar movements, but an essential bridge between them.

Symbols of today

The question of daring is all the more telling two floors above an electrifying survey of Picasso sculpture. In truth, Pablo Picasso started out on the margins and with conservative tastes, but Joaquín Torres-García that much more so. Both prized Spanish art, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and the "Impressionist line," even before Picasso indulged in his Pink and Blue Periods. Both admired "the primitive." Where Picasso used it to capture a new century's rough edges, Torres-García saw it as a matter of national pride. MoMA titles his retrospective with all but a contradiction in terms, "The Arcadian Modern."

He gets to that portrait slowly, a pattern that he will repeat all his life. It is of a friend at that, while his own 1902 self-portrait has him less a budding artist than a bourgeois with a pipe. Seven years older than Picasso, he embraces Catalonia as Picasso himself never could. While the Spaniard is off in Paris inventing modern art, he is reverting to Arcadia for the chapel of the local seat of government. (Who knew that a Latin American turned to fresco so long before Diego Rivera?) He makes the largest and heftiest figure his gentle piper, as Lo Temporal No Es Més que Simbol—or "the temporal is no more than a symbol," a quote from Goethe. Yet his designs from 1917 also include both La Catalunya Eterna and La Catalunya Industrial.

Apparently, he has some ambivalence about the present to work out, and to his credit he never does. He departs for New York in 1920, driven as much by Spain's upheavals as by the promise of modernity, but he likes what he finds. His paintings both brighten and darken, with sober reds and yellows broken by black and white. They show a city on the move, like Max Weber, and they squeeze out ordinary marks of space. Carriages and elevated trains hurtle past clocks and pages seemingly torn from a calendar. Maybe the temporal matters after all.

Not that the ambivalence has vanished. Had he stopped here, Torres-García might be a footnote to the American modern, like a less provocative Marsden Hartley. He renders shop signs as squiggles, rather than as explicit text with puns as for Stuart Davis and Charles Sheeler. Perhaps he felt uncomfortable in English—or perhaps the temporal is still only a symbol. At the very end of his life, painting the side of a ship, he does come closer to a familiar painting by Davis in the Whitney, from 1931. One may have to read the title, Energía Atomíca, and the date twice to believe that it is 1946.

In between, he is off for Paris in 1926, on a voyage of self-discovery. Modernism hits him at age fifty-five like a world he never knew. A rush of work after 1929 gains in complexity while sticking more closely than ever to the picture plane. Assemblages of wood pick up on Kurt Schwitters ten years earlier, and coarse grids learn from Piet Mondrian. A prolific writer, he also starts his own artistic circle, or rather Circle et Carré ("circle and square"), with a magazine of the same name. He can finally confront Cubism and its offspring.

Even now, though, the hesitancy remains. He retains his muter colors and blacks, unlike Mondrian's cheerful primaries. He has little interest in collage, although Hoy (or, yes, "now") includes rail tickets—that theme of going places. He moves between abstraction and representation, too, with ambivalence toward both. The curator, Luis Pérez-Oramas, sees echoes of Pre-Columbian art as well. Regardless, a vocabulary is taking shape, and his greatest breakthrough is on its way.

Eclecticism and certainty

Around 1931, Torres-García rediscovers white. He also finds a resolution between formal experiment and symbols. He fills a grid with signs, after Paul Klee, in bare outlines and endless permutations. They run to people, buildings, clocks, and fish. He calls the result a "constructive universalism." He has again found the eternal in the present.

He keeps working in wood, too. Studies in Barcelona had already used sticks to lay out the chapel's architecture. Now, though, he moves fully into freestanding sculpture. Most is painted, even as the canvases are turning white. It has its roots in small figures from a year or two before, with moveable parts. Who is to say which are art, which architectural models, and which toys?

Joaquin Torres-Garcia's Construction in White and Black (Museum of Modern Art, 1938)One last turn comes in 1934, when European politics gets rougher than ever. This time, though, he is heading home. Now in his sixties, he founds a school. He is also closer than ever to abstraction, in cascading tubular forms like Fernand Léger in black and white. He still populates the grid, too, as with Arte Universel in 1943, six years before his death. Now off art history's radar, he still claims the universal.

Torres-García fits with a new attention to art beyond Paris and New York, including Latin American art. He opens right across the hall from "Transmissions," bringing together recent acquisitions from the Americas and Eastern Europe—in a space that previously held MoMA's survey of Latin American architecture. Just before, MoMA focused on the interchange between the Bauhaus and Buenos Aires, with photography by Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola. Noble motives aside, the retrospective coincides with global art markets and a demand for more great artists. Wall labels sound like marketing, with words like radical and bold. They are not words that spring to mind.

Torres-García makes an art of competence and repetition. He keeps coming late to others, with small steps forward and huge steps back. One can forget how far he has traveled by the end. The white grids recall a postwar American art to come in Bradley Walker Tomlin—although even then a minor Abstract Expressionist. He is again on the brink, only never to take the leap. The grid paintings have a freshness that symbols like the fish do not, but individual works have trouble standing out.

His strength lies in touching on so many styles—just as Modernism was itself an art of quotation. Yet it also lies in his consistency. All along, he is interested in grids, architecture, and cultural memories. With his symbols, he is creating languages of art. Compared to Picasso, he offers a version of modernity with both a greater ambivalence and a greater certainty. Or could eclecticism and certainty together be a distinctly modern art?

Slash and burn

Alberto Burri could fashion beauty out of anything, but he tried ever so hard to get art's hands dirty. His early reliefs apply tar, inspired by Joan Miró, and soon enough pumice, sand, and rags have the texture of rotting flesh or uncontrolled growth. He called the first Catrami (or "tars") for their materials, the other Muffe (or "molds"), pun no doubt fully intended. In between he braces the canvas from behind, as his Gobbi (or "hunchbacks"). The metal bracing creates craters in a scorched landscape. By the end of his career, he had taken the blowtorch to wood, iron, and Celotex paneling.

Still, he often comes across as more ruminative than restless. Even his reds, his favored color apart from black and white, are earthy and warm. As an Abstract Expressionist, he can seem sober and subdued, much like Karel Appel in the Netherlands and Antoni Tàpies in Spain. As the father of Arte Povera in Italy, he can seem labored compared to the breathing women of Marisa Merz or the slashed canvases of Lucio Fontana—who encountered him at the 1952 Venice Biennele and became a friend. As a proto-Minimalist, with early white paintings or plainer black paintings hung on black walls in the 1970s, he can seem fussy, too. Where Jackson Pollock dripped and Carl Andre accepted the industrial materials at hand, warts and all, Burri boasted of leaving "nothing to chance."

The Guggenheim insists instead on the show's title, "The Trauma of Painting." A film in the museum rotunda shows Italian cities after Allied bombing in World War II. This, it insists, is what he saw on coming home and what drove his art—not unlike the relief and patchwork of Kurt Schwitters and Paul Klee after World War I. Born in 1915, Burri served as a doctor with the fascist armies, was captured in North Africa, and became a prisoner of war in Texas, where he took up painting. The curator, Emily Braun, compares sketches from those years to Francisco de Goya and his Disasters of War, with mouths wide open in pain rather than details of devastation. She likens gaping holes in plastics to abscesses in the body, which Burri as a doctor surely knew well.

Yet the show also looks for signs of redemption. It sees a physician's healing touch in the painterly process. It compares bulges to the pregnant virgin in Madonna del Parto, by Piero della Francesca, and occasional crossed lines to the Crucifixion. Maybe not, but Burri's most extended series, the Sacchi (or "sacks") from the 1950s, has stitches as in surgery, even as they threaten to unravel. And the burlap sacks reminded his contemporaries of the humble clothing of Saint Francis in poverty. Talk about Arte Povera.

Burri himself might object. He did not wish to be pigeonholed as a war painter, and he lightly disavowed the real-world associations of others. He could think of plenty of his own, he said. He titled his series with little more than their materials, and he titled individual works with nothing at all, not even Untitled. In both, he parallels the insistence on painting as painting in late Modernism—while also reaching, the Guggenheim argues, to the process of "process art," the unconventional materials of Robert Rauschenberg, and even the rusted steel of Richard Serra. The museum has had a run of boosting postwar movements outside the United States, including Group Zero in Germany and Gutai in Japan, and Burri fits right in.

Still, the associations are hard to set aside, and he invited them. I neglected to mention one more series, the Cretti (or "burrs") from the 1970s—paintings that break the rule of "fat over lean," in the ratio of pigment and binder, so that broad cracks will develop. He had seen Death Valley, and the surfaces look like nothing so much as parched earth. Maybe he needs the associations to become relevant once again. He was so reticent that the sacks in their comforting brown leave their brand markings to the back, where they remain forever unseen. Or maybe he needs the continued play between formalism and associations, along with trauma and healing, to see the ghosts.

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Joaquín Torres-García ran at The Museum of Modern Art through February 15, 2016, Alberto Burri at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through January 6.


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