The scent of softwood blocks is a kind of madeleine for me. Joaquín Torres-García’s “Toys” at Ortuzar Projects is filled with wooden models: tiny sculptures of dogs, ducks and tigers, a woman in a blue dress, a square-nosed man in an Iberian suit and another with two interchangeable heads. Even the paintings on display, which depict city blocks laid out in grids, ignite a childlike sense of wonder and possibility.
Torres-García is probably best-known as the designer of the gridded stained-glass windows that ornament Antonio Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona and La Seu in Mallorca. The artist, who was born in Uruguay in 1874 and immigrated to Catalonia in 1891, also made a number of children’s toys inspired by Maria Montessori’s and Friedrich Fröbel’s pedagogical theories. Intended to teach color and form and to encourage creativity, each toy can be assembled and disassembled like prototypical Lego blocks. Humans, Torres-García wrote in the margins of one diagrammatic drawing, are unique in their possession of reason, and art is the bridge that connects reason and nature. In a way, with his artistic toys, Torres-García also anticipated the writings of Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, who wrote in 1938 that play is an expression of cultural freedom, distinct from “ordinary life,” that creates new orders independent of material interest or profit.
During the 15 years that Torres-García made these toys, from 1917 to 1932, his own work, inspired by friends like Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian, became increasingly Cubist and abstract. His paintings at Ortuzar depict Paris and New York City, where he lived in the early 1920s, as cross-sections, recalling the structure of a modernist novel. In fact, as I viewed them, I thought of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual (1978), an experimental collage of a book tracking a single block in Paris over a frozen moment in time. “Despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game,” Perec wrote. “Every move the puzzler makes, the puzzlemaker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other.” —Will Fenstermaker
Joaquín Torres-García, Mujer con Vestido Azul (Woman with Blue Dress), 1930. Painted wood, 8 1/4 x 3 1/8 x 1 inches. Courtesy of the Sucesión Joaquín Torres-García, Montevideo and Ortuzar Projects, New York.