Gunther Gerzso

by Dore Ashton
Art Critic/Author. Her many books include: American Art since 1945, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning, and Twentieth Century Artists on Art.

A wise and wonderful 18th-century painter, Chardin, was quoted by a contemporary as saying: "But who told you one paints with colors? One paints with feelings." His own feelings were dispersed throughout every detail, every painted detail, for which he invented colors. A century later, Baudelaire praised Delacroix for his immense range of feeling which, he said, inhabited its own colored atmosphere. M. Delacroix's color, he said, "thinks for itself, independent of the objects it clothes." And a century after Baudelaire, the painter Robert Motherwell, striving to find words to describe the work of his friend Mark Rothko, echoed the poet, saying that Rothko had truly created new color. Coloration, colors, color -- almost totally indefinable, yet familiar to all who are available to the experience of painting. When I think of Gerzso, or rather, when I recall from a distance his oeuvre, I think first of color which I am almost sure is his inmost passion. Every artist has his passion, usually secreted and never paraded in words. Gerzso's passion is for a kind of saturation. He craves the utmost degree, color drenched in itself, thinking for itself, living in its own atmosphere, color that is possessed by him and confined for eternity. Confinement, he has learned produces saturation quite as much as contrast.

These colored surfaces of Gerzso that remain so solid, so fixed in a viewer's memory, have often been discussed in terms of their thingness, their insistence on their own discreteness and hard permanence. Luis Cardoza y Aragon, one of Gerzso's most attentive critics, more than once had recourse to the mysterious Kantian category of "das Ding an Sich" to describe the apartness and independence of Gerzso's images. I think this quality of thingness derives from Gerzso's imperious need to escape the anguish of time by means of saturating himself in the fixed moment. Years ago he offered a hint in one of his titles, a title clearly derived from the poetry of Baudelaire: El tiempo se Come a la Vida. Baudelaire's prime definition of anguish was always given in the metaphor of time, and Gerzso's deepest impulse is to thwart time's ravages by the clear, the unshakable, the brilliant evocation of fixity. No matter how eccentric the geometries he invokes in his compositions, they are there, and proclaim his Platonic hunger for "permanent relations in space." Yet, those deep and often turbulent feelings that we always sense behind the hard surfaces -- surfaces as impermeable as Vermeer's -- demand their expression, and find it in Gerzso's idiosyncratic color. Dualities and oxymorons abound, and perhaps a fitting image is Octavio Paz's obsidian butterfly.

Of course, Gerzso must measure out his color according to the feelings he must express, and in measuring, he is composing (and decomposing) his surfaces. What rises into salience when we consider the large body of his work since the 1950s is his strange meditation on the problem of proportion. Like Le Corbusier, whom he had read and been inspired by at the age of fourteen, Gerzso is fascinated by the old (and still mysterious) problem of the Golden Section. Le Corbusier referred to his lifelong pursuit of proportion and measure as an exercise, a game, a passion, and I think Gerzso can say the same. But I suspect it is not the strictly mathematical formula of the Golden Section that engages Gerzso, but rather the metaphysical dimensions supplied by classicizing Italians in the 15th century. They were well aware that the Latin term proportio had derived from the Greek analogia, and it was the possibility of analogy that fired their imaginations. Luca Pacioli, close friend of Leonardo and Piero della Francesca, wrote Divina Proportione, his treatise on the golden mean, bearing in mind Plato's poetic reference to the four elements, fire, air, earth and water. I'm certain that Gerzso is elemental in this analogical sense. He almost never abandons the rectangle entirely. It haunts him as does the square, and he uses them expressively, probably by intuition and not calculation for, as Rudolph Arnheim has astutely remarked, "The rectangle of the golden sections and the square may be equally balanced, but they carry different expression or meaning, the one showing directed tension, the other compact symmetry."

Color, quiddity, proportion: these are the preoccupations that underlie Gerzso's endeavors as a maker of images. But how did they get there? Who is the painter who expresses a wide range of feelings -- much wider than is generally conceded -- within these designated means? From his unusual biography as a cosmopolitan one can select certain details that might -- only might -- illuminate the course of his life as a painter. At the very least, such details reveal how much Gerzso had to eliminate in order to reach his inner ideal. For he had a most rare European boyhood and youth, during which he was exposed at the very highest level to the history of art. As he says, he was trained to be a connoisseur. In his uncle's comfortable villa in Switzerland, where in his bedroom there were some twenty watercolors by Delacroix, and a Bonnard which he has never forgotten, he was taught how to look at paintings. This is no small lesson. Gerzso's uncle was a man of vast culture whose eye had been trained by the great art historian Wölfflin. The young initiate learned through watching his uncle, a prominent collector and art dealer, how to examine a painting from many points of view; how to "see" not only everything on the surface, but the genesis of form and style. "These relatives of mine" Gerzso says laughingly, "they were buying and selling old masters and what they were after was to discover paintings." His uncle, who had known Matisse, and in whose home were entertained such luminaries as Thomas Mann and Paul Klee, epitomized the rarest of German high culture, in which Gerzso was immersed during his most impressionable years.

From precocious connoisseur to creator can be a perilous route. Gerzso's course was circuitous. After his return to Mexico, where he completed his formal education in a German school, he embarked on a prolonged career as a theater designer, and later as a film artistic director. Given his strong interest in architecture as a student, this was a suitable direction for a refined and European sensibility, attuned to the world of the imagination. The necessity of compression -- the world, after all, must be contained in the quadrature of the stage, or the rectangle of the film frame -- would sharpen Gerzso's eye for detail, and heighten his understanding of abstraction. The thrill of revealing, as lights dim and curtains are slowly withdrawn, never diminished for Gerzso who would translate the feeling later into paintings.

Of all the formative experiences in Gerzso's many-colored life, probably it was his encounter with an extraordinary congregation of talented foreigners in Mexico City during the mid-1940s, who more or less represented European Surrealism that most inspired him. In some ways, Gerzso, who had spent so many of his childhood years in Europe, and whose tastes and interests were exceptionally broad, was as foreign to Mexico as they were. He was too young to have been part of the exceptional moment during which the great experiment in social reform had given birth to the mural movement in the passion of commitment. And he was already a professional in a metier that brought him more often to the United States than to the wilds of the Mexican hinterland. It would be through the wonderment, the enchanted eyes of a motley surrealist group, among them Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Esteban Frances, Matta, and above all, Wolfgang Paalen and Benjamin Péret, that Gerzso would rediscover his own country. Paalen was an indefatigable explorer of Mexico's ancient treasure, and Péret, with his poet's eye, discerned its great mysteries. Gerzso was swept up not only by their enthusiasm, but by their insistence that he harken to his own creative needs and become a serious painter. "I was in motion pictures, and to them I was only a Sunday painter," Gerzso remarks, adding, "Since I had this other profession -- the opposite of surrealism -- I had to prove myself." He did, by painting first some perfectly orthodox surrealist fantasies, and shortly after, some tentative abstractions of a distinctly oneiric tone. Paalen was quick to isolate the characteristics of Gerzso's initial abstractions and wrote a rather remarkable preface to Gerzso's first one-man show in 1950, saying:

It might seem strange to speak of Mayan monuments and Kafka in the same breath; yet the fathomless antechambers in the writer's castles, the walls of his imaginary china, can be sensed on the ascending terraces, in the endless vaults and pyramids of pre-Cortesian Mexico. There are no milestones in eternity, and the lonely men on their way from the lost city to the possible city have come to know that the nearest is also the farthest. For them, the ancient glyphs which can no longer be read, and the glyphs which cannot be read yet, are equally meaningful.

Paalen captured the essential romanticism that drives Gerzso to this day; the temperament that "knows the nearest is the farthest" and that, like Baudelaire's voyager, "finds beautiful everything that comes from far off," and that like Kafka's, could translate the perfectly ordinary into the most extraordinary.

Gerzso's other close relationship was with Péret, whose poetry sprang from the heart of the surrealist pantheon and was imbued with all its vertiginous characteristics. At the center of the surrealist poetics was the belief in the juxtaposition of strongly contrasting, often shockingly disassociated images. Such juxtapositions abound in Péret's work. The surrealists' love of shock, surprise, even horror, are fundamental in Péret's poetry, but so is the love of the original -- all that speaks from the origins of mankind's imagination. Péret arrived from Europe already intent on exploring the mythical Mexico that André Breton had so lavishly described after his return from the 1938 visit. He had in mind to write a book on the myths, legends and popular folklore of the Americas. By the time Gerzso got to know him well, around 1944, he was passionately immersed in the task. It is not hard to imagine how satisfying Gerzso's concourse with Péret was when we note that Péret, in his book, quotes Goethe -- one of the keystones of Gerzso's German formation: "Man cannot remain long in the conscious state and must plunge again and again into the unconscious because the root of his being dwells there."

For the surrealists it was not difficult to accommodate seemingly warring instincts within a single personality since they knew such conflicts can be resolved on the plane of the dream, or at least, in the work of art. Gerzso is not entirely a man of Euclid, for all his fascination with the golden mean, nor is he entirely a man of the surrealists, for all his attention to their fundamental principles. It is precisely in the juxtaposition of divergent emotions that Gerzso has sustained so many years that his strength as an image maker lies. If he went out on exploratory junkets with Miguel Covarrubias, artist and ethnographer, together with the refugee artist Gustav Regler (who had known Rilke in the early years as Worpswede), he easily assimilated the great planar symmetries of the ancient architects. If, on the other hand, he went out on location, seeking appropriate Mexican vistas for his friend Luis Buñuel, he just as easily saw the strange, the asymmetrical, the inherently wild that matched Buñuel's surrealist vision. These direct experiences took their place alongside his experiences through reading, musing, imagining. They also took their place amongst the images of great artists, ranging from Delacroix to Cézanne to Klee to Miró. And all would be reflected in the paintings from 1950 onward.

Gerzso has devoted his creative energies toward the full expression not so much of fortuitous encounters and perceptions, as of a variety of differing emotional temperatures. In the 1950s he conveyed his awe before the stratified histories contained in pre-Columbian stone monuments, without forgetting his dreams of Klee and Miró. His archaic landscapes, such as Paisaje de Papantla of 1955, are floating in a dark temporal dream, with the coloration of earth and stone. Yet, other associations flow there. For instance, he had seen a painting in the Gelman collection by Georges Braque, and could not forget the strange conjunctions of pinks and reds. "I was haunted by that painting" he reports, and we can well believe it, since like his European relatives, he was out to discover, in the deepest sense, paintings.

Gerzso's obsession with walls, curtains, and small apertures, declared itself early in his oeuvre. So did the more violent idea of the rent, the tear, the razor-sharp incision illusionistically violating the carefully contrived surface with its smooth continuity. Such unwonted intrusions in the dramatically lit theater of Gerzso's imagery carry with them darker associations with eroticism, as so many of his critics have remarked. In Aparicion of 1960, Gerzso has combined his stark concept of thinly layered forms, derived from the rectangle, with slightly organic depressions that suggest folds of flesh and the secret places explored in lovemaking. The brilliantly illuminated spaces, so paper thin, so fragile, hint at the tearing, the sadistic undertow of the erotic experience, and at the possibly unmentionable things that transpire behind the bland, white plane with its scissored boundaries. In other works there are strong suggestions of persianes, behind which rites are performed; or closed portals, sharply defined; or of small openings to attract the voyeur who will only come up short against an inner wall or closed door. In still others, there is the memory of the darkest side of old Mexico. During his long working career, Gerzso has more than once translated the memory of the powerful legend of that terrifying deity that so much engaged the interest of the surrealists, Coatlicue. In her towering Aztec majesty, Coatlicue combines the ultimate Aztec cruelty -- she is at once the earthy bestower of life and the terrible destroyer of life, reeking of blood and vengeance. Traces of that blood can be found in more than one of Gerzso's paintings, especially in later works such as Personaje Arcaico, 1985, in which the hard contours of an Aztec shape are contradicted by a spattering of nearly shapeless sanguine, decidedly disquieting touches.

These paintings with the potential of revealing violent emotions, however, are only part of Gerzso's story. There have been moments when a purely lyrical celebration of some beloved vision occurs; moments, such as in his paintings of the early 1960s, in which Gerzso called up the clear light and moody atmosphere of elsewhere, of Greece, which, as he points out, was an implicit part of his German education. One suspects that the great German lyric poets, above all Hölderlin, whose luminous descriptions of ancient Greece so much attracted the creative youth of early 20th-century Germany, tempered Gerzso's vision. Certain of the more gestural, freely flowing formations in this homage to Greece persist in later works. The spirit of the unplanned, the direct address, now and then radically alters the static solidity of his compositions, particularly in the later collages, made, as he says, to "escape the tyranny of geometry."

The primary vehicle for the expression of Gerzso's changeable interior climate is certainly the landscape, as Marta Traba insisted. This term, of course, has travelled through art history gaining new meanings with each generation, and Gerzso, as a painter of the 20th century, could not evade the psychological alterations wrought by so many predecessors. Already during the first decade Kandinsky had revealed the multiple vistas of the modern artist -- he who could ascend in an airplane and look down, not only at the vast plains and mountains of Russia, but at the concentration of the urban structures. The insistent geometries of field and city-block made their impact on those early abstract artists who often, as in the case of Malevich, lent the experience on his canvas a metaphysical significance. He had learned from Picasso's cubism that any object could be imagined floating free, seen simultaneously from above, below, and from hundreds of oblique viewing angels. These primary lessons made available new means of depicting spatial experiences which Gerzso and all artists of his generation utilized. The shift from objective rendering to imaginative re-ordering of visual experience, brought with it the freedom to imagine the picture plane itself at various angles to the sight line. It also brought the opening to the liminal, the psychological shifting dimension of experience that so much interested the surrealists. By the time the term "interior landscapes" gained general currency during the 1920s, painters were already at home in them. And by the end of the 1940s, when Gerzso began painting seriously, no one questioned the possibility that inner and outer could be given form on a single canvas, in a single image.

Some of Gerzso's basic formulae of the symbolization of landscape are derived from the principle of correspondences. He weighs out shapes in intricate rhythms with frequent assonances, as Cardoza y Aragon specified, binding near and distant configurations. With color he strikes various chords that reverberate throughout the painting like the plucked string of the lyre. His deep sense of order is always active, even in the realm of the all but indeterminate -- those overtones and minute melismas produced on the plucked or hammered musical string. His order, or one should say, his order, so visibly his own, is derived almost certainly from his earliest instinctive grasp of the principles of architecture. The architectonic rigor in his paintings is always an important factor, and makes him comparable only to Luis Barragan in his native country. Gerzso piles up planes in shingle-like formations which he often, like Barragan, then sequesters behind magnificent walls -- those huge, spreading planes of saturated color, emphatically stopping the intrusive eye of the beholder (as for instance in Rojo, Verde, Azul, Second Version of 1968-88).

But order, as satisfying as it is to one side of the human psyche, can never satisfy all spiritual needs, for it requires, paradoxically, its opposite in order to be apprehended. Gerzso almost never neglects to insinuate aspects of the ungraspable in his landscapes. He may, as in Universo, 1986, take the spectator off guard by using suggestively dappled greenish planes that inevitably are associated with landscapes, real landscapes. And he may insert shutterlike vignettes -- those almost impenetrable openings, windows that conceal, rather than reveal -- to inject the human presence. He even uses strange, hairfine lines to suggest the narrowest of indentures of the plane. But into the crepuscular light creeps ambiguity, the most delicate of blurring signals suggesting the tremulous emotions that can find no name and that move within the painting without boundaries.

Gerzso invented for himself a category: the paisaje-personaje. This does little to illuminate the actual paintings, but it does tell us that he thinks analogically, and that for him, the presence of his own imagination, of his self in the paintings, is given, and that the universe of his experience can be likened to a vast and constantly changing landscape. On occasion he has driven this lesson home by finding in his painting his own image. There are various landscapes in his oeuvre that he has designated as self-portraits, as for instance Irrupción, 1987, with its sharp juxtaposition of two kinds of order, organic and non-organic, and its abrupt coupling of unlike elements, and Espejo of 1988. The latter carries with it the memory of earlier paintings in which stony, blocklike forms were aligned along a vertical axis suggesting symmetrical human anatomy, as it had in the ancient pre-Columbian sculptures. This painting, however, strives for the glacial (self-mocking?) atmosphere of the inner man who holds himself at a one-step removed from the world, and lurks in the blackest depths of the mirror. It is not so different in temperature, in fact, from a work of 1991, Paisaje Verde, in which the coolest of blue and green tones offer a strangely illumined stage set for the single wedge of warm light that recedes slightly in shadow, just behind the final surface. Wedged, packed stratified, and defiantly impermeable, this landscape characterizes some of Gerzso's deepest feelings about existence and stubbornly refuses to yield its secrets. On the other hand, there are paintings in which there are occult incidents that bestir still more complicated assessments of his notion of paisaje-personaje. A fine painting of 1989, Tropico, is structured not so differently from other paintings, with thin planar forms characteristically shaded at the edges, insisting on their planarity, and variations in scale carefully measured. But here, Gerzso offers a hint of inner turbulence in a vignette deliberately highlighted by an aura -- a complex composition within a composition, a mirror within a mirror, through which Gerzso has trailed a darkish, smoky haze, the one disturbing element in an otherwise controlled and coherent composition. Whereas in most of Gerzso's painting there are series of repoussoirs, always pushing the viewer back and away, yet luring him to the game of spying out openings into an inner sanctum, here the ambiguous scumble of smoke hovers in a space that is as vague and redolent of primal unform, as works of artists, such as the abstract expressionists, who rebelled against Platonic geometric figures and experienced the world as intensely ambiguous and non-formal.

Gerzso has said that he has to find in his paintings an "inner quality" which, like any good painter, he steadfastly refuses to define in words. Such innerness can only be arrived at -- for him at any rate -- through a long and almost ritualistic process. In his studio he is more akin to Goethe's alchemist than he is to most contemporary painters. It would be impossible to locate specifically when, in this prolonged process, he arrives at a vision of the whole, or when in the requisite process, he arrives at consonance. Usually the secrets of the artist's kitchen are very little help in evaluating his life's work. But in Gerzso's case, the ritual of preparing -- those first conceptions, hidden forever behind the final surface -- does cast light on the completed painting. Each painting is done in an elaborate sequence of stages, beginning with an almost phantom pencil sketch in the finest of lines, and then moving on to a pencil sketch on a white ground, often accompanied by a ghostlike echo in pale orange. Only then does he prepare his ground, using various methods of application ranging from pastel and acrylic washes to freely spattered multiple colors. The drawings, often elaborated with written indications, and worked out in networks of fine line that frequently seem geometrically calculated, await their translation onto the prepared ground which, in turn, takes Gerzso considerable time. He must always find the right tonality in order to establish the mood -- what Baudelaire called the "colored atmosphere" that infuses the entire composition. From the gossamer lines of his pencil drawings, and then his ink drawings, some indefinable presence announces itself, and Gerzso seeks to characterize it in that essential ground which will then modify every subsequent stage of the painting. His means are varied, and he uses them with considerable fervor -- steel wool to burnish or banish surfaces, pumice powder to render them tangible -- but the traces of these stages are determinedly covered, since the final painting "must have a certain finish -- I've had that from childhood, everything I do must have a certain finish or it doesn't work at all." All of those feelings or sensations he characterizes by means of paint -- feelings of vertigo, spreading, contracting, dispersing, sinking, hiding, revealing, immersing, masking -- must arrive from far away, form intricate procedures in Gerzso's cranial laboratory that seek finality as surely as one of Bach's fugues.

André Breton, in speaking of a painter, once called up the image of the great light that inhabits the lighthouse, with its container of hundreds of mirrors obliquely placed. It would be a suitable metaphor for Gerzso's oeuvre, for the paintings are each as solid, as smoothly contained as the shape of the lighthouse, while within, the self-reflecting mirrors wildly proliferate. Paz referred to Gerzso's work in the image of the "icy spark," an oxymoron that enfolds the duality that seems endemic to the painter's character. Traba called attention to the double existence of his closed landscapes, holding the visible and the invisible, the controllable and the invasive, in balance. Cardoza y Aragon suggested that Gerzso's works reveal a temperament seen through nature, and not nature seen through a temperament. And Gerzso himself has indicated his own duality by speaking of his need to control on the one hand, and his desire to be free on the other. Through his interests peer certain telling details: He is enthralled by the legend of Catherwood, that most romantic of adventurers in love with Mayan walls. He has dedicated certain works to Walter Benjamin whose deepest feelings were expressed through his studies of poets, above all Baudelaire, and who understood the supreme importance of "the aura," those "associations which, at home in the mémoire involontaire, tend to cluster around the object of a perception." He has never forgotten that Bonnard that hung over his bed in Switzerland. Nor, for that matter, any of the great painters whose work he has examined with the trained eye of the connoisseur. The cumulus of his broad culture and his mémoire involontaire have endowed Gerzso's paintings with qualities that rebuff the written word, but stand, visible and permanent, in the works.