Risking the Abstract: The Mexican Modernism of Gunther Gerzso

at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, through June 27

Tribal art was once extolled for its directness and elemental nature, though Western fascination with “primitive” art has also been linked to colonialism–to our own primitive lust for power. Painter Gunther Gerzso, an artist of Hungarian descent born in Mexico, based his abstract works on the visual patterns of Mexico’s architectural monuments, but he was so entrenched in the culture that his lucid synthesis of modernist sensibilities and pre-Columbian forms never suggests cultural appropriation.

This retrospective, curated by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, shows Gerzso’s career in several stages, beginning with figurative images in a social realist style and proceeding through surrealism, then on to the abstractions based on archaeological sites. While he was painting in the 40s and 50s and early 60s, he also worked as a set designer, first for theater (he lived for a while in Cleveland) and later for film, working with Luis Bunuel and John Ford among other directors. It’s clear from his rather unexceptional early work that he found himself when he discovered surrealism, which freed him to use color in the prismatic variations characteristic of his later abstract work, begun in the late 40s and continuing until his death in 2000. Two small paintings from the early 40s are ablaze with transmogrified yucca plants, and another shows a tower of evolving biomorphic shapes painted not in hazy grays in the manner of Yves Tanguy, from whom Gerzso borrowed the forms, but in a vibrant palette of saturated primary colors. The sky is red, the forms are blue, and a few yellow accents here and there ignite the composition.

Gerzso’s poetic variations on color span a huge spectrum and tend to be fully saturated, with as many particles of pigment as possible suspended in the medium (usually oil). Once Gerzso chose a set of colors for a painting, he stuck with them. His choices clearly reflect color theory, whether intentionally or not: colors are juxtaposed with their opposites on the color wheel, grouped with similar colors, or used to make forms advance or recede in space. Warm and cold versions of the same color create planes, layers, and substrata. In the 1964 Personaje Mitologico (“Mythological Character”), layers of ochers and blues–cobalts, turquoises–set off a tongue of orange emerging from a crevice, causing the whole composition to come alive. Gerzso’s restrictive color formulas and a similarly disciplined approach to form and texture, combined with endless invention in color and placement from one work to another, are what give his paintings so much power.

Anyone who’s spent time around ancient ruins will understand Gerzso’s fascination with them. They generally have an astonishing severity that’s both graceful and frightening. Worn by the elements, they blend with the contours of the land and take on the shifting colors of the earth and sky. And they’re haunted by the people who imagined, built, and inhabited them. Gallons of ink have been spilled on this subject–in Mexico by Octavio Paz, a great fan of Gerzso and a dedicated surrealist. But little visual art of merit has been devoted to architectural ruins in the Americas. In a catalog essay, Cuauhtemoc Medina identifies the paintings’ psychic energy as gothic and links it not only to the horror evoked by the Aztec ruins but to the violence that took place in Europe–the Holocaust and World War II–while Gerzso and his family were safe in Mexico.

The pre-Columbian sites in Mexico have a power and presence similar to that of classical ruins in Italy, which spurred on the Italian Renaissance. Both were close at hand. And the political climate in both countries celebrated the descendants of the ruins’ builders. In Mexico, the indigenous peoples were not exotic others but one’s comrades and artistic ancestors. And just as Latin American writers intertwined modernism, surrealism, and indigenous culture rather than create a mishmash of divergent aesthetic traditions, Gerzso creates a sort of magical abstraction: like Malevich and Mondrian he’s drawn to geometric abstraction–but also enthralled by antiquities and surrealism.

Gerzso views the Mexican ruins through a European lens, a synthesis that subtly pervades the shallow planes of his luminous canvases. Sometimes large surfaces open to reveal a dynamic substructure, as in the 1968 Rojo-Amarillo-Verde (“Red-Yellow-Green”). At other times a plane of color with a carefully delineated, precisely shaded edge will reveal another layer of smaller broken shapes along the sides or at the bottom. In fact, in the same way that Gerzso has used variations of color, he seems to have painted or made a drawing of every possible permutation of a basic set of shapes. Sometimes the planes have painted-in wrinkles or cuts, and they might resemble overlapping paper, shale, ice, or scales. Using shadow to produce depth between one layer and another, he creates distinct spaces, yet overall the depth seems quite shallow. Except for the shading, the marks of the human hand are minimal–just as individual marks have largely disappeared from the architectural sites to reveal more abstract forms. Gerzso evokes rather than represents the ruins, alluding to a geometrical madness, a desire for order, that seeps from the archaeology and mythology into the contemporary.