Gunther Gerzso by José Antonio Aldrete-Haas

BOMB 74 Winter 2001
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Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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Gunther Gerzso,  Personaje en Rojo y Azul, 1964, oil on canvas, 100 × 73 cm. All images courtesy of Mary-Anne Martin Gallery.

In 1991 I invited the artist Gunther Gerzso to participate in a discussion that was part of an international symposium entitled Poetry in Architecture.

The purpose of this gathering was to reflect on the poetic dimension in architecture and the visual arts. Gerzso, a painter, accepted the invitation yet never uttered a single word during the event. He later told me that he was suffering from depression at the time. His silence on that occasion gave us an excuse to begin a later conversation about his life and works. It was the moment at which our dialogue began—a dialogue that prospered until April 21, 2000, the day Gerzso’s life ended.

For Gerzso, although reason intervenes in the creative process, intuition has the last word, for it synthesizes the known and the felt. The secret dialogue between intuition and reason is manifest in Gerzso’s early sketches and drawings, which look more like the works of one of Goethe’s alchemists than of a contemporary painter. Once he defined the format of his canvas, Gerzso would dissect it with invisible lines that adjusted themselves to Fibonacci’s aural section. They were guides for his intuition. The artist would make some of them visible in order to transform them into walls, cracks, or light beams nurtured on the color range of Mexican landscapes, which are so reminiscent of the pre-Hispanic universe.

The conversation that follows reveals a Gerzso whose life and works are a result both of his need to control things (reason), and of his yearning for freedom (intuition). Octavio Paz called him a “glacial spark,” a reference to Gerzso’s personality: a dazzling fire that is coldly controlled.

José Antonio Aldrete-Haas You’ve said that a trip you made to southeastern Mexico was decisive for your painting. Could you elaborate on this?

Gunther Gerzso When I traveled there in 1946 I discovered pre-Columbian art. I discovered it in the emotional sense, in the same way as someone who says, “I finally understood Mozart or Bach.” I didn’t care whether the art belonged to the Mayan, Aztec or Totonacan culture. The fact was that I was very impressed by most of those objects. I guess this could sound ridiculous because my mother was German and my father Hungarian. What did I have to do with pre-Columbian art? And yet I was attracted to it in a tremendously emotional way. I began collecting it. I can’t explain it: I felt that I had something in common with the artists who had created these objects. And I also told myself, I live in Mexico and up to this moment I have been creating a sort of European Surrealist art influenced by Max Ernst, Tanguy, Dalí and others. Why don’t I make something that belongs to this country?

As a result of this I first painted a piece that was merely intuitive. I still work that way. To begin a painting I initially draw many lines on the canvas. Sometimes nothing comes out. Suddenly, I draw lines in the place where they belong, and there it is: a being that was underwater comes to the surface and slowly comes to life. Then I see it the next day and choose what stays and what goes, until I convince myself that the piece is ready, alive. I’ve been working the same way since 1946. In painting you can’t have much control over the outcome because sometimes one thing comes out and other times something else happens. You have to obey inspiration, despite my dislike of the term. There have been times when I’ve thought a work was done, and then I’ve looked at it again and decided to add more elements to it in order to make it stronger. Given my technique, I can’t erase anything; all elements need to be added and this is the biggest challenge.

JAH Your discovery of pre-Columbian art is part of a process of reflection. While you were going through it, did you consider the problem of having to communicate the emotion that you mentioned previously by means of a language unrelated to European Surrealism?

GG Yes, definitely. I still remember when I started considering this. It was in 5 Reyna Street, here in the neighborhood of San Angel. One day, I didn’t know what to paint and I told myself, I’ll paint something related to this new emotional discovery.

JAH Do the works that you paint nowadays seek to communicate that same emotion?

GG Yes.

JAH However, there’s been a formal transformation in your work.

GG Although my pictorial language has changed, I keep communicating that initial emotion. It’s like when one plays the piano with one hand and then suddenly discovers the benefits of playing with both. I don’t think I’ve discovered anything emotionally new in what I’m doing. The emotion has remained the same. I discovered, after psychoanalytical therapy, that all my paintings constitute a type of evocation and, at the same time, a faithful portrait of my psyche. I was very interested in psychoanalysis and therefore was able to speak about who I was. I discovered many interesting things that I had put into my work without even noticing. I paint; I don’t care what my paintings represent—my emotional matter appears in them. That happens without me having to worry about it, because when I’m painting I only pay attention to technical issues. In other words, I only worry about what I have to put in at a specific place, or if I’ll use blue or red. Who one is and what ends up being distinctive about one’s work happens by itself, spontaneously.

JAH Does the process of adding and subtracting while you’re working on a piece have to do with this emotion, with the feeling that the painting has a life of its own?

GG The process makes the artist become a type of Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein knew when he had arrived at the “consummation of his toils.” I can’t remember what happens in the novel. In the movie there are all sorts of spectacular effects: electrical machines, thunder, etcetera. The same happens in painting. The minute thunder rolls, that last thunder that bestows life on the piece, one says, “It’s done!” From then on painting and painter are separated, and the painting has a life of its own. Some will say, “It’s horrible!” And others will say, “It’s beautiful!” One is not in charge of that.

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Gunther Gerzso, Opposite Dimension, 1998, oil on board, 59.7 × 72.4 cm.

JAH From 1946 on, your paintings have changed significantly in terms of their color and formal language. Could you describe this process, and why you chose this path?

GG The development of any artist’s body of work is both changing and constant. It begins with the first painting, which always contains the same elements that all the other paintings have. Then one is able to identify the pictorial elements that relate only to the painting itself, so the work starts changing. I think the same happens in architecture. It’s clear that many changes have taken place from the Parthenon to Le Corbusier’s Maison-Domino. Yet we could say that the two buildings have walls and a ceiling; one is surrounded by columns, and the other incorporates them in a different way. If I could live another two hundred years, I’m quite certain that I would find the way to create other images and their emotional content would still be the same.

JAH Why do you think that the emotional content is the same? Don’t you think there’s a link between the painting’s content and its technique?

GG I’ve never worried about the emotional content because it happens by itself. To me, “emotional content” is a type of container inside me, one that I have to feed in the same way a car needs gas. Emotions don’t nurture themselves; they need education and culture so they don’t perish. I nurture them by looking, and not only at pre-Columbian art. Anyone can find “food” by reading poetry or looking at plants, landscape, color and the works of masters throughout time. The last time I was in Paris I saw the Egyptian sculpture, Seated Scribe, and felt its emotional impact.

When I was working in films I felt that I wasn’t nurturing myself at all. One day I bitterly complained to Luis Buñuel while we were working on a film together. I said, “I can’t stand this anymore, I’m writing stories with writers and producers simply because money needs to be made.” And he replied, “Gunther, my friend, don’t worry. These films are nutritious.” And he was right, because thanks to that job I was able to paint. So we move on to a different problem: the economic one. Artists need to make a living.

JAH Is there a close relationship between emotion and the process of making a painting?

GG Yes. For me the actual making of a piece is very important. It’s a dangerous issue because one can make a technically impeccable piece that is totally devoid of content, that says nothing at all. The problem is precisely to infuse emotion into the technique. It’s like playing the piano. If you listen to Claudio Arrau it’s very different from hearing your aficionado neighbor interpret the same piece of music.

JAH Therefore you can distinguish the technique, the vehicle of expression from the emotion.

GG Emotional content and technique have a very particular relationship. One has to love technique. It’s a marvelous experience for me to read catalogs of painting materials. I read them as if they were novels. It’s a type of masochistic activity for me because I can’t possibly buy all that they offer. I read a magazine called American Artist and another called The Artist. The readers of those journals paint watercolors of the sea, sunsets, or Native American chiefs riding horses. In the pages of those magazines their techniques are described. There are more painters of this kind than any other. There are so many people who have the right emotion but don’t know how to transmit it, put it in words or express it in any other way.

JAH In other words, there’s a constant refinement of the means of expression—that is, the emphasis on technique—on the one side, and on the other there’s an awareness of an emotion that has to be nurtured and also successfully conveyed.

GG In order to achieve emotional development, an education in the arts is essential. It has to be acquired at some point in one’s life. When I was 12 I was sent to Europe; I was meant to become an art dealer, a marchand de tableaux, because my mother’s brother was one. I think I wanted to be an engineer at that time, but I was put in a house brimming with incredible artworks. I learned what quality is: a good painter is able to communicate an emotion through very banal means, a piece of cloth and a little earth combined with enamel and oil.

JAH How did the formal transformation in your work take place? Did it happen abruptly or by means of a process of subtraction? I say this because it seems that your latest pieces are fragments of your earliest ones.

GG My paintings are definitely becoming simpler. As of now I am fascinated by walls. There are walls that are very boring and then others that are very exciting. Now it’s more difficult for me, because I can’t fool myself anymore. Sometimes I’ll make a drawing and then say to myself, This is garbage and I can do much better. I take some stuff away from it, add other elements, and do it again. It’s a battle.

The paintings I did in 1946 were very baroque. I think it’s a good thing. Tanguy went through the same process. His early works were very complicated, he put everything in. Later, everything gradually came into place. The same happened to Cézanne.

JAH It also reminds me of Miró. Isn’t there also an abstraction process in your work?

GG Yes, but it’s like walking on a tightrope. Everything can fall apart if you aren’t careful enough, because you can’t make total abstractions. In order to do that you would have to be like Mondrian and acquire that simplicity. The risk is that suddenly there’s nothing left.

JAH Is there a larger distillation of emotion when there’s more abstraction? Do you think that now you know what you want to transmit more clearly than before?

GG My current work isn’t as theatrical as it was in the past. It’s very easy to put a lot into a painting. When you look at the works of the Baroque masters, it’s obvious that they knew when to stop. However, the academic painters of the 1890s had an extraordinary ability to make very superficial works, devoid of any emotion.

JAH Are you saying that one should eliminate the theatrical, and that what you were feeling in the 1940s was related to a certain theatricality?

GG Surrealism is very theatrical. Dalí is a great example. His early work was beautiful, but it had a lot of drama. There’s also great theatrical content in Tintoretto, who made wonderful paintings. I’m not against theatricality, but Cubism, Mondrian and the Russians—Kandinsky, Malevich and others—just can’t be ignored. One has to follow their path without imitating them. I don’t think one can return to the Middle Ages or become an academic painter nowadays. It’s like thinking about the British Gothic architecture of the 19th century. It lacked emotion and spirit.

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Gunther Gerzso, Mansion Ancestral, 1949, oil on masonite, 13⅜ × 19⅛ inches.

JAH Could you describe the process by which your paintings became more abstract and your colors and traces started changing?

GG With time I became more daring. When I began painting I wasn’t as animated as I am now. Today I use more reds than ever. The way I began making red paintings is horrendously banal. A man in Washington wrote me a letter saying, “Enclosed you will find a sample of the red carpet I’ll have in my office. Please make a red painting for me.” So I asked my wife, “Am I a prostitute or what?” I had never painted anything red before. So I worked on a red painting. Not the red the client wanted, but a different one that he liked a lot. I’ve been making red paintings ever since. That means that inside me there was a voice that said, You can use red. As simple as that.

JAH You are feeling an emotion and trying to convey it by some means, through, in your case, painting. Does this mean that as you learn how to use the medium, you learn what you can communicate through it? Is this how you could explain your tendency toward simplicity?

GG Yes, definitely. But on the edge, on the tightrope. The easiest thing in the world is to paint some brushstrokes on a canvas. If you have some sort of good taste something always comes out, something decorative and perhaps even more. But that’s walking on a path that has been paved before. It’s painting in the style of someone else, which is facile. But to be able to do what Mondrian, Kandinsky or Rothko have done is extremely difficult.

JAH There’s another aspect of your work that is worth mentioning. You’re making big surfaces that look like atmospheres, and are then interrupted by a line. My way of interpreting this is to think that the lines demarcate a place that’s emphasized with the effect of light around it. I’m under the impression that that is how you create tension between what we perceive as an atmosphere, in the case of total surfaces, and what we perceive as a plane, when there are lines. Am I right?

GG For me there’s no plane. Since yesterday, I’ve been moving one of these lines around in a drawing. I discover these lines intuitively. They excite me because they add a certain mystery and tension. The first time, I traced a line with a ruler and India ink and felt like something was missing. I put a sort of halo around it, which for me isn’t light; I just wanted to give it more visibility…and that’s what it did…I can’t describe it. I’m a painter, not a writer.

You talk about an atmosphere. For me it isn’t that; it’s a flat wall. This wall could have a dent, a metaphysical one. It’s like the cracks I used to include in the paintings. The crack is an inheritance of Surrealism, and also a Romantic element. The lines I use now are Surrealist in the sense that they’re not logical or rational; to me they have a life of their own.

JAH Do you think the life you are talking about is generated from the tension between what one expects rationally and what one is surprised by for its irrationality?

GG That crack or line does create tension in a flat surface. That surface is not really flat because it has a pictorial richness: pigments and many more colors than those that one perceives. I discovered that it was really interesting to add lines to a painting.

JAH In other words, the line appeared one day and had an effect similar to that which cracks had in Surrealist paintings?

GG A crack has depth—and I didn’t take that idea from pre-Columbian art. To me a straight line is never a crack.

JAH Not even in Kandinsky?

GG Curiously enough, I don’t like Kandinsky. I feel his paintings lack a metaphysical, emotional quality. But I do like Albers a lot, in whose work there’s no line or anything, only a few square shapes. I like his work because it contains a lot of emotion. In my bedroom I have a lithograph by him that he gave to me; it’s in orange tones. I was living here in San Angel, and one day my neighbor, an American painter, said to me, “A very nice man came to see me, his name is Albers. I told him you painted.” I was working in film then; it was during the war. Albers was very old. He came to see my work and said, “Young man, why don’t you forget the idea of becoming an old master?” I used to paint “in the style of.” And in a certain way I still do.

Albers used to paint the following way: he would squeeze a tube and then spread the color on the canvas with a spatula. He never mixed colors. He’d be working on a single pattern that he could repeat 50 times. He did beautiful things and was incredibly polite. I don’t have much to do with his world but I admire him a lot. His work reaches me. Compared to Albers, I’m still doing theater and set design, opera.

I was trained to focus on the painting’s matter. This is very important to me. That’s what I mean when I say I’m a great admirer of Bonnard, who is an artist that does things diametrically opposed to what I do. If you paint a still life, for instance, with four apples, a newspaper and a pipe, like many painters did, it’s not better or worse because of the four apples, newspaper and pipe. It’s about the emotion behind it, its pictorial quality and the magic of the surface.

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Gunther Gerzso, Southern Queen, 1963, oil on masonite, 18⅛ × 24 inches.

JAH So the individual and the emotion that he’s able to incorporate into his own work are at play again. With regards to this, doesn’t a piece lose some of its emotional charge when it incorporates elements that don’t come from the author’s imagination, but from other times and other artists?

GG There’s no artwork that’s not based on other works. For example, in the Chapel at Ronchamp, Le Corbusier made his apple in a very different and impressive way. When I visited the chapel I wasn’t expecting anything. I knew Le Corbusier was Protestant, strong, Swiss, and an atheist. I wondered what spirituality could have meant to him. Once I saw the chapel it became very clear to me that he knew what mysticism was. And the stained glass there! He didn’t invent anything when he worked on stained glass, but what a thing he was able to do! They’re unique. He was able to give that church something that few architects have been able to give it since. A religious or mystical person comes into that chapel and everything is in its place, although Le Corbusier scarcely used traditional elements.

JAH What I’m referring to is that a certain originality, a unique dimension, needs to exist in order to express a particular emotion. If as an artist you utilize what belongs to others, isn’t some of the emotional power lost?

GG The quest for originality per se is very dangerous. The initial result can be dazzling, but it doesn’t remain that way for long. Good artworks have a sort of battery in them, to put it one way. There are many works that have had impact at first, but their batteries expire quickly. Then the piece becomes an empty object, it stops being an artwork. When I go to Europe and visit museums, I go to see the same works that I’ve been impressed by in the past. Every time I’m in Venice I see The Miracle of the Slaveby Tintoretto, and I rediscover that he did a marvelous thing. His battery has never expired. There are a lot of marvels, but you have to possess the ability to marvel at things.

JAH How would you describe the process by which you decide that a painting is finished or that a composition is the adequate one?

GG I trace a rectangle with two diagonals that give structure to the space, that’s how I demarcate the composition. It’s different from what Bonnard used to do. He would take a canvas with him to the cheap hotel he’d go to with his wife. She would bathe and come out of the bathroom. Then he’d start painting. Once he was done he would evaluate the painting, sometimes he would cut 12 inches off the side of the canvas in order to finish the composition. Composition is everything for me; but it can lead me to a dead end in which everything falls apart. Regardless, one has to risk more and more until reaching the point where if one continues everything will crumble, everything that was made visible will disappear.

JAH Let’s say that’s merely intuitive. However, after 40 years of painting, an interior dialogue and a reflection about what works and what doesn’t must take place in your mind, don’t you think?

GG No. The day after I’ve finished something I’m able to see what works and what doesn’t at a single glance. Sometimes I realize I don’t know the solution to the problem and then I leave it. To do this is similar to creating a living being. Sometimes one can see it’s missing a hand, an eye. Before, I used to think, Well, it’s done even if it lacks a hand or an eye. With time one places those missing parts. It is intuitive.

JAH But when something does work, don’t you question yourself about what that is?

GG Experience has made me reflect about my own work, but I’m not very interested in this. When I see one of my paintings I feel that it’s alive and will survive outside of the studio. When I visited Gelman’s exhibition and saw my own paintings, I felt as if someone else had painted them. Some looked better than others, some needed a better technique.

JAH What you are saying is that even when there is a rational or intellectual process involved in painting, the one that ultimately matters the most is the intuitive one. And not only that, but also that your intuition can change through time.

GG Yes. Look, once I made a painting titled The Woman of the Jungle. I first made a lithograph and it didn’t come out very well. Then I made a painting and it came out fine. Then I made another lithograph of it. All this in a period of 20 years. The drawing was the exact same one; what changed was the way I made it. In the end, the piece was able to express its emotional content in a much stronger way. But the charge was there from the beginning. I’m trying to express a totally irrational thing in the most rational way—that’s why I’m still a Surrealist.


Translated from the Spanish by Mónica de la Torre.

Originally published in

BOMB 74, Winter 2001

Featuring interviews with Damiela Eltit, Alavaro Musis, Carmen Boullosa, Gioconda Belli, Sergio Vega, Gunther Gerzso, Valeska Soares, Pedro Meyer, Marisa Monte, Cubanismo!, and Ned Sublette.

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