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In the fall of 1949, Mathias Goeritz (1915–1990) and his wife Marianne Gast arrived in Mexico. They had spent the last year in Santillana del Mar near the prehistoric cave of Altamira, working with a group of artists that came to be known as La Escuela de Altamira. His stay in Santillana was the culmination of eight prolific years in Spain where his career as an artist began. Employed by the German Consulate in 1941, Goeritz and his wife spent time in Tetouan, Tangier, Malaga, Granada, and Madrid where he befriended many Spanish artists and critics working in the stifled atmosphere of Francoist Spain. Invited to direct the newly formed School of Architecture in Guadalajara, Goeritz crossed the Atlantic to take residence in Mexico where he spent the rest of his life.
The displacements, journeys and extensive international networks established by the artist, who was born in Gdańsk, are important to understand the significance of The Return of the Snake: Mathias Goeritz and the Invention of Emotional Architecture. The exhibition pays homage to a multifaceted and prolific figure whose work continues to pose a challenge to the official narratives of Mexican art. His status as an “outsider,” connection to wartime Germany, and the perceived “emptiness” of his non-figurative work constituted an affront to the Escuela Mexicana de Pintura. Like other émigrés, Goeritz had to find a niche in Mexico and resist the chauvinistic atmosphere that permeated its artistic world, along with a social realism equated with national pride. In this context, the influence of international modernism was seen to corrupt a younger generation of artists seeking to break from the shackles of narrative figuration, and much effort was spent constraining their work to the margins. What this exhibition shows, however, is that artists like Goeritz were far from marginal.
Breaking from the chronological narrative of monographic exhibitions, curator Francisco Reyes Palma arranged the rooms thematically. This allowed for a comprehensive overview of Goeritz’s contributions as an artist, writer, curator, teacher, cultural agent, and provocateur. Walking through the galleries one could grasp the extent of his influence in the modernizing projects that were changing the urban landscape of the Mexican capital and the way in which his work connected to an extensive international network of artists, curators, critics, and gallerists. In this sense, the exhibition challenges ongoing narratives of artistic centers and peripheries, making apparent the epistemological problems that arise when labels such as “alternative modernities” are applied to “marginal” countries such as Mexico.
While Goeritz’s main contribution to mid-century abstraction is monumental sculpture, the exhibition excels at showing the many different media, materials, and techniques he used, including the more “traditional” paintings and sculptures of his early years. It also underscored the centrality of the spiritual in his work, often at odds with the functionalist, formalist, and neo-dadaist currents with which he engaged. These apparent contradictions make his art particularly interesting and reveal a latent German Romanticism that gives potency to his oeuvre.
Entering the exhibition the viewer is invited to interact with the towering broken lines of a walk-through sculpture called Attack or the Serpent at Eco (1953). This room sets the scene for two of the main curatorial lines of the exhibition: the concept of “emotional architecture” and the significance of Goeritz’s work in the cold war context. In the first instance the sculpture serves as a visual manifesto of Goeritz’s views on art as expression or “emotion,” rather than pure formal abstraction, and his belief that modern art should seek inspiration in the past. Indeed, ancient echoes run through his work adding to the emotive and spiritual content in much of his production. Different versions of Attack were on display throughout the exhibition, but the most significant ones were photographs showing the sculpture in the patio of El Eco, an experimental museum devised by Goeritz in 1953. El Eco was short lived, but it was one of his most daring projects, serving as a workshop where painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, light, and poetry combined. Many artists collaborated in this venture including Rufino Tamayo, Carlos Mérida, Germán Cueto, and Henry Moore, and it was a space where Goeritz developed his idea of “emotional architecture” as a counterpoint to the pragmatism of functionalist art.
As its name indicates, El Eco conveys repetition and reiteration, another central theme in Goeritz’s work that runs throughout the exhibition. Snake-like constructions, monolithic variations of pyramids, cones, and prisms, the constellations and Messages (1950s–60s) series, as well as his formal and conceptual use of gold reflect Goeritz’s interest in seriality and repetition. While the underlying principle is geometry, he creates totemic structures and spiritually charged monochromes, sculptures, and concrete poetry. Through his choice of gold as both material and utterance, he exposes the discrepancy between the monetary and symbolic value of art. Repeating the word oro (“gold” in Spanish) in his concrete poetry, this ambivalence is conveyed through the reiteration of the letters o-r-o which echo the two meanings of the word: gold and pray (first person of the present tense). This semantic interplay is expanded in Messages, a series of gold monochromes that the artist either left intact or perforated with nails (a technique described by Goeritz as clouage). While the former served a more decorative function, the punctured surfaces of Messages make reference to the Passion—a symbolic content reinforced by lines from the Old Testament that Goeritz sometimes added to their labels. Gold can hence be read as wealth or spiritual essence in a way similar to how Byzantine artists used it. This connection with the Middle Ages was not fortuitous.
In both his practice and writings, Goeritz attacked the vacuity of contemporary art and the proclaimed superiority of the artist, advocating instead a return to the anonymity and collectivity of art in the Middle Ages, and to works infused with meaning and significance. These issues are made explicit in one of the most engaging rooms of the exhibition where Reyes Palma contraposes Goeritz’s work with Lucio Fontana and the Nouveaux Réalistes. By contextualizing Goeritz work within the neo-avant-garde currents of the 1960s, Reyes Palma exposes the artist’s interventions in the international scene through his correspondence, writings, and exhibitions in New York and Paris. His manifestos “Estoy Harto” (I Am Fed Up), “L’Art prière contre l’art merde“ (Prayer-art Against Crap-art), and “Please Stop,” all from 1960, were responses to his distaste of neo-dadaist trends and Piero Manzoni’s scatological transgressions. Examples of these were juxtaposed with Goeritz’s stained-glass designs for churches in Mexico (including the Cathedral in Mexico City), variations of his Messages, and a large bronze sculpture entitled Custody (1961–62). Also apparent, however, is Goeritz’s savvy use of propagandistic methods to position his work, and his not always altruistic reasons for being part of an international avant-garde. It is significant, for example, that his work was exhibited in the gallery Iris Clert—the same space that showcased the work of the Nouveaux Réalistes in Paris, and which contributed to the commercial success of artists like Yves Klein. Goeritz’s ability to sail the complex networks of transnational art is skillfully shown throughout the exhibition, as are his important collaborations with artists in Mexico and abroad.
One of the largest rooms of the exhibition is dedicated to his project for Mario Pani’s Ciudad Satélite, a large suburban area or “satellite city” that would provide needed residential space for the demographic growth of Mexico City. Its plans followed modern urban designs based on systematized living spaces and efficient road systems. Pani asked architect Luis Barragán to design the entrance to his urban planning project; Barragán in turn asked Goeritz and Jesús Reyes Ferreira to collaborate with him. The result was five cuneiform towers (measuring between thirty-one and fifty-one meters high) designed to be seen as residents approach Ciudad Satélite in their cars, making speed a necessary element of the work, which is activated by the viewers’ movement. The Return of the Snake exhibition includes photographs of other collaborations with Barragán and Ricardo Legorreta, and drawings and models of Goeritz’s monumental sculpture or “emotional architecture.” Also explicit is the dichotomy between the commercial and symbolic nature of his work, and the way in which Torres de Ciudad Satélite (1957–58), intended as modern renditions of Gothic bell towers, became emblems of an industrialized urban utopia. Caught between developmentalism and “Prayer-art,” these projects encapsulate the tensions between his proposed spirituality and the commercial potential of his work—a potential enhanced by his non-figurative production, which aligned Goeritz, and postwar abstract art in general, with Western capitalism.
The adjacent room shows photographs and models of the public sculptures commissioned for the Ruta de la Amistad (Route of Friendship), devised as a cultural counterpart of the Mexican Olympics in 1968. This project, led by Goeritz, highlights his talents as a cultural agent able to orchestrate international collaborations that helped position Mexico at the center of world politics. The abstract compositions of the twenty-one sculptures commissioned for this reflect the ascendancy of non-figurative art and the gradual displacement of the Mexican School, signaling the defeat of social realism and its concomitant communist utopia.
Many exhibitions of Latin American art in the last ten years have focused on abstraction in South America, in the process cementing a new canon that assigns a less dominant position to the non-figurative, avant-garde, and conceptual movements of Mexico at mid-century. Exhibitions like this will no doubt help to open up what has become a somewhat closed narrative and cast of characters, bringing, I hope, attention to other artists whose work was as important as Goeritz’s.
Assistant Professor, Department of Fine and Performing Arts, Saint Louis University, Madrid Campus