Hell-Bent Idealists

The Tower of Satellite City, Naucalpan de Juárez, Mexico, 1957
Hans Namuth Estate/Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona/© 1991 Hans Namuth Estate
The Towers of Satellite City, designed by Mathias Goeritz and Luis Barragán, Naucalpan de Juárez, Mexico, 1957; photograph by Hans Namuth, circa 1964

Among the many artists, architects, and designers who embraced modernism’s utopian hopes, the ravages of World War II precipitated a reevaluation that led as often to retreat as to reengagement. Mathias Goeritz and Gyorgy Kepes, creative spirits born in the Old World who made names for themselves in the New World, were among the optimists who wagered that the visionary ambitions of the pre-war avant-garde could still be embraced in an increasingly routinized and standardized postwar world. The strikingly handsome and stylishly informal Goeritz courted controversy with dramatic sculptural and architectural projects in Mexico, where he lived and worked for much of his life. The less prepossessing and more buttoned-up Kepes, from his base of operations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, built on his early training as a painter, photographer, and designer as he campaigned tirelessly for greater understanding between artists and scientists.

Jennifer Josten’s Mathias Goeritz: Modernist Art and Architecture in Cold War Mexico and John R. Blakinger’s Gyorgy Kepes: Undreaming the Bauhaus are first books by relatively young art historians. They grasp the hellbent and in some respects almost boyish idealism that Goeritz and Kepes sustained even as they became master manipulators who were sometimes but not always able to persuade politicians, businessmen, scholars, and artists to do their bidding. The dislocations of the war years, far from derailing Goeritz and Kepes, seem to have emboldened them. The quintet of monumental abstract towers that Goeritz had a hand in creating for Mexico City and the series of books on the nature of modern vision that Kepes compiled may not count as seminal twentieth-century achievements, but their enduring significance is inarguable. These men and their activities have much to tell us about the fate of artistic ambitions in a technocratic society. If many of their dreams came to naught, that reminds us what tough battles had to be fought on behalf of the arts after the war. We are still fighting some of those battles, half a century after Goeritz and Kepes were in their heyday, in the 1960s.

Josten and Blakinger are acutely conscious of the political, economic, and social pressures that Goeritz and Kepes confronted wherever they turned. The large-scale projects that interested these men demanded significant funding, and a creative spirit with progressive views might well be tempted to align himself with individuals and organizations with more conservative views. Josten and Blakinger, while always on the lookout for compromises of one sort or another, are determined to demonstrate that even in an industrial or postindustrial society, an individual can find ways to reshape the symbols that shape…

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