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 our world, at least some of the time.
Although neither Goeritz nor Kepes had any firsthand involvement with the Bauhaus, which opened in 1919 and was closed by Hitler in 1933, they embraced the school’s expansive vision of a unity of the arts in the service of a better society. Kepes had worked in Europe with the artist and designer László Moholy-Nagy, a major figure at the Bauhaus, and he was brought to the United States by Moholy-Nagy in 1937 to teach at the New Bauhaus in Chicago. Neither Kepes nor Goeritz ever abandoned the ideals of the Bauhaus. The economic boom times of the 1950s and 1960s made it possible to turn theory into practice, and if some of the visual austerities and multidisciplinary ambitions that made modernism so attractive to Goeritz and Kepes proved impractical if not unpopular, they weren’t averse to rejiggering old dreams to fit new realities.
Mathias Goeritz is a terrific subject for our globalist moment. At a time of increased efforts to understand the relationship between North, Central, and South American cultures, this complex and charismatic figure brings into high relief many of the conflicting forces that shaped the arts in the postwar decades. Goeritz was born in Germany in 1915 and studied art history just after Hitler came to power. He taught courses for the Germans in North Africa during the war and then, after the war, lived in Franco’s Spain, painting and organizing a group of artists who were inspired by the prehistoric cave paintings discovered in northern Spain and who called themselves the Escuela de Altamira. Invited to teach at the new School of Architecture in Guadalajara in 1949, Goeritz seized the opportunity and rapidly proceeded to become a force to be reckoned with in Mexican culture. His ingeniously shaped and dazzlingly colored sculptures, murals, stained-glass windows, and architectural caprices have left an enduring mark on the Mexican landscape and cityscape.
Whatever the work at hand—and he made many different kinds of things—Goeritz aimed for a bold, graphic impact. He reached for images with a heraldic immediacy and intensity. Even early in his career, when he was still taking an interest in representational art and created a wooden crucifixion and a sort of serpent in stone, he wanted the expressionist images to have the all-in-one force of ideograms. For his large abstract sculptures and architectural projects he tended to favor blunt, zigzagging forms. When he created works to be hung on the wall—some can be described as paintings, others as reliefs—he manipulated sheets of copper and brass and expanses of gold leaf for sumptuous, almost operatic effects. He was always aiming for the stentorian, the oracular. His golden walls and angled interiors have a heartfelt dramatic intensity that pulls you in and holds you.
Goeritz once called his political philosophy “an incurable liberalism.” He went on to say, “I want everybody to be as free as I am to do what they believe in and to profess openly and without fear their beliefs.” During the postwar years, Mexico and much of South America were the setting for strenuous debates about the place of abstract art in a changing society. Since the 1930s, the Mexican muralists, led by José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, had argued for a representational art grounded in local stories and figures and stamped with iconography and imagery that celebrated Central America’s ancient achievements in painting, sculpture, and architecture. They viewed Goeritz, who embraced the more abstract forms and structures that many modernists argued were the only truly universal visual expression, as an interloper with a hopelessly Eurocentric view. Siqueiros was unequivocal about what he saw as the peril of Goeritz’s brand of modernism, which he said threatened to “return our nation to decadent cosmopolitan influences.” Similar arguments played out across Central and South America. In Brazil, Candido Portinari, a figurative painter popular in the 1930s and 1940s, lost ground to the abstractionists in the years after the war.
In Mexico, the representational art of the muralists was closely aligned with left-wing political ideas, while Goeritz could be seen as embracing an impersonal modernism that served the interests of developers and industrialists, some of whom he worked with. Of course, the situation was much more complicated than that. Rivera, who had cut his teeth as an artist in Paris, could hardly deny his own cosmopolitanism, and although a proud Marxist, he counted among his greatest achievements the murals of autoworkers that he had painted for the Detroit Institute of Arts with the strong support of the Ford family. Meanwhile, Goeritz, like many modernists in the postwar period, was increasingly resistant to the functionalist and rationalist principles that had interested so much of the pre-war avant-garde. Those ambitious ideas, many of them elaborated by Le Corbusier in his theoretical writings, now seemed uncomfortably close to the calls for the strict reordering of society that had been embraced in the 1930s and 1940s by authoritarian governments on both the right and the left. Among the virtues of Josten’s book is her ability, while keeping close to the particulars of the Mexican story, to situate Goeritz within the broader setting of shifting international attitudes.
The artist “who believes in the freedom of the new ‘nonobjective,’ ‘nonpolitical’ art,” Goeritz argued, was as committed as “the social-realist” to “communicate emotionally with people—beyond the confines of his particular clique or fellow-sophisticates and collectors.” Even while still in Europe, Goeritz had been attracted to the more affective aspects of modernism; he always had a particular affinity for Paul Klee’s plangent, poetic compositions, with their complex metaphorical meanings. Modernists in many parts of the world were embracing more emotionally charged and playful structures—what Goeritz called Arquitectura Emocional. With his 1955 chapel at Ronchamp, Le Corbusier had turned from functionalism to something more like expressionism, while the great Venezuelan architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva, with the Ciudad Universitaria in Caracas, proved that a large, carefully planned environment could also be intimate, various, and infinitely surprising.
Goeritz, sometimes in collaboration with the commanding figure in Mexican modernist architecture, Luis Barragán, introduced full-strength colors and richly worked metallic surfaces into what were in many respects austere geometric forms and spaces. For Goeritz, the humanizing of modern architecture sometimes involved a revival of interest in religious feeling, although he was almost certainly less engaged by a particular theological dogma than by a more generalized yearning for spiritual authenticity. This quest led to his involvement with the design of stained-glass windows, some for renovated old Mexican churches, as well as to the interest that this man who had been raised as a Protestant took in synagogue design.
Probably Goeritz’s most enduring creation in Mexico is the group of five immense triangular concrete towers, known as Satellite City, that he designed in collaboration with Barragán in the late 1950s as the entrance to a new suburban community (see illustration on page 13). These stark, imposing forms—they have some of the uncanny power of a dreamscape that has been actualized—were engineered to be experienced by a driver quickly moving past in a car. While I don’t know that Goeritz’s determination to create a public art scaled to the age of the automobile was a success, there is no denying his originality when it came to thinking about the new urban landscape. As one of the organizers of projects for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Goeritz conceived what he referred to as the Route of Friendship. This was a series of huge abstract sculptures, designed by a group of artists from around the world, realized in painted concrete, and situated on the edges of a highway. Taken one by one, they may strike a passing motorist as little more than random geometric conceits, but when considered together, they exert an undeniable fascination. The one masterwork to emerge from Goeritz’s involvement with the 1968 Olympics was Alexander Calder’s El Sol Rojo, an immense metal construction commissioned for the plaza in front of what was known as the Aztec Stadium. Calder reached for a perfervid austerity, with the red disk of the sun, that essential Central American image, supported on a massive black tripod.
Like Goeritz, Kepes saw the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s as offering opportunities to dramatically reshape urban experience. In Gyorgy Kepes: Undreaming the Bauhaus, Blakinger describes a series of elaborate environmental projects that Kepes proposed for Baltimore and Boston, many as collaborations with students and colleagues at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies that he had established at MIT. Kepes had the idea of creating dramatic sculptural effects on a vast public scale, but without recourse to the traditional materials of monumental sculpture, such as bronze and marble. What he envisioned were spectacles that came into their own after dark, when the illumination from powerful lights or lasers would be refracted through mirrors or broken into patterns as it interacted with enormous sprays of water. Kepes spoke of a “tree of light,” a “garden of light,” a “light tower,” and “light architecture.” Although they don’t seem to have gone much beyond photographic models, these projects, stirring abstract compositions carved out of light, water, and air, might be regarded as a prologue to the experiments with light that James Turrell embraced some years later.
Born in Hungary in 1906, Kepes had a lifelong fascination with the workings of light, which may have been precipitated by his involvement in Berlin and then London with Moholy-Nagy, who in 1930 created the Light-Space Modulator, a kinetic mechanism that projected variegated patterns. Kepes came to believe that light was the force that united all the strands of modernity. In a vast manuscript, “The Light Book,” which he worked on for decades and to which Blakinger devotes a chapter, everything from the colorist effects in Turner’s late watercolors to the incandescence of an explosion of the atom bomb became pieces of the same puzzle. That sounds like a theoretical exercise in which art and morality are forever at loggerheads. I can’t imagine that there ever would have been a way to weave into a convincing thesis both the reflections that Kepes observed in a puddle of water and the explosions that could destroy entire cities and create what he called “apocalyptic sunsets.” So it’s no wonder that he never managed to bring his manuscript to a satisfactory conclusion. “The whole visible world,” Kepes wrote, “natural and manmade, is a light world. Its heights and depths, its great outlines and intimate details, are mapped by light.” Kepes, who in the 1960s was still making fairly conventional abstract paintings in oil on canvas, had metaphysical yearnings that no work of art could probably ever contain.
It was as an instigator, organizer, and even packager of ideas that Kepes had the greatest influence. Vision + Value, the series of six lavishly illustrated volumes that he published in the mid-1960s, brought together relatively brief essays by artists, scientists, philosophers, and scholars to demonstrate how artistic and scientific experiences and discoveries were shaping the modern world. An extraordinary range of people—among them the architects Buckminster Fuller and Pier Luigi Nervi, the artists Max Bill and Ad Reinhardt, and the writers Marshall McLuhan and Dore Ashton—contributed to the books, which included Education of Vision, Structure in Art and in Science, and The Nature and Art of Motion. At a time when printing technology was making high-quality photographic reproduction increasingly affordable, Kepes saw that unexpectedly juxtaposed images could set the mind spinning and suggest lines of thought not necessarily susceptible to more sober analysis. Blakinger is right to relate Kepes’s gift for photographic montage to what André Malraux, in the brilliant series of meditations on the history of art that he published after the war, referred to as the “museum without walls.”
For a generation and more, Kepes’s volumes were ready at hand in artists’ studios and the college classrooms where the arts were taught. In his book about motion, he set a black-and-white drip painting by Jackson Pollock next to an image of arching elements recorded on an oscilloscope at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico. In The Man-Made Object, a photograph of a Shaker interior was juxtaposed with a photograph of an IBM computer installation. These face-offs were nothing if not provocative. The oscilloscope image, with trajectories that seemed to parallel Pollock’s arabesques, could set some to wondering whether Pollock, through his painterly patterns, had grasped the deep logic of nature. The elegant austerity of the Shaker interior might seem to be recapitulated in the cool, crisp design of the IBM computer setup.
Kepes presented striking visual observations and probably hoped that they would have the force of hypotheses, if not theorems. But it wasn’t always clear if they proved anything. Blakinger is good at revealing the voices of dissent that at the time accused him of a suave superficiality. “I am quite skeptical,” the paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson wrote to him, “as to whether concepts and canons developed in one field will have a really useful application in the other.”
Blakinger can stumble when he looks at Kepes’s comparisons of works of art from different periods. He criticizes Kepes’s juxtaposition of a Mondrian and a Byzantine mosaic from Ravenna as one of a number of “patently false comparisons” and writes that “Byzantium and Mondrian have nothing to do with one another.” Could Blakinger be unaware that Mondrian himself wrote with more than a little sympathy about Byzantine art? Kepes was hoping to open channels of communication between the old and the new and between the arts, humanities, and sciences. That was challenging half a century ago and isn’t any easier today.
Neither Kepes nor Goeritz ever managed to fulfill his visionary ambitions. Nevertheless, there is much to admire in their efforts to join various arts and sciences in the service of a more enlightened society. Their interests, which can seem to prefigure our current fascination with synergy and connectivity, must at least in part explain the enthusiasm they’ve inspired in Josten and Blakinger, who like many younger art historians are probably less attentive to the freestanding value of a work of art than to its place in the world. “For Kepes,” Blakinger writes,
“centripetal” force—the desperate search for a center anchoring a world of chaos, a vital center (to call forth the 1949 book by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.)—was the core of the “Bauhaus program” and thus the core of his own mission, the program of Kepes.
Something similar could be said of Goeritz. In Mexico, he is still remembered for inaugurating in the early 1950s what he called El Eco, a strikingly designed space that he hoped would be a cross between a museum and a laboratory for artistic experimentation, although it never quite got off the ground.
There is no way to take the measure of Goeritz and Kepes without locating them in their times. Those times demanded tough choices, and Josten and Blakinger are well aware that such choices could consume and even defeat an artist who had many admirable and even honorable qualities. Blakinger has much to tell us about the controversies that dominated MIT in the late 1960s, when many both inside and outside the academic community were pushing for an end to US involvement in the war in Vietnam and were deeply troubled by the widespread government funding of MIT programs. When Kepes attempted to organize an exhibition for the São Paulo Biennial in 1969, the plans came apart as one artist after another refused to lend work to an enterprise that they felt could appear to endorse Brazil’s military rulers. As for Goeritz, some of his projects, supported as they were by real estate developers who were creating a haven for a newly wealthy class of Mexicans, could be seen as fundamentally illiberal efforts to reinforce the class divisions that had long crippled the country’s development. In 1968, after the Mexican government’s brutal massacre of protesting students, some believed that Goeritz was compromised by his enthusiastic involvement with the Olympics.
As Josten and Blakinger grapple with these knotty ethical problems, their finely tuned and generally sympathetic biographical portraits take some interesting and even unexpected turns. There is no question that they see Goeritz and Kepes in the setting of what art historians for the past thirty or forty years have described as cold war culture. Although scholars have defined this term in different ways, there is a widespread feeling that in the postwar decades abstract art, modernist architecture, and the very idea of artistic freedom came to be seen as part of the political capital of the Western democracies. This line of thinking is reflected in books ranging from Serge Guilbaut’s sensationalist and by now widely debunked but still popular How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (1983) to Frances Stonor Saunders’s carefully researched and elegantly wrought The Cultural Cold War (1999). However scholars have chosen to frame the issues, the ultimate effect has been to suggest, whether intentionally or not, that art is a form of propaganda. The artist has come to be seen, wittingly or unwittingly, as a pawn pushed this way and that by the dynamics of the cold war. Josten and Blakinger are by no means immune to this line of thinking.
Both Goeritz and Kepes were artists whose lives were shaped by the political upheavals of the twentieth century. There is no question that they responded to their tumultuous times by becoming activists. What remains to be understood is whether the world of images and ideas to which they devoted their lives was something that they were able to shape in a way that was commensurate with their own ideas and ideals or whether it was to some significant degree shaped by forces beyond their control. I am impressed by Josten’s willingness to see an independent imagination at work in Goeritz’s complex negotiations with political and economic forces in Mexico that at times favored the interests of the elite rather than the needs of the poor. Even so, after observing that the Mexican government’s murderous response to student protests in 1968 led many artists and intellectuals to begin “advocating Marxist revolution,” she cannot resist almost apologizing for the fact that Goeritz didn’t “make his own radical break.” Hasn’t it occurred to her that so far as he was concerned, there had never been a Marxist revolution that supported, at least for very long, the kind of art that meant the most to him? What in his experience or his thinking would have led him to support a Marxist revolution?
As for Blakinger’s view of Kepes, he sometimes sets theoretical traps that amount to little more than rhetorical conceits. Like quite a few artists living in Great Britain and the United States during World War II, Kepes was fascinated by the art of camouflage; the Museum of Modern Art devoted an exhibition to the subject, and Ellsworth Kelly, scarcely out of art school, worked in a camouflage unit with the US Army in France. Kepes enrolled in a course on camouflage that was taught at Fort Belvoir in Virginia and ran a popular course in camouflage at the New Bauhaus. Blakinger, who covers this material in a fascinating chapter entitled “Camouflage Aesthetics,” seems unwilling to accept what I would think is a simple fact: Kepes believed he could best serve the war effort as an expert in the art of camouflage. Blakinger insists that we “understand camouflage as a means of self-preservation and self-protection” for the artist who participated in these projects. “By disguising the environment, artists also gained agency over their own disguise.” Why are we to assume that an artist who wants to help hide civilian targets from enemy combatants is also hiding something personal?
Blakinger and Josten sometimes create problems where none exist. I am left with the feeling that they may be more intellectually conflicted than the artists they are studying. Blakinger writes of his discussion of Kepes’s long involvement with MIT, “I demonstrate how an individual can work against a dominant ideology even while inhabiting one of the most powerful institutions upholding that very same ideology.” He makes it perfectly clear that Kepes was an early and strenuous opponent of the war in Vietnam. And yet he cannot resist entitling one of his chapters “The Military-Industrial-Aesthetic Complex.” That clever compound construction strikes me as totally unfair.
Josten finds herself caught in similar conflicts. She recognizes that Goeritz always “resisted affiliation with organized political or religious groups.” And she explains that he “deployed artisanal and religious traditions as the antithesis both of the ethos of the Mexican school and of international commitments to technology and secularism.” But even as she describes Goeritz as believing in “the freedom of the new ‘nonobjective,’ ‘nonpolitical’ art,” she can’t resist observing that “Abstract Expressionism was unquestionably bound up with the notion of US capitalist democracy.” That’s a notion that Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, and David Smith would surely have found risible.
Theory no longer has the stranglehold on young scholars that it had twenty years ago. Josten and Blakinger, while attentive to many of the conceptual frameworks that have dominated the academic study of twentieth-century art, have produced monographic studies that confound those assumptions by steadily focusing on the particulars of the artists’ lives. Josten invokes the idea of Goeritz as a “cold war modernist” at the beginning of her book and then presents a story so complex and multilayered that I can’t help but dismiss that vague and disturbingly accusatory label. Blakinger, despite the rhetorical cages in which he seems to enjoy trapping Kepes, leaves us with a striking portrait of a man who followed the twists and turns of his own imagination, even when others were turning away.
“Goeritz’s life,” Josten observes at the outset, “was defined by twentieth-century politics and migratory patterns.” Of course, there is a sense in which that is true, and for Kepes as well. But the question of what defined their art is a very different question and requires a very different kind of answer. I would argue that their art was defined by their individual imaginations, which were to a remarkable degree unconstrained by twentieth-century politics and migrations. They embraced realpolitik, but only so long as it was in the service of what Mondrian, that most idealistic of modern painters, described in the 1940s as an art grounded not in “our life in time” but in “the universal aspect of reality”—a reality, in other words, that defied time and place. Art was nothing less than a utopian calling for Mathias Goeritz and Gyorgy Kepes.