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Gunther Gerzso

Towards The Unknown

Gunther Gerzso. Towards the Unknown, 1950. Gift of Muriel Kallis Newman.

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Born in Mexico City to a Hungarian Jewish father and a German mother, Gunther Gerzso held a pivotal role within the international community of Surrealists in the 1940s and ’50s. As a teenager, Gerzso was sent to Lugano, Switzerland, to live with his uncle, an art collector and dealer. He returned to the Americas in the early 1930s to work as a set designer for theater and film productions, living between Cleveland, Ohio, and Mexico. With the aim of launching a painting career, he resettled permanently in Mexico City in early 1941 and swiftly became associated with contemporaries such as Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Wolfgang Paalen, and Alice Rahon.

In 1946, Gerzso had a breakthrough that would lead to the development of his signature style. While travelling around Mexico for his set design projects, he came to deeply appreciate precolonial art and architecture, borrowing from it to paint shimmering scenes of intricate structures. The Art Institute’s collection contains the first two paintings that Gerzso ever sold—Estela (1947) and La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) (1948)—both of which demonstrate this style, one the artist would continue to develop over his long career. Artist Wolfgang Paalen described Gerzso’s paintings as “a reverberation of ancient glories and new promises,” noting that, in Estela, “The timeless presence of Mayan monuments is not merely remembered but brought into a visionary focus.”

By the 1970s, Gerzso had become a key representative of Mexican abstract painting, along with Carlos Mérida and Rufino Tamayo. Yet despite his status as one of “Los Nuevos Tres Grandes,” he described feeling keenly aware of his immigrant heritage and European formation and referred to himself as a “false Mexican.” Ultimately, however, Gerzso’s particular background informed his explorations of the boundaries between geometric abstraction and Surrealism, driving one of the most important midcentury dialogues between Europe and the Americas.

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