Jose Gurvich: Filling Every Space: Through Constant Experimentation and a Reawakened Jewish Identity, This Uruguayan Artist Created a Distinctive Visual Language with Universal Impact

Article excerpt

Often called a land of artists, Uruguay is also an "open country." During the modern era, ripples set in motion by innovations in Europe constantly lapped upon its shores. Many native artists served as vehicles for transmission, but perhaps best known is Joaquin Torres-Garcia, who spent more than half his creative life in Europe before returning to Montevideo, where he established a taller (workshop school) in 1943. Then, nearly seventy years old and a seasoned master versed in the progressive movements of his day, Torres-Garcia formulated a hybrid style largely his own: flat, geometric frameworks populated by archetypal symbols, a pictographic approach he called Universal Constructivism. His was a marriage of structural and iconic elements, a "visual grammar" that was proletarian in spirit and anti-European. In his manifestos Torres-Garcia argued for a homegrown "school of the south," its mission to celebrate the unique character of his region. By way of a now-famous inverted map of South America that placed the continent "on top," he declared his austral homeland neither below nor inferior to any other place on earth.

In several ways, Torres-Garcia's claim was valid. At mid-century Uruguay, like neighboring Argentina, enjoyed economic prosperity as an exporter of grain, meat, hides, and wool, especially to war-torn Europe. Optimism prevailed. The little country seemed special for its high standard of living, near-universal literacy, and excellence in many fields, especially the visual arts, disciplines encouraged by early twentieth-century reformers--Jose Battle-Ordonez, Jose Enrique Rodo, and Pedro Figari--who had promoted progressive public education.

In such a receptive setting, the Taller Torres-Garcia (TTG) represented a continuation of an established tradition of specialized training in the arts--painting, drawing, ceramics, woodworking, printmaking, and sculpture--all on an equal footing. No distinction was made between the so-called fine and applied arts. Opinions vary as to Torres-Garcia's tolerance toward deviation from his aesthetic principles and philosophy of art. Detractors suggest he obliged his students to don a straight jacket of dogma that enslaved them to mimicry. Supporters point to many proteges who emerged from the old man's shadow to find their own way, and enjoy fame in their own right.

One such individual was a young Lithuanian immigrant, Jose Gurvich. A Torres-Garcia favorite, for years Gurvich adhered to the master's methods, but gradually, as he traveled and encountered the work of other artists, most of all, rediscovering his own Jewish identity, he developed a distinctive language all his own.

Sadly, in 1974 Gurvich died unexpectedly in New York City as he was preparing a solo exhibition of his work at the city's Jewish Museum. He was forty-seven years old. Posthumously, his stature as an artist has grown. In recent years respected critics and art historians like Alicia Haber, Angel Kalenberg, and Cecilia de Torres have authored monographs exploring aspects of his extensive oeuvre, and the artist's paintings, drawings, ceramics, constructions, and murals have been featured in important solo and group exhibitions throughout the world.

Today, the artist's widow, Julia Helena Anorga de Gurvich, a historian, lives in the Pocitos district of Montevideo in an apartment crammed with works by her late husband.

"His birth certificate bore the name Zusmanus Gurvicius," she says, "because at the time Jewish names were prohibited in Lithuania. In the early thirties the family settled in the Barrio Sur of Montevideo, a neighborhood full of immigrants. Gurvich would always wonder why his parents had the foresight to leave Europe before Hitler came to power. The family adjusted to new surroundings. His mother began calling him Josecito, instead of Joseph. To augment the income of his father, a barber, at age thirteen he went to work at the Fabrica Montag making raincoats. …