Photo by Jack GouldThere's something about the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) that just cries out for a good drubbing. There they are, with that huge, beautiful space and all of mean old Dr. Robert Gumbiner's lovely money behind them and the prestigious mandate that goes with being the only museum west of the Mississippi devoted to Latin American art, and all they show is dirt-colored Constructivism and works from Cuba they frame as anti-Communist samizdat. I mean, really: MoLAA might as well have been the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA), with all that potential so lazily fulfilled. Except in the case of OCMA, it would be mediocrities by Robert Rauschenberg instead of Tamayo.
But then a funny thing happened: OCMA started showing incredibly fine exhibits, and I think we all remember how traumatic that was for me. And now? MoLAA is showing an exhibition —the work of Jewish Uruguayan painter José Gurvich—that is as comprehensive and charming as anything I've seen this year. Does that mean I have to be nice to Gumbiner, too, even though he founded one of the first HMOs?
Gurvich was born in a Jewish shtetl in Lithuania in 1927; to escape religious persecution—fuckin' Stalin!—his family moved to Montevideo, Uruguay, when he was 5 years old. There, he fell into the hands of Joaquin Torres-Garcia, who ran a workshop along the lines of Raphael or Mark Rothko, with disciples painting ever pointier geometricisms in complementary shades of tan. You couldn't hawk a loogie in the '50s without hitting a painting of peopleless cityscapes, the buildings leaning together like a mouth of crooked teeth.
But Gurvich's paintings (though some were as full of triangles and hatchmarks as your typical Kandinsky) showed a marked appreciation for humanity. Imagine that! Fifties Constructivism (like Russian Constructivism before it) eschewed the figure as irrelevant: Modernism was about what man would create—his towering odes to himself, his gravity-defying cities—and not about man himself. Gurvich was constantly sneaking man in. Men in Café from 1952 is a completely charming line drawing (thick black outlines like a Chinese brush painting) filled in with monochromatic blues and ochers. There is one line for a nose, another to form two eye slits. Somehow, with less than a dozen lines, he manages to create three square men who could be Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.
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But while perfectly at home in the world of unbending lines and boxes, Gurvich began softening his forms into more feminine (and less robotic) shapes, more Picabia than Mondrian. He also—say it ain't so!—started using actual colors.
As a true artist of the 20th century, Gurvich had oodles of influences. Eventually, he left cubes altogether; his later work is a mix of Marc Chagall's flying rabbis (really sympatico with Latin America's groovy Magical Realism in literature and Expressionism in painting) and Diego Rivera's lumpen solidity. A couple kissing—called, appropriately enough, Couple Kissing—could be Gustav Klimt, but instead of fancy baroque gilding, Gurvich uses the primitive, chalky Latin reds, blues, and yellows favored by nationalists who disdained the European colonial influence. Capital Sins is an orgy along the lines of those favored by Titian and Bronzino, but without the fancy, schmancy realism and ability to convey perspective and with a decided preference for people with animal heads.
José Gurvich died of a heart attack in New York City in 1974. He was just 47 years old. But the exhibit at the MoLAA mines every epoch of his short career, an exhibit so full and satisfying you could skip dinner and go there instead. Times and phases that should be dreadful (his long Brown Period, for example) are sly and delightful; watching him master each phase, beginning over with something quite new until he'd reached its logical conclusion; and spotting all of the many cute, cute sheep with which he apparently fell in love while shepherding on an Israeli kibbutz offer more sustenance than a good, fat seder, and you don't even have to fast first.
"JosÉ Gurvich: A Song to Life" at the Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., long Beach, (562) 437-1689; www.molaa.com. $7; students/seniors, $5; children under 12/members, free. Extended through Jan. 21.