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Jose Gurvich: An Man Who Explored His Surroundings

Working in various styles, the late Uruguayan painter created user-friendly works about our connections to the world.


"Jose Gurvich: A Song to Life" introduces U.S. viewers to the Uruguayan painter's oeuvre, a multifaceted body of work that borrows freely from well-known styles as it touches on themes close to the artist's heart. Although Gurvich (1927-1974) does not rank among the century's most original of artists, his first U.S. retrospective, at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, is engaging and satisfying.

Organized by guest curator Alicia Haber (in conjunction with Gurvich's son, Martin), it lays out, in loose chronological order, more than 130 pieces, including oils on canvas and board, tempera paintings on paper, mixed media collages, bas-relief assemblages, small ceramic sculptures, and designs for magazine covers and theatrical programs. All of Gurvich's works fuse unsentimental intimacy and worldly curiosity.

An earnest, user-friendly quality animates the exhibition, which begins with paintings made between 1947 and 1958. These bar scenes and cafe still-lifes wear Cubism's influence on their sleeves. Breaking the picture plane into angled blocks of muted color, the Lithuania-born artist shows himself to be equally interested in a classic avant-garde style and the bohemian lifestyle it symbolized.

One image from this time, which is more abstract and static than the rest, serves as the wellspring for subsequent bodies of work. In "Constructive" (1952), Gurvich divides a panel into 36 interlocked rectangles, filling each with a pictograph. Some of these linear forms represent recognizable objects (fish, flowers and rain) while others remain enigmatic, like the symbols of a lost language.

His next series consists of increasingly sophisticated elaborations on "Constructive." From 1959 to 1963, Gurvich came into his own as an artist, simplifying his palette, increasing each painting's number of compartments (often exceeding 100), expanding the range of his symbols, experimenting with extremes in scale and adding theatrical highlights to suggest areas of intensely focused energy or spiraling movement.

"Constructive in Black and White" (1960) stands out as one of his best pieces. Consisting of numerous layers of thin board that have been cut into simple shapes and glued atop one another, this nearly 3-by-4-foot bas-relief collage shares formal similarities with Louise Nevelson's much larger sculptures and Adolph Gottlieb's pictographic paintings. It also flaunts Gurvich's facility with light, both real and illusionistic. Playing actual shadows against subtly tinted surfaces, his 3-D abstraction looks crisper and more vivid from across the gallery than from up close.

Gurvich's four remaining bodies of work--the bulk of the show--all build on the skeletal structure so starkly laid out in this piece. Where it forms an abstract whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, the remaining works explore the relationship between the individual and the group.

The first series features couples. In these paintings, pairs of figures range from primitive, crudely rendered emblems to delicately drawn silhouettes that resemble cells dividing. Others range from stylish cartoons that would be at home on the cover of the New Yorker to fleshy lumps that look like the offspring of paintings by Marc Chagall and sculptures by Fernando Botero. "Extraterrestrial Couple-Collage" (1968), pieced together from bits of glass, mirror and mesh fabric, playfully records Gurvich's interest in the beyond.

His series of cosmic landscapes immediately follows. Imagine a windstorm blowing away the compartmentalized grids of his earlier works and you'll have an idea of the swirling stews of myriad faces, figures, objects and symbols that appear in these vertiginous images. While some are chaotic and explosive, most settle into harmonious compositions, suggesting that no matter how confusing things initially appear to be, an underlying order governs the universe.

You get the sense that the more deeply Gurvich delved into the inner world of his imagination, the further out into the world his trips took him. Neither self-obsessed nor self-aggrandizing, his accessible works attest to his conviction that individuality is not a matter of separating oneself from one's surroundings, but diving more deeply into them. People, in the world proposed by Gurvich's outward-looking images, are most fully themselves when connected to others.

His final two groups of work give form to his cultural heritage and outline the circumstances of his daily life. "Kibbutz-Composition With Couple" (1966) begins to bring the ungrounded tumult of his cosmic landscapes down to earth.

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