The market for his work and that of other Latin American artists is steadily growing. Many North American museums, including the venerable Museum of Modern Art in New York, have had important Latin American pieces in their collections for many years. But now that interest in the field is rising, curators who want to develop new ideas and explore the careers of forgotten artists find that they must travel extensively and establish professional relationships with their peers in Central and South America.
Du Pont has focused on an artist who was born in Mexico City June 17, 1915, to European emigres and became part of a sophisticated international community. His father, Oscar Gerzso, was born in Budapest; his mother, Dore Wendland Gerzso, in Berlin. Oscar died in 1916 and the following year Dore married Ludwig Diener, a German jeweler who owned a store in Mexico City.
The family lived in Europe in the early 1920s and Gunther went to school in Switzerland from 1927 to 1931, under the tutelage of his mother's brother, art collector and dealer Hans Wendland. Gerzso was being groomed to take over his uncle's art business, but the family suffered from reverberations of the 1929 stock market crash and he returned to Mexico, completing his education at a German school in Mexico City.
Upon graduation Gerzso spoke five languages and had a flair for art, but he decided to pursue a career in the theater -- a choice that was probably inspired by meeting Italian set designer Nando Tamberlani while going to school in Switzerland. A drama professor in Mexico suggested that he go to the United States and work at the Cleveland Play House, which trained actors and technicians. Gerzso took the advice and lived in Cleveland from 1935 to 1940, moving up quickly from a student stagehand to a paid set designer. Concurrently, he developed friendships with artists and sharpened his skills in painting and drawing.
Gerzso returned to Mexico in 1941, hoping to concentrate on painting. After a year of financial struggle, he took a job as a set designer for the film "Santa," based on a novel by Federico Gamboa. During the next two decades, Gerzso worked on more than 150 film sets for Churubusco Studios.
He was a weekend painter during most of that period, but he was well connected with Mexico's community of expatriate artists, including Surrealists Leonora Carrington and Gordon Onslow-Ford of Britain, Wolfgang Paalen of Austria and Matta of Chile. In Gerzso's view, the Mexican mural movement had a stranglehold on creativity. He was schooled in European art and was much more interested in the art that emerged from the expatriate community.
Still, Du Pont says, he risked isolation and neglect by the Mexican art establishment as he developed his own artistic voice. Arriving late at Surrealism but early in the evolution of Mexican abstraction, he worked his way from nightmarish scenes with figures encased in threatening landscapes to shimmering, multifaceted fields of color. Over time, the geometric shapes grew bigger and bolder, with large blocks of color overlaying mosaic-like clusters. One of his final works, "Nocturnal Landscape," painted in 1999, is a haunting, deep blue piece that seems to foreshadow his death.
Gerzso was often considered a foreigner in Mexico, but his painting reflects his search for his Mexican roots through study and travels to pre-Columbian sites, Du Pont says. Unlike other Mexican artists who expanded their horizons by traveling and studying abroad, he was grounded in European culture before embarking on a quest for his Mexican identity.
Apparently, he found it.
"All my paintings are self-portraits," Gerzso told Du Pont in 1999, while they were working on the exhibition.
CHANGE IN THE AIR
The Gerzso show in Santa Barbara is a striking example of a nationwide development. "There's much more interest in Latin American art than there was a decade ago," says James Ballinger, director of the Phoenix Art Museum, where three Latin American exhibitions are on the schedule during the coming year.
"Globalization has something to do with it," Ballinger says. New technology, worldwide travel and the economic boom of the '90s, which fueled collecting, have produced "more interest in more art in general," he says.
And now that the U.S. Census Bureau has formally declared Latinos to be the nation's largest minority group, it shouldn't be surprising that Latin American art is a major part of the mix -- all across the country.