On October 15, 1956, New York City’s Carstairs Galley opened a solo exhibition of twenty-seven unique wood sculptures by the German artist Mathias Goeritz. It was a triumphant American debut for the already notorious artist, having spent the entirety of 1955 traveling back and forth to New York from Mexico (his adopted home) preparing for the opening. Elegant in their refined and purposeful selection of materials—nails, wood and iron—the sculptures revealed Goeritz’s urgent, decade-long artistic development fueled by his own 1953 manifesto Arquitectura Emocional (Emotional Architecture). He had given each sculpture an esoteric and cryptic title: The Open Mind, The Wounded Animal, The Crucified, Moses, The Bride. Among them, The Prophet, executed in 1954, is the most profoundly personal and most representative of Goeritz’s daring and innovative vision of Cold War Modernism.
Born in Danzig, Germany in 1915, Goeritz trained as an art historian at Berlin’s Humboldt University. Geopolitical and sociocultural events, however, would propel his reinvention as a Modern artist. Living as a citizen under the Third Reich for the entirety of World War II, Goeritz took a teaching role as an art history professor at the Deutsche Akademie in Spanish-controlled North Africa. As the end of World War II gave way to the beginning of the Cold War, the international avant-garde re-emerged on both sides of the Atlantic. Art production and aesthetic debate consequently loomed large in the public eye, becoming front-page topic—as culture became crucial and provocative capital in “the Cold War that was waged between the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies… Realism and the academic tradition became increasingly associated with communism and totalitarianism, abstraction with capitalism and democracy” (Jennifer Josten, Mathias Goeritz: Modern Art and Architecture in Cold War Mexico, New Haven, 2018, p. 4). In 1945 Goeritz along with his wife, the photographer and journalist Marianna Gast, found temporary haven in Southern Spain. There, Goeritz co-founded La Escuela de Altamira—an artistic movement concerned with approaching abstraction in a way that “would bring about el hombre nuevo (new man)” (ibid., p. 3). At La Escuela de Altamira, Goeritz would not only use his art as a means to confront the moral crisis carried by him for the entirety of his life (the guilt of surviving World War II), but more importantly to develop a greater vision and purpose for abstraction. Spain was ground zero for the development of his 1953 manifesto Arquitectura Emocional. The underpinning ethos of the entirety of his artistic production, in it he called for artists and architects to subsume their individual interests, vanity and ego for the greater end of creating art as a service and vehicle of shared, transcendent experience.
By the end of 1949 Goeritz left Spain for Mexico—a country undergoing an explosive boom period of economic reorientation and rapid infrastructure development. Goeritz’s arrival was anticipated by titans Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, who had granted him the controversial reputation of being the oppositional force to the “highest traditions” of Mexican Realism. His advent signaled a new, progressive commitment to an experiential, personal and emotional art. The tone of his works from this point onward “formed part of a coherent artistic strategy that was premised on the aspiration to serve a larger, [ethical]” agenda (ibid., p. 2). Drawing upon local material sources and pre-Columbian and colonial artistic traditions, he expanded his artistic production to new media and scales—including sculpture, photography, gilding and architectural commissions.
Goeritz’s wooden sculptures of the 1950s assert a “formal discursive means with which [he was able] to articulate a journey in total abstraction via faith” (ibid., p. 159). Orienting these works within a richly complex web of art historical references and shrouding them with Judeo-Christian character, Goeritz pushed the boundaries and possibilities of materials and form to create an art of spiritual experience. A looming structure that rises 103 inches in height, The Prophet is a significant symbol of Goeritz’s new approach to twentieth-century Modernism. Both Goeritz’s sensibility of design and form are fully expressed here. An assemblage of nineteen wooden blocks, each geometrically-shaped and irregularly-sized, evokes the awesome vertical movement of Constantine Brancusi’s Endless Column—both sculptures rising without effort, unobtrusively and harmoniously. (Hans Hauf, “Gergen die Metaphysik der Leere Transcendenz und Religion bei Mathias Goeritz,” in Mathias Goeritz, El Eco Bilder Skulpturen Modelle (exhibition catalogue), Akademie der Künste, Berlin, 1992, p. 99) Goeritz reduces the human figure, in this instance an Old Testament character of a prophet, to complete abstraction, providing us with only the fundamental essence of man. With The Prophet, Goertiz “presents a reality and express experience in way that recaptures the spiritual dimension” for us, writing in the introduction to his Carstairs Gallery exhibition catalogue:
“A human being is for me the most essential unit. It has been possible to split the atom, but not the man. Sometimes I try to understand him as a compound of many pieces. But then again I feel him as a block. I would have many blocks standing, enormous, like buildings, in a desert landscape, so that people could see them from far away.” (Mathias Goeritz, in Mathias Goeritz, (exhibition catalogue), Carstairs Gallery, New York, 1956, n.p.)
Immediately following the closing date of his Carstairs exhibition, Goeritz installed The Prophet in the Upper West Side apartment of his lifelong friend, Nina Lewin Meyer, where it has remained until today. A fellow German émigré, Meyer and Goeritz first met in Berlin as teenagers at the Akademie der Künste. The onset of the Third Reich drove Meyer and her family to relocate to Paris, where she studied painting under André Lhote at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and exhibited alongside de Chirico and Vlaminck. Eventually, Meyer moved to New York City where she founded her own textile design firm. Many of her designs were exhibited by The Museum of Modern Art throughout the 1950s and 60s.