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Mathias Goeritz and International Concrete Poetry

8 April, 2019

Mathias Goeritz, the visionary force behind the Museo Experimental el Eco, is known first and foremost as a sculptor. But during his long career, he wore many hats: art historian, painter, art critic, architect, curator, and finally, poet. From his arrival in Mexico in 1949 until his death in 1990, the German-born artist worked frenetically in each of these arenas to stimulate the production and awareness of Contemporary Art in Mexico, and to establish and maintain open channels of communication between Mexican artists and their peers in other parts of the world. During the 1960s, Goeritz participated in the International Concrete Poetry movement and worked to introduce the Mexican public to this print-based, proto-conceptual movement through publications and exhibitions in Mexico. Through their activities, Goeritz and his colleagues exposed young artists in Mexico to the creative and potentially political possibilities that were unleashed when artists formed their own networks for the exchange of ideas. These efforts would contribute to the rise of new collective artistic practices, such as Los grupos, during the 1970s and beyond.

Concrete Art vs. Dada

The earliest examples of what would come to be classified as Concrete Poetry, defined as poetry in which “language is used as a material more than as a means of personal emotive expression,” first appeared, simultaneously and in isolation, in Switzerland and Brazil in 1953.[1] In the same year, Goeritz designed his Poema plástico (Visual Poem), which was composed of cast iron characters that were mounted on the yellow tower in the patio of El Eco. The context and concerns of Goeritz’s work could hardly have been more different from those of the first concrete poets. But by the early 1960s, he and a wide range of other internationally dispersed and aesthetically diverse artists would come together under the banner of International Concrete Poetry, with Goeritz serving as the movement’s sole Mexico-based representative.

Poema plástico (Visual Poem), Mathias Goeritz, El Eco´s patio, 1953.

Concrete Poetry, like Concrete Art, was rooted in the rational design principles of Russian Constructivism. Concrete poets such as Eugen Gomringer rejected traditional poetic form in their quest to achieve a higher level of logical intelligibility in their poems, just as the concrete artists with whom they were closely associated did in their paintings and sculptures. Like billboards or posters, concrete poems seek maximum efficacy from a minimum of words. In Gomringer’s Silencio (Silence) from 1954, the concept of the poem is instantly transmitted through the repeated arrangement of the term in a block, with a blank space at its center that succinctly conveys the emptiness, void, and the stillness of the term itself.

Goeritz’s Poema plástico was rooted in Constructivism’s irrational polar opposite: Dada, as it emerged in Europe in the shadow of the First World War. At El Eco, Goeritz translated the principal elements of Dada as conceived at Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire in 1916—interdisciplinary performance, abstraction, and primitivism—to the context of Mexico City in the era of the Institutional Revolution. The Poema plástico may be under – stood as a monument to the ephemeral abstract sound poems that were famously performed by Dada founder Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. In stark contrast to Gomringer’s Silencio, Goeritz’s design adopts the form and syntax of traditional poetry—its nine rows of characters are organized into two four-line stanzas followed by a single line coda. But his invented alphabets deny any rational legibility. The poem’s intended function is not to transmit a “universal” message but to articulate deeply personal emotions, freed from the structures of rigid ideological codes, in space.

Goeritz’s Internationalism

In 1957, Goeritz and architect Luis Barragán designed the Torres de Satélite (Towers of Satelite City), five monumental, wedge-shaped pillars of poured and painted reinforced concrete, to serve as the place marker and advertising logo for Mexico City’s first “bedroom community.” Images of these towers were widely disseminated in Mexico via television and print advertising, and worldwide via architecture magazines and books. This circulation brought Goeritz widespread recognition as the initiator of a new abstract monumental artistic tendency in Mexico, one that appeared to stand in direct confrontation with the state-sponsored mural tradition.

Capitalizing on the fame generated by the Torres de Satélite, in 1958 Goeritz shifted his emphasis to the production of gallery-sized wall-mounted and free-standing works: his Mensajes and Construcciones emocionales, non-objective assemblages that he exhibited in New York and Paris within the context of the European “neo-avant-gardes” in 1960. But Goeritz understood that he could not simply depend on exhibitions and publications of his works abroad in order to develop and maintain an international reputation. He also had to develop a local audience that could appreciate the global movements with which he sought to be associated, both to establish a context for the positive reception of his own works and as a means of reciprocating the publicity that he hoped to receive via his associates abroad.

Beginning in March of 1959, Goeritz served as the founding editor of an Art Section of Mario Pani’s long-running magazine Arquitectura México. Each month, he contributed five to ten photograph-filled pages on recent developments in international art, with texts by art historian and critic Ida Rodríguez Prampolini and foreign critics. Goeritz utilized the Art Section to present works and movements that he considered relevant and important; as a forum for publicizing the activities of his friends and colleagues; and as a space to voice his dissent from certain artistic tendencies in Mexico and abroad. The second Art Section, in June 1959, included an article by Rodríguez on recent art from postwar Germany. Alongside a range of contemporary paintings and sculptures, the illustrations included a tiny “ideogram” [“ideograma”] by the German-born, Iceland-based artist Di(e)ter Rot(h).[2] Whereas Gomringer’s “constellations” such as Silencio took sound into consideration, Roth’s ideograms were addressed entirely to the eye. Here two squares, one formed of “u”s and the other of “t”s, intersect to form two reciprocal words: “ut” and “tu”.

Goeritz mailed Roth a copy of Rodríguez’s article, initiating a frequent correspondence that would last through the 1960s. The two artists had much in common: both were born in Germany and had fled during World War II, never to return permanently; both had taken up residence in locales peripheral to the centers of the art world; and for both, the international postal service served as a lifeline through which they maintained contact with friends and colleagues. Roth sent copies of his first “books” —spiral-bound or looseleaf sets of pages cut or printed with abstract geometric designs— to Goeritz and Rodríguez, who received them enthusiastically. In the November 1961 article in “México de la cultura,” the cultural supplement of the daily Mexico City newspaper Novedades, Rodríguez described Roth as “the most daring” of the new concrete poets, “since his experimental impulse knows no limits… for Roth, after the revolution of Dada, the concept of “art” in its former sense no longer exists.”[3]

While Goeritz’s Poema plástico had seized on certain aspects of Dada, the easy reproducibility of the concrete poems of Roth and others resonated with that early twentieth-century movement in other ways. Like Dada, Concrete Poetry’s character as an international movement was forged through the use of the postal service and the travels of some of its key participants, through which artists in far-flung corners of the world were able to establish relationships by exchanging of letters, artworks, magazines, and books.[4]

Goeritz and Rodríguez embraced Concrete Poetry as a contemporary example of a Dada-style artistic network that offered new alternatives for younger artists who were seeking a way beyond other narrow or exhausted discourses. Rodríguez distributed information and examples of the new movement in Mexico through her many articles in newspapers and magazines such as Novedades, Nivel, Gaceta de cultura and ¡Siempre!, and Goeritz soon achieved recognition as international Concrete Poetry’s representative in Mexico.

Goeritz as Concrete Poet

Meanwhile, Goeritz embarked on new experiments with typography-based poems, which were very likely stimulated by his active exchange with Roth. In 1963 he published some of these designs for the first time. His first definitively Concrete poems, formed from the letters “o” and “r” for “oro” (gold), are closely related to his Mensajes: the non-representational wall-mounted assemblages of wood, metal scraps and gold leaf that he began producing in 1958. Concrete Poetry offered another way to disseminate Goeritz’s golden messages internationally, and outside the structures of the art market, via mass media publications. In his sculptural Mensajes, religious or ethical meanings reverberate from the works’ gleaming surfaces or the repetition of patterns of nails. In the concrete poetry Mensajes, the repeated letters in square formations reverberate visually and sonically in the mind of the receiver, whose attention Goeritz activates through a tiny but essential change in the last line of the poem, when “oro” (gold) is transformed into “ojo” (“eye” or “watch out”).

In 1962, Roth began collaborating with Hansjörg Mayer, a young German typographic designer and publisher who had recently founded a small printing press in Stuttgart, Germany. [5] Mayer was then engaged in arranging concrete poems and editions of poems, and by 1964 he sought to internationalize his production. To this end he traveled to the Czech Republic to meet concrete poets there, and also planned a trip to São Paulo to work with the poets of the Noigandres group. Roth suggested that he stop in Mexico on his way to Brazil in order to meet his good friends Goeritz and Rodríguez, who Roth himself had never met (and would never meet) in person.[6]

Mensajes dorados (Golden Messages), Hansjörg Mayer Edition, 1965.

Mayer spent more than a month with the Goeritzes at their country house in Temixco, Morelos in late 1964. By the time of his departure for Brazil, he and Goeritz had formulated two projects. The first of these was a series of twenty-six large-format brochures titled Futura (for the sans-serif Bauhaus style font whose use Mayer advocated), each one by a different concrete poet. The series was inaugurated in the summer of 1965 with a brochure featuring Mayer’s designs of Goeritz’s Goldene Botschaft (Golden Messages), set in the Futura font. The second project was an exhibition of International Concrete Poetry in Mexico City that would feature Goeritz’s personal collection of Roth’s and Mayer’s publications, as well as other works that Mayer and Goeritz solicited from concrete poets and publishers around the world.

By the mid-1960s, Concrete Poetry had become a full-fledged international movement that, like Dada before it, circulated via a diffuse network of participants strewn throughout Europe, the Americas and Asia. Artist-poets and publishers such as Mayer organized exhibitions in their corners of the world and compiled anthologies that were printed as magazines and books, some of which achieved high distribution. Many of the concrete poets favored sans-serif fonts like Futura and simple black-on-white layouts that favored legibility and low-cost reproduction; as a result, their designs spread like viruses within a much wider network of avant-garde publications within the explosive mass media environment of the 1960s.

Goeritz quickly achieved a place of prominence within this international network, largely through the Futura designs of the Mensajes de oro poems but also based on his own connections with artist-poet-publishers such as Herman de Vries in the Netherlands. As a result, from the mid-1960s through the 1970s, Goeritz was included in a wide range of International Concrete Poetry exhibitions in Eastern and Western Europe and the United States, and his concrete poems were featured in the most important anthologies of the movement. Meanwhile, Mayer—whose role within International Concrete Poetry was similar to that of the Dadaist Max Ernst, who travelled between different points on the movement’s global grid connecting participants with one another—so- licited contributions for the Mexico City exhibition from the poets he met in Brazil and other contacts in Germany, England, France, the Czech Republic, and as far away as Japan.[7]

As a result, Goeritz amassed an extensive collection of Concrete Poetry poems, magazines, books, and posters designed by more than fifty artist-poets in almost twenty countries for the International Concrete Poetry exhibition, which was held at the UNAM’s Aristos Gallery on Insurgentes Sur in 1966. Though most of the contributing artists were based in Western Europe, several works from Brazil and the United States and representative works from poets in Guatemala, Turkey, and Japan were also included. Goeritz received congratulations from Haroldo de Campos, the leader of the Brazilian Noigandres group, for having organized the first Concrete Poetry exhibition in Spanish-speaking America.[8] Rather than locking the materials in cases, Goeritz and exhibition designer Alfonso Soto Soria attached many of the books and magazines to shelves and tables with string so that visitors to the exhibition could page through them.[9]

The exhibition was a success in terms of attendance, and was extended by several weeks; Goeritz also received invitations to re-mount it in Puebla and Philadelphia.[10] But arguably, and as is fitting for concrete poetry, the impact of the exhibition was much greater and more lasting in its printed forms. These included a multi-color exhibition catalogue and poster designed by Vicente Rojo that reprinted several examples of concrete poems, along with introductory texts on the movement by Rodríguez and English curator Jasia Reichardt. But perhaps even more significantly, many concrete poems and introductory texts were reproduced in a wide range of Mexican magazines and newspapers, including El Heraldo, El Día and Excélsior, reaching exponentially greater publics than those who would manage to visit the exhibition in person.

The most active period of International Concrete Poetry as a movement effectively ended in the late 1960s, with the appearance of the first anthologies. This may be explained in part because by then, the international network had become saturated with hundreds of participants; in part because the rise of commercial jet travel allowed greater numbers of artists to travel to realize site-specific projects rather than communicating through the mail; and in part because worldwide events of 1968 demanded more overtly politicized forms of artistic expression. Though its lifespan in Mexico was relatively short, Goeritz’s engagement with International Concrete Poetry left important traces. It demonstrated to a wide and youthful public the possibilities of a form of transnational communication that was relatively inexpensive, uncensored, and transmitted via networks of artists. It is for this reason that Mauricio Guerrero, a member of the Grupo Março and one of Mexico’s foremost mail artists, has cited the 1966 Aristos Gallery exhibition as a crucial historical precedent for the development of Los grupos and mail art currents in Mexico during the 1970s and 1980s. Due to this important legacy, the International Concrete Poetry exhibition was partially recreated at the entrance to the recent exhibition Arte Correo, curated by Mauricio Marcin at the Museo de la Ciudad de México (Museum of Mexico City) in 2009-10.

Arte Correo, exhibition view, curated by Mauricio Marcin, Museo de la Ciudad de México, 2010.

International Concrete Poetry deserves historical recognition as the first truly international artistic movement of the postwar period; as such, curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist has cited it as an important precursor to the globalized,[11] nomadic community of artists and curators who began to dominate the contemporary art world during the 1990s. Just as Mexico City has served as an important base of operations for recent international art, it was also a significant point on the map of International Concrete Poetry, thanks to Goeritz’s efforts.

Mathias Goeritz and International Concrete Poetry
  1. [“el lenguaje se usa como material más que como medio de expresión emotiva personal,”] Jasia Reichardt, “Los Ámbitos De La Poesía Concreta,” in Poesía concreta internacional, ed. Mathias Goeritz (México, D.F.: Galería Aristos, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1966).
  2. Rodríguez and Goeritz almost certainly reproduced Roth’s poem from the first issue of Material, a little magazine published by Romanian artist Daniel Spoerri in Darmstadt, Germany beginning in late 1958. The magazine likely fell into Rodríguez and Goeritz’s hands via their friend Mildred Constantine, a curator in the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Architecture and Design who had enthusiastically received Roth and the first two issues of Material when the artist visited New York for the first time in early 1959 (Dirk Dobke et al, Roth Time : A Dieter Roth Retrospective (New York; Museum of Modern Art, 2003), 54).
  3. [“el más atrevido” of the new concrete poets, “ya que su sentido experimental no conoce límites… para Rot[h], después de la revolución de DADA, el concepto ‘arte’ en su viejo sentido ya no existe”] Ida Rodríguez Prampolini, “¿Juego, Cabalá, Poesía?” Novedades, México en la Cultura 661, November 12th,1961.
  4. Leah Dickerman has argued convincingly that “Dada’s character as a movement was forged through a complex network of circulated texts and personal contacts that encompassed publishing and trading journals replete with manifestos and reproductions; publicizing activities in the press and sharing collected press clippings with friends; sealing epistolary bonds with the exchange of postal artwork; and establishing personal ties as travel became easier in the wake of the war” (Leah Dickerman et al, Dada : Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris (Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2005), 2).
  5. Dobke, op. cit., 77
  6. Personal conversation with Hansjörg Mayer, London, September 22nd 2009.
  7. See related letters in the Fondo Mathias Goeritz, Instituto Cultural Cabañas, Guadalajara, and in the personal archive of Hansjörg Mayer, London.
  8. Campos wrote to Goeritz (in the all-lowercase script preferred by many concrete poets), “I give the greatest importance to the exhibition that you have organized: it is the first profound incursion of concrete poetry onto the stage of Spanish-speaking America, dominated by superrealism, by the poetry of metaphoric alienation. I hope that it has fertile consequences. Young people are the best audience!” [“doy la más grande importancia a la exposición que usted ha organizado: es la primera incursión de hondo de la poesía concreta en el escenario de américa de habla española, dominado por el suprarealismo, por la poesía de alienación metafórica. espero que produzca consecuencias fecundas. ¡los jóvenes son el mejor público!”] Haroldo de Campos, letter to Mathias Goeritz, 5 June 1966. Fondo Mathias Goeritz, Instituto Cultural Cabañas, Guadalajara.
  9. Personal conversation with Alfonso Soto Soria, Texcoco, 28 May 2009.
  10. Mathias Goeritz, letter to Jasia Reichardt, 19 May 1966. Jasia Reichardt Correspondence, Mss. 890143, Box 4. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.
  11. “Hans Ulrich Obrist interviews Emmett Williams, 11 October 2004,” cgi-bin/undo/features/features.placod, accessed 15 August 2010.