Guntram Gersch

One day in the early1960's, the Chicago Tribune’s “Social Chicago” columnist announced that “a recently arrived young artist has come under the patronage of some prominent Chicago women”, and went on to describe the cocktail party given by the worthy matrons to mark the opening of the artist’s first gallery show. Back then, a young Guntram Gersch had been reluctant to show his drawings, having had little formal training, but now, forty years later, Gersch’s work can be found in private collections and museums around the world. “My art has guided me through life and given me courage to go on, in spite of periods of adversity and trauma,” Gersch wrote in 2007 in the catalog for a retrospective of his work at Upstairs Art Space in Tryon, where he has made a home since 1998.

Those difficult periods began early on, amid the horrors of World War Two, when Gersch’s family was expelled from their native Silesia, then part of Poland and under Nazi control. Gersch was barely ten years old at the time, but had already seen firsthand the depredations of Nazi rule. Relocated by the Germans to the Netherlands, Gersch managed to survive the war, graduate high school and  move to Frankfurt to train for a career in the restaurant and hotel business, following in the footsteps of his parents, who had owned and managed a hotel before their exile. It was as a hotelier that he arrived in Chicago, with no inkling of an artistic career, until visiting a Jackson Pollack retrospective at the Chicago Art Institute. The drip paintings, he later said, somehow reanimated his childhood dreams and fears, which spilled out in a series of self-portraits he called masks, produced after Gersch learned the basics of drawing at the Institute’s School of Art. The emotional punch of the work attracted immediate attention and brought an unexpected career change.

The masks would prove to be Gersch’s only representational work, his deepening response to modernists like Hans Hoffman, Gorky, Twombly and Kenneth Noland leading to a style marked by basic shapes and forms against Pollack-like backgrounds, the forms rendered in bright primary colors and deployed on the canvas as if they had just emerged from some artistic Big Bang.

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