Published: January 23, 2007
One of the most interesting American-based, self-taught artists of the Twentieth Century, Martin Ramirez (1895–1963) created some 300 drawings characterized by aesthetic quality, power and a sense of mystery while confined to a mental institution in California. A gifted draftsman with an eye for spatial manipulation, he employed a variety of images that reflected his exposure to Mexican and US cultures, his restricted environment and his experiences as an impoverished migrant subsisting on the margins of American society. A superstar among outsider artists, Ramirez exemplifies one man’s determination to communicate at all costs and in the face of numerous obstacles.
His multilayered work has held a fascination for doctors, art historians and folk art collectors since it came to public attention a half century ago, but until recently much of his life and the meaning of his oeuvre was shrouded in myth and mystery.
“Martin Ramirez,” comprising nearly 100 works on paper, includes art never before seen in public, which provides new information and fresh insights into this intriguing man and his art.
The exhibition, organized by Brooke Davis Anderson, curator and director of the American Folk Art Museum’s Contemporary Center, will be on view there through April 29. It is the first Ramirez museum exhibition in New York City and his first retrospective in nearly 20 years.
The exhibition seeks to go beyond the conventional characterization of Ramirez as a “schizophrenic artist” to explore the artistic quality and merit of his oeuvre. New scholarly research — biographical, cultural and historical — provides a more complete understanding of Ramirez’s biography and how it influenced his artwork. It underscores the richness of the drawings and illuminates characteristic images — animals, horses and riders, Madonnas, trains and tunnels — that inspired them.
A man of deep Catholic faith, Ramirez came from Los Altos de Jalisco in west-central Mexico, where he married, had four children and owned land and a horse. Poverty and the chaotic political situation in Mexico in 1925 — the eve of the Cristero Rebellion (a civil war pitting armed Catholic rebels against the secular national government) — prompted him to leave his family and travel across the border, eventually to northern California, where he worked on the railroad and in mines. By 1931, Depression hard times and despair about the fate of his family in his devastated homeland left Ramirez out of work and homeless.
Unable to communicate in English and apparently disoriented, he was picked up by the police and committed to a state hospital, where he was diagnosed as a catatonic schizophrenic. Trapped inside California’s psychiatric system, Ramirez spent more than three decades in mental institutions, hardly talking to anyone. Separated from his homeland, family and friends, his isolation was exacerbated because he did not speak the language of his adopted country. Contrary to prior accounts, there is no documented evidence that he was either mute or deaf, but he certainly spoke little because of the language barrier.
By the time he was transferred in 1948 to De Witt State Hospital in Auburn, where he spent the remainder of his life, Ramirez had begun to draw, but much of his work was discarded by hospital staff. At the outset, he drew on paper bags or scraps of paper glued together with a paste made of oatmeal and his own saliva. Ramirez spread the resulting paper, ranging from very small to very large in size, on the floor in his hospital ward and went to work. He tried to save the drawings by hiding them rolled up in his jacket and under his mattress.
Eventually, he came in contact with Dr Tarmo Pasto, a psychology professor and artist, who recognized the artistic value of the drawings. Ramirez became the subject of Pasto’s research into the relationship between mental illness and creativity. The doctor encouraged Ramirez to keep at it, collected drawings himself and gave him new paper, colored crayons, pencils and chalk with which to work.
Ramirez made his own pigment by crushing crayons or pencils in a homemade oatmeal pot. Using a tongue depressor as a straight-edge and a matchstick as a stylus, he drew endless variations on his favorite themes.
Eventually Pasto organized several exhibitions of Ramirez’s work in the 1950s, exposing him to a generally fascinated, wider audience. Among the professional artists who saw Ramirez’s work were Wayne Thiebaud and later Jim Nutt. Thiebaud was amazed when he watched Ramirez at work. Nutt said Ramirez’s drawings were “unlike anything I had seen before, and they knocked my socks off.” Eventually, Nutt and his wife, artist Gladys Nilsson, and New York and Chicago art dealer Phyllis Kind bought the bulk of Ramirez’s work from Pasto and presented shows starting in 1973.
Ramirez neither signed nor dated his drawings, and he was never interviewed about them, so it is difficult to trace his stylistic development. He did explore repeatedly a coherent vocabulary of motifs, forms and shapes.
In “Untitled (Man at Desk),” Ramirez depicted himself working at a table, in a closed-in setting reminiscent of his institutional environment, with a train hovering in the distance. His drawings and collages, observes curator Anderson, are “like visual diaries of Ramirez’s life.”
Chronicled in the exhibition are the artist’s four most distinctive themes: horses and riders; trains and tunnels; Madonnas and religious figures, and landscapes. In many images, the main figures appear within boxlike frames, like actors on a stage.
Ramirez’s horse and rider (or “jinete”) series — some 40 drawings in all — drew on his experiences in Mexico, where he was an accomplished horseman and horses were the main means of conveyance, and also on the Western movies he saw. His drawings document his knowledge of the musculature and posture of horses and the strength and skill required to ride them.
In many of the scores of images on this theme, he showed a single, sombrero-wearing, bandolier-clad horseman mounted on a sturdy, animated steed, brandishing a pistol and framed in a boxlike setting resembling a stage. In “Untitled (Mexicans on Horseback),” 1953, the riders seem to be drawn into the vortex of a tunnel. These and other riders may symbolize participants in Mexico’s armed rebellions.
Ramirez occasionally attached the image of the head and shoulders of an attractive, 1950s woman, clipped from a popular magazine, atop the drawn bodies of riders. By altering the placement of figures, perspectives, shading, texture and scale from drawing to drawing Ramirez created significant diversity within his modes of expression. “Fingerprint” patterns fill out space in many images.
His depictions of various animals and especially of horned stags suggest species Ramirez would have observed in Mexico. Examples include “Untitled (Animal Scroll),” circa 1950, and “Untitled (Stag),” circa 1953.
“Ramirez was fascinated with modes of transportation,” observes curator Anderson. He “seems to display a relentless wanderlust.” With prolific fervor Ramirez drew images of trains running toward, chugging through or emerging from biomorphic tunnels, in long, horizontal or tall, vertical compositions. These images convey a sense of movement and, sometimes, mystery in their hypnotic repetition of lines and shapes. Presumably they grew out of his recollections of the long train journey out of Mexico, and his work on railroads and in mines that were served by rail lines.
Controlled, concentric lines depict orifices and voids, while other forms are made up of contour lines resembling fingerprints or mollusk shells, such as the shapes in the soaring (80½ by 34 inches) “Untitled (Alamentosa),” circa 1953. The rhythmic lines in the extended (24 by 84½ inches) horizontal drawing, “Untitled (Train and Tunnels),” give it a pulsating quality. In the almost entirely nonrepresentational “Untitled (Abstract),” a narrow rail line emerges from one tunnel and enters another, surrounded by mesmerizing, mollusklike shapes.
In “Untitled (Cat, Bird and Tunnels),” 1950, and “Untitled (Tunnel with Man, Woman and Dog),” 1954, according to Anderson, “the confidence with which the fingerprint contours are drawn, along with their nearly perfect spacing, indicate the orderliness the artist forcefully brings to the scene, as well as a clarity and sense of control over the direction of his artistic expression.” She says these drawings reflect Ramirez’s “artistic power focused into the making of a…cohesive finished work of art.”
Ramirez’s Madonnas, inspired by versions of the Virgin Mary he recalled in churches in Mexico, are often misidentified as images of the Statue of Liberty. As exemplified by “Untitled (Madonna),” and “Untitled (Madonna),” circa 1950–53, these large-scale vertical drawings usually depict a crowned, hour-glass figure, in an ornamented robe, with arms upraised, standing on a globe with a snake swirling at her feet. They are usually surrounded by idiosyncratic elements.
Ramirez’s landscapes, which often sprawl across lengthy sheets of paper, frequently mix elements of representation and abstraction. Some, such as “Untitled (Vertical Landscape),” employ rhythmic patterns of lines to almost hypnotic effect.
Unfortunately, Ramirez’s work does not reproduce well; it needs to be seen in person. Close examination suggests that these are not the random doodles of a deranged amateur, but carefully, intuitively, composed and detailed images by a masterful, self-taught artist.
As curator Anderson puts it, “While…[Ramirez’s] singularly identifiable figures, forms, line and palette reveal an exacting and highly defined vocabulary, they also show Ramirez to be an adventurous artist, exhibiting remarkably creative explorations through endless variations on his themes.” Art dealer Kind once remarked that his “line is a swooping, swinging, gorgeous, free thing.” One sees that in spades in this fascinating show.
The 192-page exhibition catalog, illustrated with color reproductions of all works in the show, was written by curator Anderson, with essays by Daniel Baumann, Victor and Kirstin Espinosa and Victor Zamudio-Taylor that correct some inaccurate information and provide new insights into Ramirez’s life and art. Published by Marquand Books in association with the Folk Art Museum, it is priced at $45 hardcover. “Martin Ramirez” will travel to the Milwaukee Art Museum and be on view October 6–January 6, 2008.
A two-day symposium at the Folk Art Museum, April 27–28, “Culture in Context: Self-Taught Artists in the Twenty-First Century,” will focus on issues and methodologies involved in this singular form of expression. The exhibition runs concurrently with Outsider Art Week in New York City and a weeklong series of informative special programs will be conducted at the museum January 23–28, including exhibition tours, a film screening and panel discussions.
The American Folk Art Museum is at 45 West 53rd Street. For information, 212-265-1040 or www.folkartmuseum.org.
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