By Elenore Weber
May 22, 2010
Untitled (Horse and Rider with Large Bugle), circa 1960-1963, mixed media on paper, 11 ins. x 17 ins.
Untitled (Horse and Rider with Large Bugle), circa 1960-1963, mixed media on paper, 11 ins. x 17 ins.

When I reflect upon my recent visit to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía to attend the historic opening of “Martín Ramírez: Marcos de reclusión” (“Martín Ramírez: Reframing Confinement”), I immediately think of this exhibition in relation to contemporary art and architecture on three levels: that of the architectonic, mysterious space in Ramírez’s art; that of the confining space of Dewitt State Hospital, in northern California, where Ramírez spent the last half of his life and where he created his outpouring of drawings; and that of the architecture of the Reina Sofía Museum itself.

The exhibition, which is presented under the same roof as Picasso’s Guernica, calls attention to the rising status of Ramírez’s work in the international art establishment

It is a wonderful coincidence that the Reina Sofía Museum is host to this major exhibition of Ramírez’s art. Located within a few blocks of both the Prado Museum and the Royal Botanical Garden, the Reina Sofía was originally designed as a hospital in 1769 and was later renovated to become Spain’s national museum of 20th-century art; some sections of the new museum opened in 1988. In 2005, an expansion of the museum, designed by Jean Nouvel, opened to the public. The French architect added three free-standing pavilions and dramatically linked them to the museum’s older hospital wing with an 86,000-square-foot, aluminum canopy. Nouvel essentially contemporized the museum’s architecture, effectively transforming the entire structure into a state-of-the-art, contemporary art museum.


Martin Ramirez

Above, left: Before putting it on display, Reina Sofía staffers double-checked the physical condition of Ramírez’s Untitled (Arches), circa 1960-1963; mixed media on paper; 20 ins. x 90 ins. Above, right: Exhibition curator Brooke Davis Anderson of the American Folk Art Museum in New York (left) and Ricco/Maresca gallery manager Elenore Weber inspected the scroll-like work after it had been framed and installed.


The title of the exhibition alludes to the Reina Sofía’s changing role in the art establishment today; to Ramírez’s isolated, unrecognized life in confinement in a psychiatric hospital; and to his currently rising stature within the contemporary-art mainstream. This grand exhibition is housed under the same roof as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.


Martin Ramirez

The well-chosen sequences of works by Ramírez that are on display give visitors a good sense of the range of his subject matter and of how the always inventive artist developed variations on some of his favorite themes.


Upon arriving at the museum, visitors are transported by an elegant exterior, frameless, glass elevator to the third floor. This entrance into the exhibition can be imagined as a metaphor for Ramírez’s recently elevated status and the reframing of his art within the context of a contemporary-art museum. After exiting the glass elevator lobby, visitors are drawn into the galleries’ 18th-century hospital pavilion space of long, narrow corridors, turning corners and limited windows. Although certainly more beautiful than Dewitt State Hospital must have been, the Reina Sofía’s exhibition’s spaces, with their sculpted archways and recessed windows, might be seen as comparable to those of the confining corridors of the psychiatric hospital in which Ramírez created more than 400 drawings, often while seated in a crouched position on a hard floor.


Martin Ramirez

Untitled (White Caballero), circa 1952-1955; gouache, colored pencil and graphite on paper; 43 5/8 ins. x 35 3/4 ins.


The exhibition’s guest curator, Brooke Davis Anderson, is the director and curator of the Contemporary Center at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. She organized the show with an emphasis on what she has identified as the recurring motifs of “memory and longing” in Ramírez’s art. She also wanted to call attention to this self-taught master’s creative process.

The exhibition highlights recurring motifs in Ramírez’s art that evoke a strong sense of “memory and longing”

Martin Ramirez

Signs on display at the entrances to the museum announce the Ramírez exhibition on display inside.


Anderson brilliantly accomplishes these goals by arranging the works along the walls in a well-chosen sequence that illuminates Ramírez’s subtle variations on assorted themes. She then surprises viewers by making stylistic or thematic departures from the works on display at points at which corners turn and lead visitors from one gallery into another. Such curatorial choices remind viewers of Ramírez’s obsessive process of creating and recreating his art with subtle but potent variation and then, quite suddenly, changing his motif or even embarking on a totally non-objective abstraction comprised of elegant, repetitive lines.


As visitors traverse the exhibition, they are reminded of Ramírez’s life and process as they see the walls of the museum’s galleries lined with rhythmic renderings of trains and tunnels, mysterious landscapes, Madonnas, buglers, lonely-eyed scribes and solo horsemen, or tender drawings of fawns, or images of “El Venador,” Ramírez’s farm in his native Mexico. Even the percussion of a visitor’s steps evokes the rhythm of Ramírez’s multi-paneled trains slowly chugging along the walls. The exhibition notably displays, for the first time ever, Ramírez’s largest drawing of a train, a stunning, multi-paneled, 19-foot-long scroll.


martin ramirez

Above, left: One of the museum’s galleries, in which the curator and her asistants had laid out a selection of works to hang, before installing them. Above, right: A visitor examines two Ramírez drawings in which, typically, central figures are set within pictorial spaces that have a strong architectonic character.


At the opening of “Martín Ramírez: Reframing Confinement,” I was moved by the admiration and compassion with which the Madrid audience embraced the legendary artist’s work and by the warm reception they gave his five descendants, including his granddaughter, María Ramírez, who had traveled from California to take part in the festivities.


Martin Ramirez

Untitled (Abstraction with Arches), circa 1960-1963; gouache, colored pencil and graphite on paper; 22.5 ins. x 20 ins.


The exhibition is a tribute of extraordinary proportion to a 20th-century master. As the Reina Sofía’s chief curator, Lynne Cooke, noted in her remarks during the opening, Ramírez’s art possesses a “level of formal invention comparable to that of a major artist of the 21st century.”

The exhibition in Madrid may be seen as an extraordinary tribute to a newly recognized, 20th-century master

I was both honored and excited to represent Ricco/Mareca and the role the gallery has played with regard to Ramírez’s art in the lead-up to this milestone exhibition of a self-taught artist’s work in a world-class, contemporary-art museum. The exhibition, which will remain on view through July 12, 2010, is well worth traveling to see in person.


Martin Ramirez

Untitled (Vertical Tunnel), circa 1960-1963; gouache, colored pencil and graphite on paper; 22.5 ins. x 20 ins.