Martín Ramírez...A Journey
Since Martín Ramírez’s work was first exhibited in 1952, he has been admired for his ability to construct a very singular visual language. His sophisticated compositions combine organic elements drawn from nature, representational conventions of topographic maps, and geometric and architectural forms with an intense sense of modernity. Ramírez had a highly developed sense of design, color harmony, and technical mastery to manipulate lines and space. His perfectly balanced compositions successfully integrate the figurative and the abstract. His subjects, largely silhouetted, are inspired by his life and rooted in the history, culture, and geography of his Mexican and Californian worlds; while his abstractions are the result of a rich and complex use of lines that represent tunnels, windows, railroad tracks, empty corridors, and also mountains, hills, canyons, fields, and canals. The modern and abstract appearance of his work is achieved by his singular use of linear structures and concentric forms to represent distance and profundity in ways that do not follow the conventions of traditional perspective: his drawings deploy more jarring, less managed breaks and disjunctions. The manipulation of lines, along with delicate shading that produces a sense of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface, is the most notable visual singularity of his work.
Ramírez was born in 1895, in Jalisco, Mexico. In 1925 he went to look for work in the United States, leaving his pregnant wife and three daughters at home in a small rural community called El Baluarte. He worked in the mines and the railroad industries in northern California, and then lost his job as a result of the Great Depression. In January 1931, he was detained by the police in Stockton, California, emotionally upset and in very bad physical condition. After a medical evaluation, he was diagnosed with chronic depression and interned in Stockton State Hospital, where he was later diagnosed as a catatonic schizophrenic. During his clinical interrogations, he limited himself to simply repeating that he did not speak English and that he was not insane.
In 1935, after several attempts to escape from Stockton, he began to draw. When he did not have access to regular paper, he constructed large sheets out of scraps he collected from the hospital garbage cans, such as paper bags, cups, envelopes, and brown wrapping paper. He also recycled stationary, tissue, napkins, and magazine pages. When he did not have access to regular glue, he used organic materials—such as oatmeal or mashed potatoes—to stitch together all the pieces of paper he collected. His art supplies consisted mostly of graphite, wax crayons, colored pencils, charcoal, red and black writing inks, and watercolors. Sometimes, when he did not have access to any of those materials, he even used shoe polish, red juice extracted from fruits, the charcoal from used matchsticks, and a paste he made by mixing some of the raw materials with oatmeal or his own saliva. He also mined magazine illustrations for motifs that evoked the life he had left behind in Mexico or to use as models to trace the anatomy of some of his subjects.
The exact number of drawings that Ramírez completed during his life is unknown. The works he produced between 1935 and 1948—the year he was transferred to DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, California—were not preserved. All the extant works were produced there and preserved by Tarmo Pasto, a Sacramento painter and professor of art and psychology who provided him with art materials (around 350 pieces) and by Max Dunievitz, the physician in charge of the ward where Ramírez was secluded during the last years of his life (around 150 pieces). Ramírez also enjoyed giving drawings to employees and volunteers of the two hospitals where he was confined. Of these works, only one drawing kept by James Durffe, a former DeWitt psychiatric technician, and the drawings collected and introduced in the Sacramento art world by Gail Northe, a Red Cross volunteer, have been identified.
The subjects of Ramírez’s works suggest that he was driven by a strong need for expression, communication, and recognition. Drawing became also a prime means of preserving his identity and keeping his memories alive. Most of his works show autobiographical references and visual representations affected by his experiences of migration, family separation, and seclusion. His drawings are filled with nostalgic scenes of his life in Mexico and references to his life as a migrant—including trains, recognizable churches of the towns where he lived, local religious icons, the rural landscape, laborers, common fauna of Mexico, his own domestic animals, people dancing, men making music, scenes of bullfighting and, especially, horsemen and horsewomen. The most recurrent subject in Ramírez’s drawings is a Mexican revolutionary (apparently inspired by the “Cristeros” rebellion): gun drawn, with an ammunition belt strapped across his or her chest, riding a horse with its legs on the ground but its head raised high in the air as if it were about to rear. A typical element in his drawings is a stage-like setting, in which he framed many of his characters, centering them amid horizontal and vertical lines that suggest stairs and curtains. He used the proscenium not only to frame, but also to underscore the narrative and performative characteristics of his subjects. This device reflects both his exposure to movies and to puppet shows he watched in the hospitals. Ramírez also produced many landscapes inspired by memories of his homeland, dominated by colonial buildings, vernacular architecture, and linear patterns that depict the rugged terrain of the area where he was born. Other landscapes are inspired by the scenery and modernity of northern California, depicting highways full of cars and buses crossing over bridges that end in tunnels surrounded by mountains. These works show his fascination with certain elements of the modernity he witnessed in the United States, as well as the impact of U.S. popular visual culture in his repertoire of images. His mural-sized landscapes are extremely complex compositions that condense his more recurrent motifs and narrate his transnational journey between two countries; the central subject is always a long train running through tunnels, which seem to connect the worlds of Jalisco and California.
During his lifetime, Ramírez was the subject of four solo exhibitions at the following venues: the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento (1952), the Stephens Union at the University of Berkeley (1952), the Mills College of Art Museum in Oakland (1954), and the Joe and Emily Lowe Art Center at Syracuse University (1961). In these shows his name was never included because of policies intended to protect the privacy of psychiatric patients.
His work was first introduced in to the art market by art dealer Phyllis Kind and artist Jim Nutt in 1973, 10 years after Ramírez died at the age of 68 at DeWitt. Since that year, five retrospectives of his work have been organized in important art venues: the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia (1985), the Centro Cultural/Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City (1989), the American Folk Art Museum in New York (2007), the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid (2010) and at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (2017). His work is also in important permanent collections, including the Milwaukee Art Museum, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Ricco/Maresca Gallery has been the exclusive representative of Ramírez’s estate since 2008.
-Víctor M. Espinosa