By Erik Bakke, WM San Francisco
This summer the San Jose Museum of Art presented the exhibition Martín Ramírez from June 9 to September 9, 2007. The exhibition curated by Brook Davis Anderson was originally on view at the American Folk Art Museum in New York and is now at the Milwaukee Art Museum in Wisconsin until January 6, 2008. Go see Ramírez's brilliant works if you can. The Martín Ramírez exhibition is one of a number of excellent exhibitions at the San Jose Museum of Art of late; others from this year include Il Lee: Ballpoint Abstractions; Jess: To and From the Printed Page; Op Art Revisited: Selections from the Albright-Knox Gallery; and Ed Ruscha/Raymond Pettibon: The Holy Bible and THE END. To get the one complaint out of the way of the San Jose exhibition from this viewer's perspective it would have been worth the museum's trouble to forego the exhibition Contemporary Art from the Permanent Collection in the adjoining spaces of the second floor and to have given all the space over to the Ramírez exhibition. Some of the Ramírez works were unnecessarily hung one atop another and all the works could have used more space.
For a man that often pieced his working surfaces together from found materials Martín Ramírez's (1895-1963) works are large. A work like Untitled (paper bag scroll) [1953, crayon and pencil on pieced paper, private collection, page 155 in the catalogue] is 102 inches high by 24 inches wide. It depicts on the left side several riders on horses coming down a winding path and/or stair. The path loops around a church depicted at the bottom of the scroll and heads back up the scroll as a road being used by buses and cars. The image of the church is repeated five more times along the path and pine trees flank the church, the path and the road. At the picture top are other structures and more trees. In the catalogue the image is intriguing but the power of the works presence is not felt until you look up eight or nine feet above where you stand to see the entire image and you face the raw materiality of the work with its powerful line work and the paths which delineate enough space for your body and with, even, the handle of a paper bag still affixed at work top.
If you have not seen Ramírez's work in person and are looking at it in reproduction it is worth to consider the dimensions of each work as you contemplate the imagery. The catalogue, excellent as a whole, addresses this issue by including several of the images in a tri-part, fold-out format. Catalogue: Martín Ramírez, Brook Davis Anderson, 2007, Marquand Books, Seattle in association with the American Folk Art Museum, New York.
The work in the exhibition from 1948 to 1963 divides into four categories Horses and Riders; Trains and Tunnels; Madonnas and other Figures; and Landscapes. Other imagery appears--buses and cars and wild animals--and categories overlap but on the whole Ramírez returned to the same themes over and over again. One recurrent theme is a train leaving and entering tunnels with the train's tracks rigorously depicted. In the work Untitled (Landscape with Train, Church, and Animals) [1950s, crayon and pencil on pieced paper, 36 x 130 ½ inches, Milwaukee Art Museum, gift of Friends of Art and Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson, pages 166 and 167 in the catalogue] other recurring motifs also appear. A stag stands on high. Other animals including a snake and a dog are present. A church similar to the one in the paper bag scroll is part of the landscape and trees and/or hills are depicted with series of looping arches and parallel lines particular to Ramírez's drawing style.
Ramírez's line work is at once deft and bold. Lines are not sketched but are placed on the paper with clear separation between them. The repetition of curves and angles creates geometric patterning within the works. This patterning is visible throughout the train works--in the depiction of tracks, embankments, hills, tunnels and landscapes--and takes a particular form in works where an item is isolated on what could be a stage with curtain and proscenium. The isolated figure in these works is frequently an armed or an unarmed rider astride his or her horse. The nature of the line work's repetition forming the framing-stage varies from work to work and other central figures in these works include a type of Madonna figure, a stag and a man sitting at a desk with a train passing by in the background. See here Untitled (Man at Desk) [c. 1948-1963. Crayon and pencil on pieced paper. 34 ¾ x 23 ½ inches. Collection of Stephanie Smither]
The surfaces of Ramírez's works are the results of a wonderful combination of materials chosen by utilitarian necessity as manipulated by an artist of refined sensibility. Page 99 in the catalogue shows a detail for the work Untitled (Train) [c. 1953, crayon and pencil on paper, 22 ½ x 47 inches, American Folk Art Museum, gift of Herbert Waide Hamphill Jr., 1990.1.2]. The detail shows well the clear economy of Ramírez's drawing style which though bold allows for plenty of surface to show through--here part of a newsprint strip is visible that crosses the top portion of the entire drawing. The texture of the surface where the newsprint is patched into rest of the paper is clearly visible. Ramírez integrates the patterning created by the text in the newsprint and the contrasting surfaces of the newsprint and the other paper into the patterning he creates with applied color. The relationships between material, drawing style and narrative content are restrained and have an easy harmony that is deceptively natural.
Most of Ramírez's work reveals great restraint and economy. Even the large Madonnas like the masterpiece Untitled (Madonna) [c. 1948-1963. Crayon and pencil on pieced paper. 79 x 41 inches. Collection of Ann and James Harithas, page 135 in the catalogue] with dense patterning visible on the Madonna's clothing; various floating geometric patternings; floral patterning; and an attendant snake and observing figure seems a work of exactingly spare necessity. Given this type of approach it is pleasurable to see another kind of masterpiece--the densely worked, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, Untitled (Landscape) [c.1948-1963, crayon, pencil, watercolor, and collage on pieced paper, 40 x 105 inches, American Folk Art Museum, extended loan of Audrey B. Heckler, page 152 in the catalogue (tri-part fold-out)]. Included in this work of many pieced together pieces of paper are drawings of riders, churches, automobiles, flora and fauna, mountains, architecture great and small, geometric patterning in black and white and in color, caves and portals, mysterious figures, and among other elements many collaged images of automobiles and, in the lower right corner of the work, a series of images taken from an magazine depicting life in an Amish community.
Victor M. Espinosa and Kristin E. Espinosa in their catalogue essay "The Life of Martín Ramírez" describe the process and materials Ramírez used "Ramírez would crouch on the floor over enormous sheets of paper (some more than forty by one hundred inches) that he had assembled from ...smaller pieces ...as well as any scraps he had found in the garbage. Ramírez's tools consisted only of pencils, tongue depressors he used as straightedges to sketch his designs, and the matchsticks he employed to apply a colored paste he created from crayons, charcoal, red juice extracted from fruits, shoe polish, his own saliva, and sometimes even his own phlegm, all mixed in small pots he made from oatmeal and then dried on a radiator."
So by what is looking at Ramírez's work complicated--by the fact he was a Mexican immigrant of uncertain mental health who live the majority of his life in California in mental hospitals. It is complicated by the fact anybody who speaks about him feels the need to wrestle with notions of outsider art, folk art, self-taught art, and art of the mentally ill. This writer feels no such compunction but following is an outline of some of the writing in the catalogue--there was also a biographical exhibition about Ramírez at the Mexican Heritage Plaza La Galería in San Jose--which covers some of this ground. At this point it is of interest to think of Joseph Cornell, whose work is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through January 6, 2007, who was also a self-taught artist, at once a New York provincial and outsider. Today, though, viewers are comfortable to, with little thought, place Cornell firmly into the tradition of Surrealism and the avant-garde. Perhaps at some point in the future Ramírez's biography will be more and more of a footnote to his brilliant art work.
Victor Zamudio-Taylor approaches this problem in his catalogue essay "Living in Nepantla: Martín Ramírez's Complex Journey to Becoming Mexican American." He states, "As painstaking research undertaken by engaged scholars undoes the myths, spells out the facts, and reconstructs his biography, laying the groundwork for serious art-historical endeavors, Ramírez's place in twentieth-century art and culture will be firmly established. Moreover, as new art history researches and writes new narratives, Ramírez may very well become the Van Gogh of the mid-twentieth century, and the companion to Frida Kahlo."
This being said the catalogue is filled with fascinating information about the artist's life, the historical context in which he worked and sheds light on Ramírez's relationships including the ones well known contemporary artists like Wayne Thiebaud and Jim Nutt had with the artist and his work. Further the opinions of Zamudio-Taylor and the other contributors are well worth considering.
In the Foreword to the catalogue Maria Ann Conelli, the Director of the American Folk Art Museum, says of the exhibition that it is "the first study to give equal consideration to the biographical, historical, and cultural influences in Ramírez's oeuvre, its artistic quality and merit, and its standing in the context of the work of twentieth-century self-taught artists." Robert Storr in the introduction states his discomfort with the whole prospect of "outsider art" and begins his essay which discusses notions of the "outsider" and "insider" on a comic note with the line, "'Outsider art' gets on my nerves." He finishes his essay with some well considered thoughts; "The self-replenishing immediacy and complexity of his work--the qualities that make it art rather than artifact or clinical sample--belong to Ramírez alone. We may drink at his well of loneliness, and we may think our own thoughts and dream our own dreams--and because we can, we also know that we are in the presence of art--but we will not get to the bottom of that well, nor should we ever wish to."
Daniel Baumann is his essay "Martín Who? Distribution, Music, and the Art of Martín Ramírez" tries to break through the usual discussions of work "outside the art-historical canon" by focusing on distribution. He says, There have been many passionate discussions about this question, most often ending in debates based on bipolar models: outsider vs. professional, self-taught vs. academic, awareness vs. naivete, intelligence vs. mental illness, art history vs. cultural studies, and so on. A more technical way to address the issue is to approach it in terms of distribution." Of particular interest is his discussion of Walter Morgenthaler "the psychiatrist who supported Adolf Woelfi and described the artist's work in the pioneering 1921 study Ein Geisteskranker als Kuenstler (A Mental Patient as Artist)" as well as his discussion of Jean Dubuffet and "his collecting the work of numerous artists living and working in the margins of society" all in comparison to the circumstances surrounding the fact that "Martín Ramírez's drawings survived thanks to artist and psychology professor Tarmo Pasto, followed by the commitment of the artists Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson and art dealer Phyllis Kind."
Curator Brooke Davis Anderson in her essay "Silence and Memory, Fifty Years of Literature about Martín Ramírez" nicely breaks down by decade the dramatic changes in the way Ramírez's art has been considered and discusses the great increase in knowledge about his life and points to the writings of Randall Morris saying of him, "The far-reaching and far-ranging way in which he wrote opened the door for future scholars, in particular for the work of Victor M. Espinosa and Kristin E. Espinosa."
Martín Ramírez was organized by the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. On view at the American Folk Art Museum, New York (January 23 – May 13, 2007); San Jose Museum of Art, California (June 9 – September 9, 2007); and the Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin (October 6, 2007 – January 6, 2008).