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Martín Ramírez at American Folk Art Museum
Martin Ramirez, Untitled (Man at Desk), c. 1948-1963, pencil and crayon on pieced paper, 23-1/2 x 34-3/4". Collection of Stephanie Smither. Photo credit: Rick Gardner, Houston.
NEW YORK.-The American Folk Art Museum is proud to present Martín Ramírez, the first museum exhibition in New York City and the first major retrospective in almost twenty years to showcase the complex, multi-layered artwork of this 20th century self-taught master. The exhibition continues the museum's commitment to bring the work of important self-taught artists to the public's attention.

On view from January 23 through April 29, 2007, Martín Ramírez is organized by Brooke Davis Anderson, curator and director of the museum's Contemporary Center. The exhibition will feature over 90 works on paper drawn from public and private collections in the U.S. and abroad, some of which have never been on public view. It will be installed on three floors of the museum with label descriptions in English and Spanish. Accompanied by a full-color publication by Marquand Books in association with the American Folk Art Museum, Martín Ramírez will travel to the Milwaukee Art Museum (October 6, 2007 through January 6, 2008).

Ramírez (1895-1963) created nearly 300 drawings of remarkable visual clarity and expressive power within the confines of DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, California, where he resided from 1948 to 1963. Over the years Ramírez has been categorized primarily as a “schizophrenic artist.” The exhibition attempts to go beyond this narrow diagnosis of mental illness to consider the artistic quality and merit of Ramírez's artwork. Supported by new scholarly research—biographical, historical, and cultural—it provides viewers with multiple contexts from which to study his oeuvre. This comprehensive approach underscores the richness of the drawings and illuminates the archetypal images—horse and riders, Madonnas, animals, trains, and tunnels—that inspired them.

The American Folk Art Museum had recognized the need for a retrospective of this important artist for many years. When Ms. Anderson met Victor and Kristin Espinosa, trained sociologists who had spent two decades researching Martín Ramírez's life, the museum realized that their work provided the basis for a fresh re-examination of Ramírez and his art. Very little information had been known about Ramírez until the Espinosas undertook their research. They traced the artist's family, the social and cultural environment of his life in Mexico, his journey to the U.S., his experience as a migrant worker, and his final years as an artist in California asylums. Their valuable findings provide the background for a more complete understanding of Ramírez's artwork.

Born in Los Altos de Jalisco in west-central Mexico, a deeply Catholic area, Ramírez married, had four children, owned land and a horse. In 1925 the devastating political situation in Mexico caused Ramirez to leave his family and travel north with friends, eventually to California where he found work on the railroads. The consequences of the Depression as well as his despair over the Cristero Rebellion in his homeland left him jobless and homeless on the streets of northern California in 1931. Unable to communicate in English and apparently confused, he was picked up by the police and committed to Stockton State Hospital, where he was diagnosed as a catatonic schizophrenic. Trapped inside the psychiatric system of California, Ramírez spent thirty-two years in mental institutions, hardly talking to anyone. Separated from his homeland, his family, and his friends, his isolation was compounded because he did not speak the language of his adopted country. There is no documented evidence that he was either mute or deaf, contrary to accounts from the last 50 years that continued to promote this notion.

In 1948 Ramírez was transferred to DeWitt State Hospital, where, in the early 1950s Tarmo Pasto, a visiting professor of psychology and art, saw some of Ramírez's drawings in the hospital and recognized their artistic significance. Ramírez became the subject of Pasto's research into the relationship between mental illness and creativity and he supplied Ramírez with art materials. Prior to Dr. Pasto's entrance into Ramírez's artistic life, his drawings were discarded by the hospital staff, who believed they were infected with his tuberculosis. Ramírez had tried to save the drawings by hiding them rolled up in his jacket and under his mattress. Pasto collected Ramírez's drawings and organized several public exhibitions in the 1950s, making the artwork available to a larger audience. Among the contemporary artists who saw his work at that time were Wayne Thiebaud, and later Jim Nutt.

Ramírez neither dated or signed his drawings and he was never interviewed about his work, so it is difficult to accurately trace his stylistic development. However, the artist developed a coherent vocabulary of motifs, forms, and shapes that he repeatedly explored. These drawings and collages are "like visual diaries of Ramírez's life" notes Ms. Anderson

Imagery and Process: The Art of Martín Ramírez

"Ramírez's drawings are characterized by facile and inventive draftsmanship, extraordinary spatial manipulations, and a diverse repetoire of images fusing Mexican motifs and mid-century American popular culture, the environment of confinement, and the artist's experience as a Mexican living in poverty and exile in the United States," notes Ms. Anderson. "Ramírez's repetitive line, strong design quality, and the power of his forms reveal an adventurous artist exhibiting remarkably creative explorations through endless variations on his themes," continues Ms. Anderson

The exhibition highlights four of Ramírez's most distinctive themes—the horse and rider, trains in tunnels, religious figures, and landscapes—and explores the way they are realized through his unique artmaking process. Four scholars with different areas of expertise who contributed essays to the book were invited to comment on one work in each of these themes. Within this framework of multiple perspectives, a more fully dimensional portrait of this important, under-recognized artist emerges.

Sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s Ramírez began to fashion large surfaces for drawing from found bits of paper. Candy wrappers, greeting cards, flattened paper cups, hospital supply forms, book pages, and, later, long rolls of hospital bed paper were assembled with glue made from potato, bread, and saliva. The resulting paper, ranging in size from several inches up to 12 feet, was spread on the floor in the hospital ward. Ramírez also created his own pigment by crushing crayons and colored pencils in a home-made oatmeal pot. With a matchstick as a stylus, he used the smashed medium to draw endless variations on his favorite themes. Other self-taught artists such as James Castle and Aloïse Corbaz devised similar techniques.

The horse and rider, or jinete, is one of Ramírez's primary subjects. The jinete imagery makes reference to the Cristero Rebellion in Mexico as well the popular Western films that Ramírez most likely saw in the cinema, on television, and in magazine ads. Positioned in the center of the paper within a stage-like procenium, the jinete and its architectural setting are subtly altered from drawing to drawing. By skillfully employing changes in the construction of the framing device, shading, line, perspective, color, texture, and scale, Ramírez creates a surprising diversity in the entire group. The reverberating line emphasizes the tension between the geometric stage-set and the organic figure of the horse and rider. Ramírez often cut illustrations from popular magazines to use as collage elements, such as the head of a 1950s girl humorously applied onto a figure in one of the horse and rider drawings. This technique recalls the collage elements in some of Adolf Wölfli's works.

Ramírez had an ongoing fascination with trains, perhaps referencing his experience leaving his life in Mexico in a long train jou

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