New York

Martín Ramírez

This is the second large-scale survey of the work of Martín Ramírez; the first took place in Philadelphia in 1985. Twenty-two years ago, however, the artist’s name was spelled without accents. A small change, seemingly, but much depends on it. The difference between this Ramírez and the one we knew before is that identity politics have become part of the way we look at art. The old Ramírez was an American outsider whose works possessed, arguably, such autonomous strength that one could simply call him an artist, without further qualification, or perhaps with only the one qualification then still potentially synonymous with universality: modernist. That artist had in turn replaced the anonymous “incurable schizophrenic” whose name was not attached to the exhibitions of his work that took place during his lifetime, to protect his privacy. Today’s Ramírez, as presented by curator Brooke Davis Anderson and the contributors to this exhibition’s catalogue, is above all a Mexican artist whose work is rooted in “his cultural and personal experience as a migrant.” Víctor M. Espinosa and Kristin E. Espinosa provide significant new biographical research that gives us a clearer idea of who Ramírez was and therefore of the potential sources for his art.

For all that, the work that Ramírez produced from the late ’40s until his death in 1963 still looks much the same from the standpoints of its materials (crayons and pencil on found bits of paper, often pieced together into larger sheets with homemade glue), its style (based on hypnotically repetitive lines used to construct an often highly theatrical volumetric space), and its imagery (the most salient motifs are trains and pistol-wielding cowboys, both present in dozens of works here, but compositions featuring highway traffic, Madonnas, scribes, and animals such as stags are also recurrent). And a certain level of its meaning remains the same as well: what Octavio Paz once called the tension in his work between “an immersion in the self and an escape toward the outside, toward an encounter with the world.” Ramírez presents a highly artificial, stylized, self-referential visual world, constructed out of elements of his own experience. Despite his work being based on repetition—both of the linear structuring elements within each work and of motifs from work to work—his compositional strategies are surprisingly various, ranging from the domination of empty space in a depiction of trains and tunnels from 1951 to the obdurate density of a depiction of a tunnel with cars from 1953, and from the stagelike spotlighting of many of the horses with riders to the almost Chinese spatial openness of an extraordinary paper-bag scroll from 1953, in which a pair of riders are merely incidental details at the top.

In recent years, the diagnosis of Ramírez as a schizophrenic has come into question; in any case, it’s become clearer how—indeed, like many artists labeled outsiders—he was never cut off from reality but drew on existing pictorial vernaculars with a bricoleur’s knack for bending them to his own needs. For this, artists are likely to keep looking to Ramírez as they have ever since Jim Nutt’s encounter with his work in 1968 led to its introduction to a wider public. What artists find inspiring in it is a pictorial syntax of incredible power and flexibility—a fluid, accomplished style that moves easily from decorative to dramatic, dense to airy, harmonious to agitated. The next Ramírez survey should analyze this.

Barry Schwabsky