The Artistic Geography of Martin Ramirez: Exhibition Review at the Milwaukee Art Museum

by Anton Rajer

Untitled (Madonna), ca. 1948–63, Crayon and pencil on pieced paper, 79 ? 41", Collection of Ann and James Harithas, Photo courtesy Phyllis Kind Gallery, New York
It is a pity that Martin Ramirez (1895-1963) can’t see the beautiful exhibition and fascinating book written about him. Fortunately, his family can, as did four hundred other admirers at the opening. But as so often is true with some artists, they have to be dead before getting the recognition they deserve -- and Ramirez certainly deserves this stunning show. It seems odd that it has taken decades before anyone undertook a major retrospective of his work, but the wait was worth it. Displayed in the main galleries of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the majority of his life’s work is beautifully exhibited with informative panels that teach the viewer not only about Ramirez but also about Hispanic and Anglo culture of the mid-20th century and how he synthesized them into something uniquely his own.

I saw my first Ramirez show in the early 1970s in Chicago. Even though I was only in high school I was instantly drawn to his work, especially his use of collage. Ramirez’s biography was also captivating. I remembered his story -- a Hispanic migrant worker who became disoriented in American society and spent the remainder of his life in a mental hospital making art without speaking. As an art conservator I’ve also conserved several works by Ramirez.

Decades later, the work is still fresh, strong and hypnotic. His use of arabesque decoration and subtle play of color have a rhythmic quality that leaves an indelible mark on the viewer. With a simple palette of pencils, pens, crayons and various types of paper he created an entire world of beauty that references his Hispanic origins as well as American popular culture of the mid-20th century.

Ramirez was lucky to be hospitalized at the DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, California with a sympathetic staff who eventually encouraged his art. How many similar creative patients have been shut away behind locked doors and not allowed to make art or express themselves?

One of the heroes of this story is Dr. Tarmo Pasto (1906-1986) a professor of psychology and art at nearby Sacramento State University in California. In the late 1940s Dr. Pasto took a personal interest in Ramirez and encouraged his development, providing supplies and a supportive environment. He brought his students to observe Ramirez working and also organized several exhibitions of his art. Dr. Pasto recognized Ramirez’s unique artistic talents and attempted to understand them. He also helped document and catalogue his work and placed it in collections, such as the Guggenheim Musseum in New York.

Several American and Mexican scholars were invited to contribute essays to the exhibition book. Each of their voices becomes a different kind of lens for understanding Ramirez’s work. In my view, the most insightful contribution was from Victor and Kristin Espinosa. Their biographical essay is filled with a wealth of fascinating material, much of it new to the field. It helps put Ramirez in the context of his own culture, in sharp contrast with the overused notion of “artist as spontaneous construction.” In their essay, the Espinosas cite numerous facts related to Ramirez, his family and childhood environment. In another essay, Victor Zamudio-Taylor tells of Ramirez’s journey to become a Mexican-American. It blends nicely with other contributors such as Robert Storr’s piece on understanding Ramirez in the context of the Outsider Art phenomenon. Together, all five essays make a compelling summation of the current state of research on Ramirez. They help viewers go beyond his mental illness to recognize his unique contributions to the world of art.

The work is not likely to be exhibited again anytime soon because the art—all on paper—is fragile and easily damaged by light. Kudos to the American Folk Art Museum for organizing it and to MAM for showing this exhibition of an important little known artist. It’s fitting that Ramirez gets the recognition he well deserves not only in the exhibition, but in the beautifully illustrated and well-written book.