Martín Ramírez (1895-1963, Auburn, California), Untitled (Train and Tunnel), c. 1950.

Martín Ramírez, Untitled (The Three Scribes).

Outside and Inside: Martin Ramirez and the Silence of the Institution

Artist Martín Ramírez (right) and psychologist Tarmo Pasto hold up one of Ramírez's works at DeWitt State Hospital.

Martin Ramirez (1895-1963, Auburn, California), Untitled (Courtyard), c. 1953, Pencil and colored pencil on pieced paper, 40-1/2 x 36".

Martín Ramírez (1895-1963, Auburn California), Untitled (Horse and Rider), c. 1948-1963, Crayon and pencil on pieced paper, 34-1/4 x 24", Collection of Joseph D. and Janet M. Shein, Photo courtesy Phyllis Kind Gallery, New York.

Martín Ramírez (1895-1963, Auburn, California), Untitled (Man at Desk), c. 1948-1963, Crayon and pencil on pieced paper, 34-3/4 x 23-1/2", Collection of Stephanie Smither, Photograph Rick Gardner, Houston.

Martín Ramírez (1895-1963, Auburn, California), Untitled (Madonna), c. 1950-1953, Wax crayon, graphite, and watercolor on pieced wove papers, 43-15/16 x 32-3/8".

Martín Ramírez, Untitled (Tunnel with Cars and Buses), 1954. Pencil, colored pencil, watercolor, and crayon on paper. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 97.4610. Photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

 

American Folk Art Museum
45 West 53rd Street
New York
212-265-1040
Martín Ramírez
January 23-May 13, 2007

By BROOKE DAVIS ANDERSON

One of the self-taught masters of 20th-century art, Martín Ramírez created some three hundred artworks of remarkable visual clarity and expressive power within the confines of DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, California, where he resided for the last 15 years of his life. Ramírez’s complexly structured works are characterized by skillful and inventive draftsmanship and extraordinary spatial manipulations. The artist employs a diverse repertoire of imagery, fusing elements of Mexican and American culture, the environment of confinement, and his experience as a Mexican living in poverty and exile in the United States.

Martín Ramírez (1895-1963) left his native Mexico in 1925 with the aim of finding work in the United States and supporting his wife and children back home in Jalisco. Political and religious struggles in Mexico that directly affected the welfare of his family, as well as the economic consequences of the Great Depression, left him homeless and without work on the streets in northern California in 1931. Unable to communicate in English and apparently confused, he was soon picked up by the police and committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he would eventually be diagnosed as a catatonic schizophrenic. Ramírez spent the second half of his life in a succession of mental institutions in California.

During those 32 years, Ramírez hardly spoke to anyone. However, sometime in the mid-1930s, he began to draw. In the early 1950s, Tarmo Pasto, a visiting professor of psychology and art at Sacramento State University, saw some of Ramírez’s drawings in the ward at DeWitt State Hospital and recognized their singular artistic value. Pasto not only made Ramírez a subject of his research into mental illness and creativity but also started to supply him with materials, collect his drawings, and, by organizing public exhibitions, introduce his artwork to the public.

During the more than five decades since the fortuitous meeting between Pasto and Ramírez, much has been speculated about the artist’s life and work. His oeuvre forms an impressive map of a life shaped by immigration, poverty, institutionalization, and, most of all, art. Migration and memory seem to factor strongly in every image. His compositions document his life experiences; favored images of Mexican Madonnas, animals, cowboys, trains, and landscapes merge with scenes of American culture. Ramírez never seemed totireofhis preferred topics, yet within his limited set of subjects he demonstrated an amazing range of expression. While his singularly identifiable figures, forms, line, and palette reveal an exacting and highly defined vocabulary, they also show Ramírez to be an adventurous artist, exhibiting remarkably creative explorations through endless variations on his themes.

 

By ELSA WEINER

I was first introduced to the work of Martin Ramirez in 1979 by Phyllis Kind in her New York gallery, and at once I was deeply moved and enthralled by its strange and poignant beauty. Art created by people whose lives have isolated them from art education, art criticism-from society even-has always fascinated me. What I find so remarkable is the expressive power that blends almost inexplicably with an innate understanding of formal elements and techniques to produce authentic and lasting works of art. Transmitters: The Isolate Artist in America, which I organized for the gallery of the Philadelphia College of Art in 1981 represented the paintings, drawings, and sculpture of 21 20th-century isolates. Four Ramirez drawings were included. and during the preparation of the show it became clear to me that the extraordinary achievement of this artist must one day be explored in a large-scale solo exhibition. Thanks to Phyllis Kind, I was introduced to a network of experts who, with enthusiasm, intelligence, and passion, search for, collect, support, and protect the work of folk and isolate artists. The existence of this network has made it possible to bring together 61 major works as The Heart of Creation: The Art of Martin Ramirez.

What little we know of Ramirez has been pieced together from disparate sources in an attempt to reconstruct a life that, for the most part, remains a mystery. It was Dr. Tarmo Pasto, an artist and psychologist, who was responsible for discovering, encouraging, and, initially, collecting the work of Martin Ramirez. The art of the insane was of particular interest to Dr. Pasto, and he was instrumental in initiating a number of Bay Area exhibitions on the subject. Although alive today, he is gravely ill and unable to participate in this project, but we are in his debt for what information we do have about Ramirez.

Pasto first met Ramirez at DeWitt State Hospital in Aubum, California. As a teacher of abnormal psychology at nearby Sacramento State University, Pasto arranged for the hospital staff to give a lecture-demonstration to his class; reading about abnormal psychology was one thing, but he believed his students could learn much more from firsthand observation of the inmates. During one of the sessions, a patient sitting in the audience removed a roll of drawings he had carefully hidden inside his shirt and silently slipped it to Pasto. After looking over the drawings, Pasto asked the clinical director if he might keep them; he also asked if he might visit the ward where the man lived and be introduced to him. When they met, Pasto discovered that Ramirez had accomplished his work with only the stub of a lead pencil—the kind that the ward dispensed to each patient. When Pasto came again, he brought Ramirez a box of colored pencils and encouraged him to keep on drawing. Up to this time, patient drawings were confiscated and burned at the end of each day, as the personnel were instructed to keep the ward clean. To prevent his drawings from being destroyed, Ramirez hid them under his mattress or inside his clothing. Pasto felt that proper art materials might enable Ramirez to develop his talents, as well as being the means of beneficial art therapy, and so he provided them. He became a regular, even daily, visitor, and for a time collected all the work that Ramirez produced. As word of the artist’s abilities began to spread, though, hospital staff members encouraged Ramirez to give them each a completed picture.

Pasto’s interest led him to find out more about Ramirez, and it is from his notes that the only extant biography emerges.

"Martin Ramirez was born in Jalisco, Mexico, on March 31, 1885. He worked as a laundryman. Being half-starved, he crossed the border into the U.S.A. in the hope of finding employment that would pay him so he could eat and send money back home. He was a frail man, weighing only about a hundred pounds, and about five feet, two inches tall.

He soon found that in America his life was so different from his life in Mexico that he became bewildered. The cultural shock was too much for him. He became disoriented, delusional, and had hallucinations, exhibiting all the characteristics of a schizophrenic. He was working on the railroad as a section hand, but the work became too demanding for his physical energies. He was picked up by the Los Angeles authorities in Pershing Square, where all the misfits, the drunks, the disturbed and other hopeless men, who had given up trying to make a go of, it went. He was placed in an institution in the Los Angeles area, where he was classified as a catatonic."

That was in 1930. After seven months, Ramirez was transferred to Auburn, California, where he remained until his death in 1960.

In the fall of 1968, Chicago artist Jim Nutt, who was teaching and running the art gallery at Sacramento State College, came across storage bins in the audio-visual department that contained 30 x 40"reproductions of art historical monuments. There, among the Fra Angelicos, Bosches, and Brueghels, was a group of actual drawings made by inmates of psychiatric hospitals. Fascinated by the Ramirez drawings in particular, Nutt learned they belonged to Tarmo Pasto, who used them as visual aids in his abnormal psychology class. Nutt’s interest resulted in an invitation to Pasto’s home, where he had the opportunity to view the entire body of Ramirez’s work. One year later, with Pasto’s help, he mounted a Ramirez exhibition at the college.

In 1971, Pasto wanted to sell his Ramirez collection. He approached Nutt, who, in turn, contacted Phyllis Kind, his gallery dealer; together, they purchased the entire collection of approximately three hundred drawings. The ones already mounted on linen, Kind was able to exhibit immediately in her Chicago gallery; the remainder, in dire need of restoration, Kind undertook to conserve and frame. By introducing important collectors and curators to this work, by writing articles and lecturing, Phyllis Kind more than anyone has been responsible for elevating Martin Ramirez to his rightful place in twentieth-century art.

At present, Jim Nutt and his wife, Chicago artist Gladys Nilsson, possess the largest Martin Ramirez collection. Over the years, they have deacidified and restored many of the drawings (some are so fragile, mere handling causes pieces to shred and fall away). For the most part, this private collection has never been seen publicly. A small selection was made available for Outsiders, a 1979 London exhibition, organized by the Arts Council of Great Britain. Otherwise, the works remain relatively unknown. Nutt and Nilsson are busy, highly successful artists, and yet, in their personal commitment to this exhibition, they have taken time from their own work to sift through the many drawings with me. Their desire to bring Ramirez into public focus has made them valuable allies in the curatorial process.

This is the first time that such a large and comprehensive group of Ramirez’s drawings has been assembled for exhibition. Ranging in size from two inches to nine feet, the subjects fall into several categories. In making our selection, we wished to acknowledge the breadth of the oeuvre. That Martin Ramirez, a mute patient in a mental hospital diagnosed “paranoid schizophrenic, deteriorated,” was able to create this monumental body of work is a testament to the urgent power behind the creative drive — a power that, no matter how disadvantageous or restrictive the circumstances, will find a way to fulfill its inner vision.

The eccentric view of life and history — often one’s personal history, played out in the guise of symbols — has inspired a bold and courageous expressiveness from the beginning of recorded art. When the artist is telling his own story, at some point his story becomes the story of man and, in turn, the story of all men. Martin Ramirez shows us, even when his artist’s tools are meager, that a commonality of spirit and language can exist and flourish and, in the hands of a born artist, soar. His need to work, and his need to protect that work from destruction, came from a very basic drive: he was an artist, and he wanted his work to be seen, enjoyed, appreciated. His eagerness to share with anyone who showed an interest may have been second only to his need to produce. Art, even when coming from the seemingly insane, is a gift to the world, and this is something that Martin Ramirez knew in the very heart of his creation.

 

Dr. Tarmo Pasto for the Public Relations Department of Stanford Research Institute Stanford, California, July 1954.

He is a Mexican, about 68 years old, who is classified as a chronic paranoid schizophrenic and considered incurable, having been institutionalized for over twenty years. His art activity dates back about six years. He is slight of build, greatly underweight, a former tuberculous patient who spends his time on his art. He does not speak to anyone but hums in a singsong way when pleased with his visitors. Conversation as an exchange of ideas is impossible.

His manner of work is unique. When good paper is not available, he glues together scraps of paper, old envelopes, paper bags, paper cups, wrappers- anything that may have a clear drawing area. He often makes many small background studies, seashell and nature forms, which he stores in his shirt, in a paper shopping bag, in tied rolls, or behind a radiator, suddenly to be taken out and glued to an evolving picture. He fashions his own glue out of mashed potatoes and water—sometimes bread and saliva. He squats on his haunches, moving about the floor between two cots, using, stubs of colored pencils and Crayolas, drawing a little here, a little there. His drawing is kept rolled up and usually only a portion of it is exposed at any one time. He has recently shown considerable pleasure with groups of student visitors, to whom he displays his work with obvious pride.

 

Martin Ramirez, Fantasy City, 1955, Mixed media on paper, 31-7/8 x 37-1/8”.

Martin Ramirez (1895-1963, Auburn, California), Untitled (Trains and Tunnels), c. 1960-1963, Gouache, crayon, colored pencil, and pencil on lined and pieced paper, 17 x 78", American Folk Art Museum, gift of the family of Dr. Max Dunievitz and the Estate of Martin Ramirez, P1.2008.1, © Estate of Martin Ramirez, Photo by Ellen McDermott, New York.

The (Nearly) Last Works of Mental Patient Martin Ramirez

Martin Ramirez (1895-1963, Auburn, California), Untitled (White Church with Abstract Sides), c. 1960-1963, Paint, crayon, pencil, and collage on found paper, 18 x 22-1/2", American Folk Art Museum, gift of the family of Dr. Max Dunievitz and the Estate of Martin Ramirez, P1.2008.2, © Estate of Martin Ramirez, Photo by Ellen McDermott, New York.

Martin Ramirez (1895-1963, Auburn, California), Untitled (Horse and Rider on Pedestal with Brick Structures and Cannonballs), c. 1960-1963, Paint, crayon, and pencil on paper towels with cigarette papers, 24 x 20-1/4", Collection of Jennifer Pinto Safian, © Estate of Martin Ramirez, Photo by Ellen McDermott, New York.

Martin Ramirez (1895-1963, Auburn, California), Untitled (Galleon on Water), c. 1960-1963, Gouache, colored pencil, and pencil on pieced paper, 33 x 24", Collection of Audrey B. Heckler, © Estate of Martin Ramirez, Photo by Ellen McDermott, New York.

 

Martin Ramirez (1895-1963, Auburn, California), Untitled (Auana Cuua), c. 1960-1963, Gouache, colored pencil, and pencil on pieced paper, 44-1/2 x 20", Private collection, © Estate of Martin Ramirez, Photo by Ellen McDermott, New York.

Martin Ramirez (1895-1963, Auburn, California), Untitled (Reina/Madonna), c. 1960-1963, Paint, crayon, pencil, and collage on lined paper, 48 x 18", American Folk Art Museum, gift of the family of Dr. Max Dunievitz and the Estate of Martin Ramirez, 2008.14.1, © Estate of Martin Ramirez, Photo by Ellen McDermott, New York.

Martin Ramirez (1895-1963, Auburn, California), Untitled (Horse and Rider), c. 1950, Pencil, Colored Pencil, Crayon, and collage on paper, 36-5/16 x 18-1/4", Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 97.4606.

 

American
Folk Art Museum
45 West 53rd Street
212-265-1040
New York
Martin Ramirez:
The Last Works

October 7, 2008-
April 12, 2009

Considered one of the self-taught masters of twentieth-century art, Martin Ramirez (1895-1963) created hundreds of drawings and collages of remarkable visual clarity and expressive power within the confines of DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, California, where he resided for the last 15 years of his life. Nearly 100 of these drawings and collages were on view in the American Folk Art Museum's 2007 retrospective of the artist.

An astonishing development during the run of that exhibition was the discovery of a group of previously unknown works: more than 120 works on paper were brought to the museum's attention by descendants of a doctor at DeWitt, Dr. Max Dunievitz — a remarkable find given that Ramirez's known body of work up to that time had not exceeded about 300 drawings and collages. Dunievitz had secured supplies for the artist and collected the drawings made between 1960 and 1963 — the last works. He also organized the first posthumous Ramirez exhibition, a 1963 show at DeWitt. Martin Ramirez: The Last Works features 25 artworks from this newly discovered treasure trove, including three drawings given to the American Folk Art Museum.

In this newly found body of work, Ramirez explored the same subjects and themes as in earlier years — horseback riders, trains and tunnels, landscapes, Madonnas, and animals. However, it is the previously known work with a twist: the familiar motifs are tweaked in subtle ways, and scale and material, while similar, are animated by a greater use of color and a bolder exploration of abstraction. Ramirez's singularly identifiable figures, forms, line, and palette reveal an exacting and highly defined vocabulary, and they also show Ramirez to be an adventurous artist who embarked on remarkably creative explorations through endless variations on a few themes. Ramirez commemorated in all of his works the landscapes of Mexico and northern California; he recorded the hardscrabble territory of immigration, of living between borders, countries, and cultures. Memory, immigration, dislocation, and isolation exist in each line of his drawings. As a "border artist," Ramirez displayed a kind of wanderlust for his meandering journey, and each composition thus became a beguiling act of documenting and, ultimately, sharing a life lived.

The exhibition is curated by Brooke Davis Anderson.

 

 

Martin Ramirez (1895-1963, Auburn, California), Untitled (Horse and Rider with Horn, Rabbit, and Green Bird), August 1962, Gouache, crayon, colored pencil, and pencil on brown paper bag, 15 x 23", Collection of Audrey B. Heckler, © Estate of Martin Ramirez, Photo by Ellen McDermott, New York.