Glancing at the art work of Martín Ramírez (1895-1963) in his 97-drawing show at the American Folk Art Museum, his largest exhibit to date, I witnessed the simple lines and colors similar to what you find in a child’s drawing, mixed with the complexity of that of a genius. There is an abundant use of trains, tunnels and bridges in his work, as well as repetition of lines. The materials he used were very basic – just crayons, colored pencils, and paper that looks as if it was meant for scrap with their edges torn. Standing in front of these remnants from his life, a wave of feelings came over me. The simplicity juxtaposed with the complexity of lines made me feel both awe struck and a tinge disturbed.
At the panel Perspectives on Martín Ramírez, at the American Folk Art Museum on March 8th, James Durfee, the psychiatric technician at DeWitt State Hospital where Ramírez lived 50 years ago; Victor Zamudio-Taylor, a curator specializing in Mexican American and contemporary Latin American art; Victor Espinosa, a PhD candidate in sociology from Northwestern University; and Brooke Davis Anderson, curator of “Martín Ramírez” and author of the catalog, were all present to discuss their insights into the sociological and art-historical significance of this self-taught artist’s life and work.
During the talk, Martín Ramírez’ work was compared to Frida Kahlo’s – in the way that you could almost feel the artist’s pain by looking at it. However, Ramírez differs from the heart-broken and physically crippled Kahlo in that he was diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia, which is associated with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Because of this, Ramírez spent most of his adult life institutionalized in mental hospitals in California.
Originally from Jalisco, Mexico, the frail 100 pound and barely over five foot Martín Ramírez, migrated to California in 1925 to work on the railroads and raise money for his family back home. In 1930, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and placed in a hospital near Sacramento. It was there that he began his art career at the age of 35.
James Durfee, who collected Ramírez’ paintings from 1955-59, reminisced how Ramírez would mix his crayons with his oatmeal and bake it over the heaters, mixed with his spit, and how he used to draw crouched under the table. “He was somewhat withdrawn. I did not hear him utter a sound. He interacted by expression,” said Durfee.
Because of his non-communicative state, interviews and the exchange of ideas with Ramírez were virtually impossible. Thus, a great deal of Ramírez’ life still remains a mystery. However, “Ramírez knew that he was attracting attention by his art in the U.S., and that he was doing something wonderful,” Espinoza said.
It was Dr. Tarmo Pasto, an artist and psychologist who was responsible for discovering and initially collecting his work. Up to the time that Dr. Pasto met Ramírez, in 1948, patient drawings were confiscated and burned. Thanks to Dr. Pasto, this stopped occurring and instead, he encouraged Ramírez to create more art by giving him more supplies in order to do so.
In the early 1950’s, Dr. Pasto also helped arrange a few small solo shows of Ramírez’ work. However, his art work during this time was not so popular. Durfee said, “I liked them, but the average person might have thrown all of them in the garbage can.”
In 1968, Pasto sold most of his drawings to the artist, Jim Nutt, and his art dealer, Phyllis Kind – who ultimately was responsible for giving Ramírez his place in 20th century art.
From an art historian’s perspective, Zamudio-Taylor discussed that, “Ramírez can be described as a hero, because he was able to actively portray his state in the in-between and not as a victim.” He was able to achieve mestizaje, or the mixing of two cultures throughout his work, such as blending Aztec styles with modern – such as in his many untitled collages where he adds cut outs from pop magazines.
Zamudio-Taylor added that, “He came here to find money and a job, and lived through times of dramatic change and displacement, which is exemplified through the tunnels and bridges in his work. He drew a lot from his memory.”
Victor Espinoza agreed, “He had an amazing memory, because he drew many horses in his works like he knew about horses – all from memory.” Sure enough, Ramírez had owned a horse when he lived in Mexico and was a skilled rider. One of his favorite subjects to draw, besides distinct modes of transportation, were slightly differing versions of a comical looking cowboy on a horse, almost always holding a gun, as if he were ready for battle.
Sociologically speaking, Espinoza added that Ramírez suffered the consequences of living during harsh times in Mexico. The civil war involving Catholic rebels against the secular national government was barely talked about at the time, and the internal struggle, as well as the poverty that resulted, must have haunted Ramírez. “For a peaceful man living in a homogeneous community, hearing the horrifying stories of the war was a big influence in his work,” said Espinoza.
“Like Frida Kahlo, he needed to create his art to wake up the next day. It’s related to survival and profound experiences,” added Zamudio-Taylor.
It is dumbfounding to me that so many of the drawings that Martín Ramírez created throughout his lifetime were discarded (roughly 300 remain), because he was considered insane. If only people could have seen his art for what it was since the very beginning, perhaps cries for help – or maybe for those who would take the time to understand them, maps for making sense of the chaotic world in which we live.
“Martín Ramírez” is the first museum exhibition of Ramírez’ work in NYC and continues through April 29 at the American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street.