Monday, June 11, 2007

Drawings by Martín Ramírez—San Jose Museum of Art

Note: This exhibtion is scheduled to close on 9/9/07.

The second remarkable exhibit of drawings at the San Jose Museum of Art is devoted to the work of Martín Ramírez (1895-1963), a native of Mexico who spent nearly half of his life in state mental hospitals in California.

In 1925, Ramírez came to the United States to seek work, leaving his wife and children with his brother on a tiny rancho that Ramírez had purchased on credit. In the next few years, his life was changed drastically by events beyond his control. His homeland was caught up in the Cristero Rebellion (1926-29), which endangered his family. With the arrival of the Great Depression, his prospects in the United States dimmed. However, he decided not to return to Mexico.

Ramírez’s situation deteriorated, and in 1931 he was committed involuntarily to the Stockton State Hospital. There he was classified as an incurable schizophrenic. Given his distressed economic and family circumstances, the true nature of his mental condition remains uncertain. In 1948, he was moved to DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, near Sacramento, where he lived the remainder of his life.

Drawing became Ramírez’s preoccupation during his incarceration. He used whatever materials were at hand. Many drawings in the exhibit were done with crayon, pencil, and colored pencil. Despite the crowded conditions in which he lived, Ramírez liked to work on a sizable scale, often using paper that he pieced together.

The drawings explore an obsessive set of motifs that re-appear in variations. The motifs include trains, cars, tunnels, church facades, Madonnas, and horseback riders (with pistols) from ranchero culture. The compositions are eccentrically assured and, to my eye, reflect the influence of Art Deco design. Much of the work conveys an almost animistic sense of energy. The Madonnas are quieter, but have a captivating aura of fantasy.

By about 1950, Ramírez’s work had drawn the interest of Tarmo Pasto, a psychologist with an art background who had moved to Sacramento. Pasto communicated his interest to members of the Sacramento art community, and Ramírez’s first solo exhibit occurred in that city during 1951. There was another solo show at the Mills College Art Museum (Oakland) in 1954.

When the first version of the current exhibit appeared at New York’s American Folk Art Museum earlier this year, there were astonished raves from critics at the New York Times and the New Yorker. Now the Bay Area has a chance to see what the fuss was about.

A beautiful (though expensive) catalog is available. It includes a biographical essay by Víctor M. Espinosa and Kristin E. Espinosa, which I have relied on for the above notes. On Thursday, June 21st, at 7:00 p.m., Espinosa will deliver a talk on Ramírez at the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose. At the Plaza, Espinosa has organized a supporting exhibit (which I have not seen) about the life of Ramírez.

I am including a few images from the museum website and one (the first) from the NPR website.

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