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A Track All His Own

Martìn Ramìrez

Catalog of the exhibition by Brooke Davis Anderson, with essays by Vìctor M. Espinosa and Kristin E. Espinosa, Daniel Baumann, and Victor Zamudio-Taylor, a foreword by Maria Ann Conelli, and an introduction by Robert Storr.
An exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum, New York, January 23–April 29, 2007, and the Milwaukee Art Museum, October 6, 2007–January 8, 2008
Marquand/American Folk Art Museum, 192 pp., $45.00

Ingenious, enchanting, and mysterious, and with an underlying note of relentlessness and rigidity, the work of Martìn Ramìrez presents a way of newly seeing a specific physical terrain. In the pictures of this self-taught or “outsider” artist, a Mexican immigrant who spent half his life in American mental institutions, where he made all his art, we are given distillations of a rhythmically rolling, mountainous, and largely sand-colored land. It is crossed with sweeping, serpentine railroad tracks and highways, busy always with the movement of trains, cars, and buses, and it is punctuated here and there with dark entrances to tunnels through the mountains—erotically charged zones, in effect, which swallow up the various vehicles or send them zooming out. We see horsemen brandishing pistols, Madonnas, and the towers of Catholic churches. There are hares, antelopes, and wild dogs as well as glimpses, via images from magazines that Ramìrez collaged onto his drawings, of a more modern western landscape, one marked by the smiling, pert young women in cowgirl gear and the huge new locomotives and automobiles of American advertising of the 1940s and 1950s.

Martìn Ramìrez has for years been considered one of the masters of self-taught art, but his drawings and collages (he apparently never painted), rarely seen in number, are probably little known beyond the art world. Long overdue, his retrospective at the American Folk Art Museum, the largest and most representative showing he has had, certainly justifies his word-of-mouth reputation. In pictures of considerable vigor, muscularity, and size—Ramìrez was at home with sheets of paper four or five feet on a side—we are presented with a layered, many-sided body of work. It is one that makes an organic unity of the underpopulated western American terrain and of Mexican life and, even more, presents an utterly original vision of continual travel in lands where cities are scarce.

Not that Ramìrez’s art is in any way straightforward or naturalistic. In his drawings especially, we are given an entirely linear universe, where so many independent, straight or curved pencil or crayon lines, shown frequently in repeating, parallel form and usually set against a good amount of untouched paper—which accounts for the predominantly buff tones of his work—make up nearly everything we see. (Ramìrez was a sensitive colorist, but his purples, oranges, and greens are largely there to add heft to the lines.) Recalling on the one hand such beguiling masters of linearity as Klee and Saul Steinberg, or more dynamic ones such as Piranesi and the Futurist Giacomo Balla, Ramìrez’s drawings have aspects, too, of the suave zigzags of art deco architecture, the traditional blocky forms of Mexican folk designs, and the curvilinear patternings of many different tribal cultures.

What is Ramìrez’s own in all this derives from a seeming inability to show the illusion of a volumetric form, combined with an unfettered ego and drive. Because he couldn’t get (or wasn’t interested in getting) his trains, mountains, canyons, or interior spaces to sit right on a page, and because at the same time he wasn’t content to represent them as purely flat, silhouette-thin shapes but had to show what he knew to be their full volume, he wound up making pictures in which, whether the lines are curving or straight (or both in the same picture), the overall effect is that we look at intricate, interconnecting scaffolding sites. We often seem to see the underside, the side, and the top of something all at once, with every element held tautly in place in a web of uniformly firm, dense lines.

The greatest number of Ramìrez’s pictures are of boyish, wide-eyed, gun-toting horsemen. They are invariably set in wonderfully busy stages, with countless short, angled parallel lines forming the elaborate floor and curtains around them. More enveloping and extraordinary, though, are landscapes where, entranced by the way his repeating lines form rounded mountain humps, plunging ravines, and sinuous roadways, he takes these shapes to the point where they look more like monster-size loaves of bread, giant mussel shells, or immense slugs, and his subject seems to be the sheer pleasure of drawing parallel lines. In many works (none of his pictures are titled) the bulging ovoid shapes, placed with nonchalant gracefulness here and there on the sheet, have a life of their own, and what we look at are near abstractions that somehow recall landscapes. It is in these pictures, which can be six or seven feet long, where Ramìrez’s similarities with cartoonists, fine artists, and folk creators are forgotten, and he is, so to speak, on a track all his own.

It must be said, however, that we have no way of knowing how Ramìrez wanted his pictures seen. He never uttered or wrote a word about them; and it is easy to find yourself responding to his drawings not as artworks on their own but as illustrations of his life’s drama, in which the conditions of mental illness and of being an immigrant are intertwined. The pull of his life story is all the greater as crucial aspects of it have only recently been unearthed. When he came to the United States in 1925 Ramìrez found work in mines and the railroad; but by 1931 he had been picked up by the San Joaquin County police on charges of highly erratic and dangerous behavior, and he spent the remaining thirty-two years of his life in mental institutions in northern California, dying in the second of them in 1963, at sixty-eight. He was ultimately diagnosed as a catatonic schizophrenic and, believed never to have spoken, was considered mute and possibly deaf.

Although Ramìrez is known to have made drawings in the 1930s and 1940s, it wasn’t until 1948, when he was moved to DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, that his pictures began to be saved. There he came into contact with a man uniquely able to help him: Tarmo Pasto, a Finnish-American psychology and art professor who was enamored of California’s mountainous terrain and was especially interested in how to teach drawing. He provided Ramìrez with a steady supply of art materials, and it was when the two were closest, in the first half of the 1950s, that Ramìrez was most productive. Pasto also arranged for Ramìrez’s pictures to be shown in these years, in exhibitions of self-taught artists’ work on the west and east coasts. The roughly three hundred sheets that represent Ramìrez’s surviving output exist because, before Pasto left the region in the late 1950s, he set them aside for safekeeping.

Some ten years later, Pasto’s collection came to the attention of the painter Jim Nutt. Along with Gladys Nilsson and Phyllis Kind, he purchased the lot from Pasto and began studying and showing it. In the decades since, the writing about and exhibiting of work by self-taught artists, particularly by artists who made their work while living in institutions—or who, if not institutionalized, functioned in a zone of their own making, apart from everyday social intercourse—have grown enormously. The current Ramìrez show is accompanied by a first-rate catalog which reproduces the fullest selection of his pictures ever. It also presents, along with a range of articles on the meanings of his drawings and on the way they have been received over the years, the first real biography of the artist, a study by sociologists Vìctor M. Espinosa and Kristin E. Espinosa, whose research is still underway.

After their biography here, Ramìrez will no longer be quite the same person one has read about since the 1970s. That Martìn Ramìrez was a ghostly, impalpable genius of drawing who inhabited the body of an ill man and social nonentity—a sense of him reinforced by his decades-long silence and by a rare photograph in which, at DeWitt, wearing a robe and looking decidedly ill, frail, and unkempt, he stands holding up one of his large pictures along with Pasto. The figure who emerges from the Espinosas’ research is still, of course, someone whose thinking we can never be sure of; and he remains a profoundly solitary man who was caught in the grips, to one degree or another, of mental illness, of the chaotic times he must have found in California in the early Depression, and of being a manual laborer with virtually no social or political rights in a country whose language he couldn’t comprehend.

Yet Ramìrez is now a particular person, from a specific town and region, and one who connects with the confident, even implacable (although not the often witty and charming) author of the drawings. We now know that when he took the train north from his native Jalisco state in western Mexico to seek work he left behind a wife, Marìa Santa Ana, and three children (a fourth, his first boy, was born some months after he arrived in California). In his homeland he had a small farm, or rancho, and, in a region of Mexico where traditional manly possessions and skills were esteemed, he was known to carry a pistol and to be an expert horseman. Through the Espinosas’ research, we learn that on rare occasions Ramìrez spoke in Spanish when he was in the asylums; and whether through confusion derived from mental illness, or from the temperamental dictates of a man who didn’t question tradition, or because, on some level, Ramìrez’s deepest allegiance was to his art, he maintained a very particular set of ties to his homeland.

The Mexico he left would soon be riven by conflict between the revolutionary, secular government and a Christian insurgency, called the Cristero Rebellion, a movement that held Ramìrez’s loyalty. In California, he learned that, during the civil strife back home, he lost his rancho, and he mistakenly seemed to think, through misreading a letter, that at some point his wife went over to the side of the Federales. His written response was that his children should be taken away from their mother if she was still aligned with the government. And later, we learn, he rejected entreaties from fellow Mexicans in California to return home with them, saying that he wished for his brother to take care of his children, whom he realized he would never see again.

The newly discovered facts make the crisis that enveloped Ramìrez after he left home even more excruciating. But they also give many of his images a resonance they didn’t have before. His figures of armed, solitary riders now have some reason to be seen as self-portraits, or certainly to connect with the fighting back home. Ramìrez’s mixed feelings about Marìa Santa Ana might lie, as the Espinosas note, behind his numerous images of female horseback riders and even of American women, taken from magazines, whom he sometimes shows bearing arms. The finest of his pictures of women, meanwhile, his Madonnas, floating figures whose facial expressions can be serene or agitated and whose clothing and crowns call forth some of Ramìrez’s loveliest work with pure line, we now know derive from memories of Madonnas in his home parish church. Undoubtedly it is this personal tie that helps give some of these tall, narrow drawings, particularly a nearly eight-foot-high, untitled masterpiece subtitled La Inmaculada, their sense of ethereality and grandeur.

Looking at and thinking about Ramìrez, it is hard to keep Adolf Wölfli, an equally major figure in the annals of self-taught artists (and the subject of a retrospective at the American Folk Art Museum in 2003*), out of one’s mind. The remarkable similarities between the two can make it seem as if all institutionalized and self-taught artists are on the same wavelength—except that few of these artists have made such full bodies of work, and in the end there are significant differences between them. The Swiss Wölfli, who died in 1930, aged sixty-six, was also a manual laborer with little formal education who began making drawings after the authorities placed him in an asylum. Wölfli, too, lived for roughly the second half of his life in a hospital (in his native Bern), his efforts there encouraged by a deeply sympathetic onlooker. Like Ramìrez, he eventually began making collages, adding magazine images of young women, among other subjects, onto his sheets; and like Ramìrez’s pictures, Wölfli’s are often quite big and scroll-shaped in format.

Ramìrez and Wölfli were separated by a full generation. Yet each made an art that, equally stylized, fantastical, and emphatically ordered and measured, often has to do with travel and movement. Comprised of numberless little interconnecting shapes, figures, and stretches of writing and of musical notation, Wölfli’s images would seem to be the stifling opposites of Ramìrez’s airy, linear worlds. In their underlying design, though, the Swiss artist’s pictures are game boards or mazes; they form curvy pathways that, like Ramìrez’s tracks, connote endlessly alluring yet destinationless voyaging.

The two men even presented themselves in their pictures in a similar way. Commandingly self-assured creators as they were, they imagined themselves, in the various alter egos that dot their scenes, as playful little—and bald—heroes. We see Ramìrez as the armed horseman taking various poses and, elsewhere, as the same man at a desk, drawing pictures, or simply looking out at us, while Wölfli clearly put a lot of himself into a fellow with an eye mask who is often seen glancing offstage, like a burglar suddenly realizing he is not alone.

If Wölfli is the more astonishing of the two it is because, especially in pencil drawings made only in shades of gray, his ability to create interlocking shapes and figures and to do so over large areas without losing a caressing, sensuous touch is stupendous. One seems to stand in the presence of an inexplicable energy. Ramìrez is not so mind-boggling. Yet the scope of his art is in no way smaller, as his looming Madonnas (which have no counterpart in the Swiss artist’s work) attest. Ramìrez’s drawings are more grounded in common human experiences, at least for American and Mexican viewers, and while Wölfli’s art subtly changed over time, Ramìrez made real leaps in his work.

Although few of his pictures can be dated precisely, it is clear, for instance, that there were times when Ramìrez didn’t want or need to show the world as primarily a matter of decisively clear lines. In certain panoramic views, we see trees, many kinds of buildings wedged together, and lots of delicate marks to indicate texture. There are roadways, tunnels, and cars of every vintage, yet the roadways are so many detoured paths or dead ends, and Ramìrez’s subject might be urban confusion in itself. Despite one of these panoramas being nearly nine feet long and clearly a major effort, the views aren’t as compellingly strange as Ramìrez’s more purely linear visions of order and movement. In these pileups of details, where he uses collage as much as drawing, his result, ironically and a bit deflatingly, is not so different from that of numerous professional or trained twentieth-century artists, from the Cubists on, who have employed a cut-and-paste method. Yet it is refreshing to see him make so radical a change in his work. He is like any artist who feels strong enough to branch out from his signature approach.

Ramìrez as an artist may always be a little hard to reach, and not simply because he never said a word about his artistic intentions or because his biography, with its complex social and cultural ramifications, is so powerful in itself. What keeps the torments he faced so much the chief subject is that his images, which can suggest more than one meaning at a time—as when his trains speeding into dark tunnels bring to mind sexual intercourse—almost ask to be read symbolically. Moreover, we somehow need to see these drawings, with their sense of endless movement going nowhere, as a sign language created precisely for telling the stories of being a schizophrenic and an immigrant—of being someone continually torn between two identities and two homes.

In the catalog’s essays, Ramìrez’s images are perceptively and engagingly described as reflections of a man who came to live in a state of “permanent dislocation,” as Victor Zamudio-Taylor writes, and whose work was an “expression of longing and remembrance,” as Brooke Davis Anderson puts it. Yet the words that stood out for this writer in these lucid and densely informative articles came in a description by Daniel Baumann of one of Ramìrez’s pictures of animals in a desert setting, where he says, “one rarely experiences a more elegant, discreet, and lighthearted way to represent the feeling of solitude.” These adjectives are unlike those generally used in regard to Ramìrez. Yet they capture much of the tenor of his pictures, which are not only about rupture and loss but, and perhaps even more, a man in love with lines.

  1. *

    See my review, “Wölfli’s Empire,” The New York Review, May 29, 2003.

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