February 26, 2007
By Roger Repohl
The docent at the American Folk Art Museum in New York led her group to the first room of its major exhibition of the works of Martín Ramírez - 97 pieces displayed over three floors. She stopped at a wall chockablock with 17 cartoonish pencil-and-crayon drawings of the very same subject: the stereotypical Mexican bandolero with sombrero and kerchief, astride a rearing horse and brandishing a pistol, his chest crisscrossed with belts of bullets. The figures are framed as on a stage, with curtains and columns of innumerable parallel lines and complex parquet floor patterns of closely foreshortened lines. Above the stage are various abstract adornments reminiscent of the old silent movie houses, around which swirl still more concentric lines. Each of the pictures is unique - a different floor pattern, a different posture of horse and rider, a different palette of colors - and yet they are all the same.
“What do these drawings tell you about the artist?” the docent asked.
“He was Mexican?” one patron ventured.
“He liked horses?” another guessed.
I knew what the drawings told me, from the second I saw them.
“He’s crazy,” I said under my breath.
No doubt about it: obsessive-compulsive. Of the 300 works that survive, almost all of them focus on only three themes: the horseman, the railroad, and the Virgin Mary. And almost all are filled in and filled up with those dizzying lines, to the point that by the end of the exhibit you may well go crazy yourself. The medical experts first diagnosed him as manic-depressive, then settled on “dementia praecox, catatonic form.” In fact, his first exhibit, organized by his doctor and shown without mentioning his name, was called “The Art of the Schizophrene.” But no matter. It’s obviously obsessive-compulsive.
Martín Ramírez produced these works, and hundreds of earlier ones that were destroyed as worthless, while living as a patient in two California mental hospitals. All of them might have ended up in the dumpster were it not for Tarmo Pasto, a psychologist and painter with an interest in the art of the insane. The doctor met him in 1948 at DeWitt Hospital in Auburn and encouraged and collected his work until Ramírez died there in 1963.
Over the years, Pasto organized four showings which sparked little interest. In 1955, he sent several pieces to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where they languished in the archives for forty years until a curatorial intern came upon them and brought them to the superiors’ attention. In 1968, he sold most of his collection to a Chicago artist, Jim Nutt, and the dealer Phyllis Kind. The time for “folk art” was dawning, and the two made a fortune. The Ramírez family, including his granddaughter and great-grandchildren who attended the opening of this exhibit in January, don’t own a single Ramírez; they’re now seeking funding to buy one for themselves. The going price for a drawing: $100,000 and up.
Discovering exactly who Martín Ramírez was - his history as well as his personality - took years of investigative work, mostly by the sociologists Victor and Kristin Espinosa. The scanty medical records indicate that he was found dazed and incoherent by the police in 1931, on a street somewhere in San Joaquin County. Judged insane, he was committed to the state asylum in Stockton. He escaped three times; twice he was apprehended, and the third time he came back by himself, presumably concluding that life was better, or at least safer, in the hospital. In 1948 he was transferred to a new facility in Auburn. Only once did any relative visit him; that was in 1952, when a nephew from Mexico came up to ask if he’d like to go home to his wife. He declined. “I’ll see her in the Valley of Jehoshaphat,” he said.
Home was the state of Jalisco, Mexico, where he was born in 1895. Some of his relatives still live there. In his youth, they say, he was a splendid horseman. He got married, had four children, and bought a farm. In 1925, to better support his family, he went north to California. There he worked in the mines and on the railroad, sending home money and letters illustrated with little drawings. Caught up in the failed Cristero rebellion of the late 1920’s and taking the side of Catholic revolutionaries against an anti-religious regime, his family lost their property. After that news, his communications ceased. The family next heard from him, indirectly, in 1948, as he was being transferred from Stockton to DeWitt: The staff sent them a pile of his drawings, which they tacked around the house and on the porch, and which, when they got too faded or weatherbeaten, they threw out.
There was no such thing as art therapy in those days, so Ramírez did art therapy on himself. Until Dr. Pasto took an interest in him, he used whatever materials he could scrounge. His medium was primarily pencil, colored and shaded with charcoal, shoe polish, and crayons melted down and applied with match-sticks. His drawing surface was paper bags or torn-out pages of books and magazines pieced together with glue he made from the cafeteria’s mashed potatoes, cut with water and saliva. This “quilting” process could get rather large; some of his works are eight feet tall or six feet long. Dr. Pasto provided Ramírez with art supplies, but apparently he preferred the old ways. Many of the drawings in the exhibit - all from the time the doctor discovered him until his death, some dated by the doctor in ballpoint pen by month and year - continue to be done on brown bags. Some are on magazine ads, which he seemed to take as an object of conquest (ads for refrigerators and shirts are turned upside down and drawn over thickly, seemingly with a mind to obliterate them) or as a theme to incorporate (an ad for the Rock Island Railway shows an engineer in the distance waving out of the cabin of his diesel locomotive to a cutaway view of a cowgirl and the upper portion of her horse in the near corner of the page; he added adjoining sheets of paper bag and finished out its hindquarters and legs himself).
Ramírez’s art is essentially cartoon, yet it is cartoon with a keen eye for the real. Though he draws fingers like cigars, his horses with their twisted bodies convincingly suggest the animal’s power and grace in motion. He is particularly good at buildings; churches and skyscrapers have the symmetry and bulk of an architectural rendering.
And there is no doubt to me that many of his pieces are cartoons by intention. Movies were surely the major form of recreation in mental hospitals of the time, and Ramírez observed them well. This is especially true of his second major obsession, trains. Another perfect occasion for more parallel lines and crunching perspective, tracks appear from the vanishing point of a womblike tunnel in the top left corner, snake to the bottom, and travel straightly until they meet an insurmountable obstacle - the right edge of the paper; from there they are deflected upward, vanishing into another tunnel. His steam locomotives and their cars have a personality, like those puffing, dancing, grimacing objects in Max Fleischer’s surreal animations of the twenties and thirties.
His horsemen, too, framed as they are by stage curtains and prancing on parquet floors, are obviously part movie house and part childhood memory.
The third of his obsessions is the Virgin Mary. The curator has titled these pieces “Madonnas,” but properly speaking they are almost all in the artistic genre of the Baroque “Immaculate Conception” commonly seen in Catholic churches in Spain and its former colonies - the crowned Virgin standing above a crescent moon and crushing the Satan-serpent underfoot. All the drawings have similar mask-like faces, with big-lashed eyes and quizzical smiles but each is uniquely adorned in robes of lavish patterns, some distinctly Mexican, some recalling the dresses of magazine models and movie stars.
Though so many of the themes are the same, there is always some little creature of whimsy to surprise and amuse, peering out of a corner or replicated in rows in a border - a smiling cat that looks like an armadillo, an androgynous deer with huge antlers and a pronounced vagina.
And after three floors, just when you think you couldn’t stand to see another parallel line, you come upon something very different: a true Madonna, a girl with a winsome, realistic face, blond hair, and a billowy embroidered blouse, smiling at you from an arched niche or grotto. Sadly, the piece is undated. Could this have been one of Ramírez’s last works, showing a leap forward in his technique and maybe a retrieval of his sanity?
But back to that wall of horsemen on the first floor. Why did I immediately identify this man as crazy? I’d read the reviews of the exhibit with their biographical sketches; was my mind already predisposed to this conclusion? To some degree, of course. But there is something in the work of those whom the experts now call “outsider artists” that reveals their inner states. Practitioners of “high art” are formally trained and thus, like other professionals, often abstracted from their own personalities. But it’s not so much that people like Ramírez or Henry Darger or Adolf Wölfli or Howard Finster are untrained; it’s that they see differently from the rest of us. The same section of their brain that makes them schizophrenic or fanatically religious pours itself out on the canvas or the paper bag. What you see in one of their works may be what they see all the time.
“Martín Ramírez” will be at the American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street, New York City, through April 29. It then travels to the Milwaukee Art Museum, October 6 through January 6, 2008.