Martín Ramírez Man Riding Donkey, c. 1960-63
Born in Jalisco, Mexico, Martín Ramírez is widely known as one of the preeminent self-taught masters of the 20th Century. Thrust by political and religious upheavals caused by the Mexican Revolution and seeking to support his family, Ramírez relocated to the United States in 1925. He worked as an impoverished immigrant in the California mines and railroads until he was picked up by police in 1931—reportedly in a disoriented state. Ramírez was eventually declared schizophrenic (with previous diagnoses of manic-depression and catatonic dementia praecox). He was committed first at Stockton State Hospital and then at the DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, where he spent the rest of his life. It was there where he discovered art and created the complex and compelling drawings and collages for which he is known. Over the course of his life, Ramírez produced some 500 works characteristic for their clean yet brazen draftsmanship. The imagery is both suggestive and nostalgic, often reminiscent of his own life experiences. Mexican Madonnas, animals, cowboys, trains, and landscapes merge with scenes of American culture and create a profound documentation of a Mexican living and working in the United States. Compositionally, he renders space into multi-dimensional almost theatrical layouts using sharp geometric forms with strong linear qualities. He framed his drawings with sweeping lines that bring attention to centralized forms. The artist worked primarily in crayon and had a firm grasp of perspective and mark-making techniques consisting of rhythmic repetition and gentle shading. Later in his life, he began creating collage-type works, adding newspaper clippings and previous drawings for depth and texture. Ramírez’s technical skill, stylistic evolution, and thematic coherence led Roberta Smith of the New York Times to call him “simply one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.” Early on, Ramírez’s talents were recognized in small exhibitions as early as the 1950s. Today his work has been the subject of numerous museum shows, including the retrospective “Martín Ramírez: Pintor Mexicano,” at the Centro Cultural/Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City (1989), and two major exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum, NYC: a traveling retrospective titled “Martín Ramírez” (2007) and “Martín Ramírez: The Last Works” (2009). In 2010, the 20th century master was the subject of a comprehensive exhibition curated by Brooke Davis Anderson at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reína Sofía in Madrid, titled “Martín Ramírez: Reframing Confinement.” In 2015, the United States Postal Service released a set of 5 commemorative “Martin Ramirez” Forever stamps, which marked the first time an Outsider artist and Mexican-American artist was featured on a USPS Stamp.