by Jonathan Goodman
RICCO/MARESCA | OCTOBER 26 – DECEMBER 2, 2017
Martín Ramírez (1895 – 1963) was a miner and railroad laborer from Jalisco, Mexico who came to America for work in the early 1920s. Ramírez was diagnosed as a “catatonic schizophrenic,” yet made close to three hundred drawings—that have survived—while institutionalized in a northern California psychiatric hospital during the last fifteen years of his life. Displaying extraordinary draftsmanship, his drawings of Mexican architecture and other descriptions of life in Mexico are extraordinary for their schematic vividness, their architectonic structure, and their public—rather than private—presentation of self. The artist’s biography explains, in part, his current recognition, but more often than not, personal mythology hinders our full understanding of an artist’s work. In fact, we may not have an adequate language to describe and measure his work. It cannot be said that Ramirez was a sophisticated modernist, but whatever critical notions are brought to bear on Ramírez’s art, we find that it resists classification.
The motifs in Ramírez’s drawings, on view at Ricco/Maresca Gallery, tend to fall into categories: rider with a sombrero on a horse, often rearing upward; repeated vault-like forms; and building details. In Untitled (Train and Tunnels) (1954), a train emerges from a tunnel that faces another, large tunnel. In the upper left, a man sits on a horse in an enclosure, staring somewhat angrily at the viewer. On the bottom right is a cone-shaped form extended along the ground; next to it is a large wall. The mélange of forms seems to argue for an all-at-once conception with affinity to a modernist framework of art. Untitled (Woman in a Red Dress) (c. 1960 – 63) shows a female figure wearing a red robe, distinguished by a large eye, blonde hair, and bare feet. She stands on a table, her hands clasped, perhaps in prayer. The figure is closely flanked by walls decorated with angled lines. Above the woman are differently colored rafters. Ramírez seems to be attempting a conventional treatment of a portrait—albeit eccentric. In Untitled (Abstracted Landscape with Horse and Rider) (c. 1960 – 63), one sees a black horse saddled with the outlined figure of a rider, leaning backward and wearing a slightly mad grin. He and the horse stand on top of a tall oblong column with a white ground at its top. Sets of identical architectural structures—on the top, two cubed brick houses set on top of each other with open doors, and on the bottom, two vaults with lined floors—are separated on both sides of the drawing by rows of black spheres in the middle. This drawing, along with many in the show, are artifacts of resistance to a world that was literally incarcerating him.
We cannot determine either the exact nature or the extent of Ramírez’s malady. But such interest is extrinsic to his accomplishment as an artist—the drawings demand our attention because they are visually strong, and this feels like it is all we need to know. Certainly, the drawings construct a visual world of specificity and independence. As time goes on, they may possibly be understood as efforts to sustain a cultural heritage that was not easy to keep alive.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.