I learned of a major gap in my knowledge of the art world last week while at the post office of all places. I was sending birthday presents to my niece and nephew who live on the other side of the country, and while contemplating my shipping options I saw one of those sheets of special edition stamps. The stamps in question featured the art of Martín Ramírez. Now, you know if the post office is making commemorative stamps with an artist’s work, said artist is no secret. So I felt a little bit like the college kid who goes to the final exam realizing she slept through a crucial lecture. To ameliorate my delinquency, I bought the stamps and decided to educate myself. No art history PhD wants to admit such a gap in her knowledge, but a blog requires a certain amount of honesty, so here I am coming clean.
On the back of the Martín Ramírez stamps there is a veritable Wikipedia entry. The text tells me that Ramírez was born “near Guadalajara” in Mexico, came to the US in 1925 (the same year The Great Gatsby was published by the way), worked on the railroad and in mines, lost his job during the Depression, and was eventually committed to a mental hospital. He spent the rest of his life in mental hospitals, where he created much of his art. He only started to earn the attention of the art world by the 1950s, and is now a celebrated outsider artist.
Since his death, he has earned significant acclaim. His work is in the collections of several major museums, including the Guggenheim in New York, and his work has been the subject of exhibitions at the Centro Cultural/Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City, the American Folk Art Museum in New York, and the Museo nacional centro de arte Reína Sofía in Madrid, among others.
Not only does Ramírez have a sympathetic biography, he also created great art. As the back of my sheet of stamps says:
“Imbued with hypnotic power, Ramírez’s dynamic and large-scale drawings blend the cultural and physical landscapes of Mexico and the United States. Balancing tradition and modernity, as well as the figurative and the abstract, they draw viewers into an idealized world where overcrowded highways and railroads lead directly to the towns, churches, and countryside of rural Mexico – and back again.”
What strikes me about his work is its combination of optimism and nostalgia. There is a dreamy quality to Ramírez’s airy drawings, but there is also something of a celebration of the promise of the future, something akin to the tone of Futurism or Constructivism—movements that are utterly at odds with nostalgia and longing. Or maybe not. Maybe a longing for the past is inherent to a celebration of the future. Maybe there is a degree of doubt about the promise of the future along with a secret wish to return to simpler times. Maybe the past is more of a mirror or a springboard than Futurists and their ilk are/were willing to admit. . . . And maybe I’m going too deep into this particular rabbit hole. But it made me think. And maybe it’ll make you think too.
In any case, Ramírez had a rather tragic biography. He came to the US in search of better things, the promise of betterment and financial stability. Instead, he suffered the hardships of an immigrant’s life, which were compounded by the Great Depression. His final years in a California mental institution were tragic, but his art is the silver lining. He began making drawings on found materials: paper bags and the paper from examining tables. At the same moment that his attachment to reality became unmoored, his attachment to another realm strengthened. He takes us to new, unreachable places.
I may be accused of reading too much of his biography into his art, but his large drawings seem to share some quality with the art world’s most famous mental patient, Vincent van Gogh. Does anyone else see it too? There is the same pulsing energy, the same quavering landscapes that enshrine lone(ly) figures, the same figures that offer themselves up frankly to us while also eluding understanding. Would I see the similarity if I didn’t know Ramírez’s biography? Perhaps not. But I cannot unlearn his biography. And I am so glad to have learned about his art, too.