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 Martin Ramirez  (1895 - 1963)

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Lived/Active: California / Mexico      Known for: outsider art, naive figure and animal paintings, drawings, collage

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Martin Ramirez
from Auction House Records.
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Martin Ramirez is labeled an "outsider artist" because he was self-taught and seemed to be in a world totally unto himself.  Of him relative to this 'outsider' description, it was written: "One reason his drawings always seemed so confounding, even to outsider-art connoisseurs, was because no one was really sure if the women, horsemen, buildings and trains that appear in them were pure products of his imagination or portrayals of specific subjects in the real world that had particular meanings for the artist.  What was Ramirez trying to express?"  

Marked by a reverberating and repetitive line, his drawings have an obsessive quality.  Of the 300 plus extant works, the most recurring images are the horse and rider and trains, potent symbols of the freedom and escape that were denied to him.

The self-taught Ramirez, before he took up art that anyone noticed, was a poor farmer in Jalisco, in the west central part of Mexico.  In 1925, he immigrated to California, hoping to find improved economic circumstances. For the first five years he worked on railroads and in northern California mines.  However, he was arrested in 1931 by police for "wandering around in an empty building and writing on the walls in Spanish."  In addition he was described as "noisy, restless, violent, dangerous, destructive, excited and depressed." Institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital and sent permanently in 1948 to DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, he was diagnosed as manic depressive. 

During these last 32 years of his life, he would draw on letters that he sent back to his family in Mexico, and by the mid 30s, he was drawing constantly and obsessively.  Although he could have gone back to Mexico during the Depression years, he chose not to.  His reasons were later discovered by Kristin and Victor Espinosa, researchers who prepared the catalogue for a 2006 Ramirez retrospective exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in New York.  In the catalogue, they wrote that a partial explanation for his not going back to his home country was "because he was a devout Catholic who mistakenly believed his wife had betrayed the family's religion by siding with anti-Church forces during the Cristero Rebellion (1926-29), a civil war between Catholics and Mexico's secular government."

While Ramirez was at the DeWitt mental hospital, Tarmo Pasto, a psychology professor and artist from nearby Sacramento State College, paid visits to him during the mid 1950s, gave him some art supplies, encouragement and brought students to meet with Ramirez and look at his drawings.  During this time, Ramirez's work was occasionally exhibited, usually with the billing that he was an 'insane' man and that his artwork was "schizo".

Ramirez was enterprising in that he drew on paper he found in the trash and did collages with matchsticks and a paste he concocted from "charcoal, wax crayons, fruit juice, shoe polish and his own saliva." Some of his compositions---Madonnas, rushing trains and Mexican men riding horses---were set in box-like frames like stage sets.  Something that becomes obvious when looking at the totality of his work is the depth of the Mexican influence---he never distanced himself from his roots.  Images appear of the ranch where he lived with his wife, their pets, and animals native to the region.  He also did abstract geometric patterns that appear quite sophisticated.  

In the early 1970s, a decade after the death of Ramirez, Jim Nutt, an artist from Chicago who was teaching in Sacramento, took an interest in the work of Ramirez and with his wife, artist Gladys Nilsson and art dealer Phyllis Kind, bought most of Ramirez work, which was in the possession of Tarmo Pasto.  Ms. Kind then held exhibitions of the collection, and from that time his reputation has grown.

Edward M. Gomez, "An Outsider's Legend Retold", Art & Antiques, January, 2007, pp. 97-99

Biography from Milwaukee Art Museum:
One of the self-taught masters of twentieth-century art, Martín Ramírez created some three hundred artworks of remarkable visual clarity and expressive power within the confines of DeWitt State Hospital, in Auburn, California, where he resided for the last fifteen years of his life. Ramírez's complexly structured works are characterized by skillful and inventive draftsmanship and extraordinary spatial manipulations.

The artist employs a diverse repertoire of imagery, fusing elements of Mexican and American culture, the environment of confinement, and his experience as a Mexican living in poverty and exile in the United States.

Martín Ramírez (1895-1963) left his native Mexico in 1925 with the aim of finding work in the United States and supporting his wife and children back home in Jalisco. Political and religious struggles in Mexico that directly affected the welfare of his family, as well as the economic consequences of the Great Depression, left him homeless and without work on the streets in northern California in 1931. Unable to communicate in English and apparently confused, he was soon picked up by the police and committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he would eventually be diagnosed as a catatonic schizophrenic. Ramírez spent the second half of his life in a succession of mental institutions in California.

During those thirty-two years, Ramírez hardly spoke to anyone. However, some time in the mid-1930s, he began to draw. In the early 1950s, Tarmo Pasto, a visiting professor of psychology and art at Sacramento State University, saw some of Ramírez's drawings in the ward at DeWitt State Hospital and recognized their singular artistic value. Pasto not only made Ramírez a subject of his research into mental illness and creativity but also started to supply him with materials, collect his drawings, and, by organizing public exhibitions, introduce his artwork to the public.

During the more than five decades since the fortuitous meeting between Pasto and Ramírez, much has been speculated about the artist's life and work. His oeuvre forms an impressive map of a life shaped by immigration, poverty, institutionalization, and most of all art. Migration and memory seem to factor strongly in every image. His compositions document his life experiences; favored images of Mexican Madonnas, animals, cowboys, trains, and landscapes merge with scenes of American culture. Ramírez never seemed to tire of his preferred topics, yet within his limited set of subjects he demonstrates an amazing range of expression. While his singularly identifiable figures, forms, line, and palette reveal an exacting and highly defined vocabulary, they also show Ramírez to be an adventurous artist, exhibiting remarkably creative explorations through endless variations on his themes.

Written by Brooke Davis Anderson, Curator, American Folk Art Museum

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