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 Rufino Tamayo  (1899 - 1991)

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Lived/Active: New York / Mexico      Known for: modernist landscape, still life and figure painting

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Art © Tamayo Heirs/Mexico/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY See Details
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Rufino Tamayo (August 26, 1899- June 24, 1991)

A native of Oaxaca in Southern Mexico, Rufino Tamayo’s father was a shoemaker, and his mother a seamstress.  Some accounts state that he was descended from Zapotec Indians, but he was actually ‘mestizo’ – of mixed indigenous/European ancestry. (Santa Barbara Museum of Art).  He began painting at age 11.  Orphaned at the age of 12, Tamayo moved to Mexico City, where he was raised by his maternal aunt who owned a wholesale fruit business. 

In 1917, he entered the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, but left soon after to pursue independent study.  Four years later, Tamayo was appointed the head designer of the department of ethnographic drawings at the National Museum of Archaeology in Mexico City.  There he was surrounded by pre-Colombian objects, an aesthetic inspiration that would play a pivotal role in his life.  In his own work, Tamayo integrated the forms and tones of pre-Columbian ceramics into his early still lives and portraits of Mexican men and women.

In the early 1920s he also taught art classes in Mexico City’s public schools. Despite his involvement in Mexican history, he did not subscribe to the idea of art as nationalistic propaganda.  Modern Mexican art at that time was dominated by ‘The Three Great Ones’ : Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueros, but Tamayo began to be noted as someone ‘new’ and different’ for his blending of the aesthetics of post Revolutionary Mexico with the vanguard artists of Europe and the United States.

After the Mexican Revolution, he focused on creating his own identity in his work, expressing what he thought was the traditional Mexico, and refusing to follow the political trends of his contemporary artists.  This caused some to see him as a ‘traitor’ to the political cause, and he felt it difficult to freely express himself in his art.  As a result, he decided to leave Mexico in 1926 and move to New York, along with his friend, the composer Carlos Chavez.  The first exhibition of Tamayo’s work in the United States was held at the Weyhe Gallery, New York, in that same year.  The show was successful, and Tamayo was praised for his ‘authentic’ status as a Mexican of ‘indigenous heritage’, and for his internationally appealing Modernist aesthetic. (Santa Barbara Museum of Art).

Throughout the late thirties and early forties New York’s Valentine Gallery gave him shows.  For nine years, beginning in 1938, he taught at the Dalton School in New York.

In 1929, some health problems led him to return to Mexico for treatment.  While there he took a series of teaching jobs.  During this period he became romantically involved with the artist Maria Izquierdo, with whom he lived and worked for several years.  In 1933 he completed his first successful mural commission, a series of wall paintings for the Escuela Nacional de Musica (National School of Music).  While working on this project, he met Olga Flores Rivas, a piano student at the school.  Soon he separated from Izquierdo, and began a romance with Olga. The two were married in 1934.  Although Olga was talented and had a budding performance career, she abandoned her musical pursuits to devote herself to promoting Tamayo’s work.  She was a lifelong muse to the artist, and over his seventy year career, he drew and painted many portraits of her.

They moved to New York in 1937, and he began to exhibit his work internationally.  From 1937 to 1949, Tamayo and Olga lived there, and he became widely recognized for his signature form of abstract figuration.  Some of his most valuable works were created during that time.

In 1943 Tamayo painted his first mural in the United States at the Hillyer Art Library at Smith College.  Vogue magazine’s 1946 issue referred to him as ‘the best of young painters’.  Look magazine also named him ‘a fixed star in the New York art world’. (Santa Barbara Museum of Art)  He was an elegant and media-savvy man, often photographed in his Upper East Side studio, with its wall of windows facing out onto Manhattan’s fashionable townhouses.

The 1940s were however not without problems for the couple.  Olga suffered from health problems, leading to several miscarriages, and the marriage was strained. Tamayo dedicated his work to her by adding an extra ‘O’ to his signature.

His fame was growing in Mexico.  In 1948 his first major retrospective was held at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, and while he was still controversial, his popularity was high.  He enjoyed broad commercial and critical success, but remained uncomfortable with the political differences and controversy, and so Tamayo and Olga moved to Paris in 1949.  There he was welcomed by the artists and intellectuals of Europe.  The French government named him Chevalier and Officier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1956 and 1969, respectively, and he was the recipient of numerous other honors and awards.  Tamayo was among the first Mexican artists to be included in the Venice Biennale.  He remained in Paris for 10 years, after which the couple returned permanently to Mexico.

His work was exhibited internationally in group and solo shows.  Important Tamayo retrospectives took place at the São Paulo Bienal in 1977 and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1979.

From 1933 to 1980, Tamayo painted 21 murals for an array of universities, libraries, museums, civic and corporate clients, hotels and an ocean liner.  He was also an influential printmaker, and, in the latter part of his life embarked on the creation of sculpture.  Tamayo eschewed the highly politicized themes explored within the works of his peers, and favored lyrical imagery and incorporated elements of Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism.  Mexican folklore and his Indian origins provided a constant source of inspiration for him.

Through his 70s and 80s he continued to be a prolific artist, teacher, and collector. Critics have extolled his bold and saturated use of color as his most significant contribution to Modern art. He was elected an honorary member of the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1961.

Rufino and Olga Tamayo donated the Museum of Pre-Hispanic Mexican Art to their native State of Oaxaca in 1974.  Their personal holdings of more than 1,000 pieces of ceramics and sculpture formed the cornerstone of the collection.  The Rufino Tamayo Museum of International Contemporary Art opened in Mexico in 1981, and it displays many of the artist's works, as well as paintings, sculpture and drawings from his private collection.  At the time, it was the first major museum not run by the Government.

An interesting sidelight regarding Tamayo’s work has to do with a theft.  Tamayo's 1970 painting ‘Tres Personajes’ was bought by a Texan as a gift for his wife in 1977, then stolen from their storage locker during a move in 1987.  In 2003, a woman, Elizabeth Gibson, found the painting in the trash on a New York City curb.  She knew little about modern art, but felt the painting "had power" and took it without knowing its origin or market value.  She spent four years trying to learn about the work, eventually learning it had been featured on an episode of Antiques Roadshow.  Ultimately, Gibson and the former owner arranged to sell the painting at a Sotheby’s auction. In November, 2007 Gibson received a $15,000 reward plus a portion of the $1,049,000 auction sales price.

Tamayo painted his last painting in 1989, at the age of 90, ‘Hombre Con Flor’ (Man withFlower), a self-portrait.  Rufino Tamayo died in 1991 at the age of 92 in Mexico City.  Olga passed away two and a half years later.

Credit for the above information is given to: artisticgallery.com; wikipedia.org; guggenheimcollection.org; Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Biography from Denis Bloch Fine Art:
Rufino Tamayo’s legacy to the history of art is of a painter who has developed an individual aesthetic syntax and a graphic artist who has developed one of the most abundant repositories of formal and symbolic resources.  A virtuoso in the classical techniques and an innovator in the field of illustration, Tamayo ingeniously resolved challenges he set in his graphic works, which formed a body of work on a level with his painting.

Rufino del Carmen Arellanes Tamayo, born in Oaxaca on August 26, 1899, was one of the main artists to define modernity in Mexican painting.  After working intermittently more than 25 years in the United States and Europe, he returned to Mexico in 1964, where he founded two museums, one of pre-Hispanic art in the city of Oaxaca, and another of contemporary art in Mexico City.

Tamayo was primarily a painter and, although his easel work is predominant, he also painted murals, was an excellent draftsman, and had a keen interest in the graphic arts, in which he cultivated every technique.  With the Mexican painter and engineer Luis Remba, Tamayo expanded the technical and aesthetic possibilities of the graphic arts by creating a new genre of limited edition printing, which they named Mixografia.

Tamayo’s graphic work was produced between 1925 and 1991.  It includes the mediums of woodcuts, lithographs, etchings and mixografia prints.  The beginning of Tamayo’s long, important career in graphic art was almost parallel with that of his painting, beginning in the second half of the 1920s.  It was then that he decided to forget what he learned at the Escuela Nacionale de Bellas Artes, and practiced woodcuts, to “harden his grip”.  The woodcut exercise was Tamayo’s integration into modernity, nourished by popular Mexican elements and expressed in rural and religious idioms.  Tamayo recalled that in 1921, when he worked in drawing for the Ethnographic Department of the National Museum of Archeology, he had the opportunity to discover the aesthetic values of pre-Hispanic sculpture created by different ethnic groups, as well as some of the expressions of the popular art of Mexico, both periods valued for their vitality, originality of form and creative freedom.

Added to these rich and complex elements was Tamayo’s interest in what was being created by the European Expressionist painters.  The result was a group of graphic works that revealed a personal style and iconographic novelty that enriched and renovated his visual design.  The energetic drawing in lines of varying thickness and rhythm, and the contrasts between the whites of the paper and the blacks in the printing inks gave an individualized character to the artist’s work that was soon recognized by American and Mexican collectors, and gallery owners who included it in many exhibitions.

Throughout Tamayo’s seventy year career, the human body, especially the female, was an object of constant aesthetic reflection.  This resulted in an extensive gallery of female nudes on canvas and in some of his most renowned graphic works.  Tamayo was known for taking an elementary object and filling it with structural elements, textures and colors obtaining striking etchings, lithographs and mixographs created with eloquent and economical expression. Most of the compositions in his graphics are extremely simple yet highly inventive in their technicality.

Rufino Tamayo was one of the first artists in Latin America to interpret his roots without historicism, anecdote, or proclamation.  He used purely plastic elements of decidedly local origin, universalizing them to accomplish works of unparalleled beauty and quality.  In doing so, he formed one of the most brilliant chapters of the already rich and prestigious field of graphic work in Mexico. Tamayo died on June 24, 1991 in Mexico City of an acute stroke.

In 2003, Elizabeth Gibson found a painting in the trash on a New York City curb. Although she knew little about modern art, Gibson felt the painting "had power" and took it without knowing its origin or value.  She spent four years trying to learn about the artwork, eventually learning from the PBS website that it had been featured on an episode of Antiques Roadshow.  The 1970 Tamayo painting was called Tres Personajes and was bought by a Houston man as a gift for his wife.  In 1987 the painting was stolen from the couple’s storage locker during a move.  After seeing the Missing Masterpieces segment about Tres Personajes, Gibson and the former owner eventually arranged to sell the painting at a Sotheby's auction.  In November, 2007 Gibson received a $15,000 reward plus a portion of the $1,049,000 auction sales price.

QUOTE:
“Art is a way of expression that has to be understood by everyone, everywhere."

Select Museum Collections:
Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Dallas Museum of Art, TX
Guggenheim Museum, NYC
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Walker Art Center, MN
Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporaneo, Mexico City

Biography from Art Cellar Exchange:
Rufino Tamayo was born a full-blooded Zapotec Indian in the Mexican state of Oaxaca in 1899. Over the course of his lengthy and productive career, Tamayo became known not only as one of Mexico's greatest painters and a dedicated and prolific printmaker, but also as one of modern art's major international masters.

Tamayo is not to be grouped with the other well-known Mexican artists of his time. He resisted the pressure of fellow artists, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jose Clemente Orozco and other Mexican muralists to follow the politically-based/nationalistic themes that dominated Mexican art after the Mexican revolution.

Throughout his life, Tamayo remained committed to painting as a spiritual activity, bravely defended his pursuit of what he called "the Mexican tradition," which he felt was rooted in pre-Hispanic art. By all accounts he was harshly ridiculed by his fellow artists for his lack of commitment to the Mexican future and his connection with a Mexican past. According to Tamayo, "[it is wrong] to say ours is the only path, when the fundamental thing in art is freedom." He believed that one of the particular advantages of painting was that as a painter, your future is always open to infinity.

As a boy, Tamayo had little formal schooling and spent most of his time drawing, often heading to the National Museum to sit and sketch the archeological treasures of Mexico's past, especially the pre-Colombian objects, which influenced his art for the rest of his life. At the age of 17, he attended a commercial art school and he later became the Director of Ethnographic Drawing at the school. In 1926 he has his first one man show in Mexico which was shortly followed by his premier in New York. He spent his next ten years in New York teaching at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and producing a prolific body of work.

In 1973 Luis and Lea Remba (founders of Mixographia Studios) approached Tamayo with the idea of making prints. Tamayo was only interested in printmaking if he could feel confident that he could produce editions that possessed the same kinds of volume, texture and depth as his paintings. Luis Remba responded to Tamayo's challenge and developed the new graphic process, mixographia. This process permitted flexibility and enabled Tamayo to use a full range of painting abilities, resulting in a variety of textures. It allowed him to work in high and low relief to attain surfaces in his prints similar to those in his paintings.

The breakthrough in the mixograph process came when the Rembas created their own paper. The new paper was heavy in loose pulp which allowed the ink to fully saturate the paper and created a fresco-like quality in the finished works. Tamayo was so enamored with this process that he worked exclusively with the Remba's studio for 17 years. He was extremely pleased with the ability of this technique to capture the kind of textured luminosity of his paintings. Lea Remba, the co-founder of Mixographia Studios worked with Tamayo directly on his mixographs. She speaks of Tamayo as a sensitive man who believed that "art should be felt with the heart."

In the artwork featured here, "Monologo", Tamayo has combined his affinity for the native colors of Mexico with his fascination for the simple, yet monumental, pre-Colombian artifacts. He had an incredible sense of color, texture and space, all of which are exhibited in this mixograph. Tamayo's mixographs are even increasing in value and popularity among private, corporate and museum collections.

A visit to the great monuments of Pre-Colombian Mexico will provide a greater respect and an appreciation for the contributions that Tamayo made as an artist. The uniqueness of his work is in his ability to overlap the past with the present and to forge a modern aesthetic that pays homage to both Mexican heritage contemporary imagery. Tamayo proved that art no longer requires a distinct social or political purpose to be relevant.

--Gretchen Van Camp
Latin American Art
Art Cellar Exchange

Biography from Artistic Gallery:
Rufino Tamayo moved to Mexico City following the death of his mother in 1911, and began studying art at Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes, in 1917.  While studying, Tamayo experimented with and was influenced by Cubism, Impressionism and fauvism, among other popular art movements of the time, but with a distinctly Mexican feel.

With his paintings, Tamayo expressed what he believed was traditional Mexico, refusing to follow the more political trend that many of his contemporaries did. In 1926, he decided to leave Mexico and move to New York.  Tamayo returned to Mexico in 1929 to have a solo show, and was met with high praise and media coverage.

Tamayo and Lea Remba were the first artists, who created a new type of printed artwork called "mixografía".  It was artwork printed on paper, with depth and texture. Tamayo also painted murals, some of which are displayed iin the Palacio Nacional Opera House in Mexico City.

From 1937 to 1949, Tamayo and his wife Olga lived in New York, becoming widely recognized.  He had his first show in New York City at Valentine Gallery and went on to show at the Knoedler Gallery and Marlborough Gallery.  In 1948 his first major retrospective was done at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, and while he was still controversial, his popularity was high.  Still uncomfortable with the political differences and controversy, Tamayo and Olga moved to Paris in 1949, where he was welcomed by the artists of Europe.  He remained in Paris for 10 years.

In 1959, Tamayo and his wife returned to Mexico permanently, where Tamayo built an art museum in his home town of Oaxaca.

The Tamayo Contemporary Art Museum, located in Mexico City, was opened in 1981 for the collections that Rufino Tamayo and his wife acquired during their lifetimes, and ultimately donated to the nation. 


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