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Martín Ramírez

October 6, 2007 - January 13, 2008


Martín Ramírez, on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum October 6, 2007 through January 13, 2008, is the first major retrospective in nearly twenty years dedicated to the complex, multilayered drawings of this Mexican self-taught artistic genius. This holistic exhibition reconsiders the long-held classification of Ramírez as a "schizophrenic artist" and presents his drawings in a major metropolitan museum alongside artists in the art-historical canon, as works of artistic quality and merit. (right: Martín Ramírez, Untitled (Tunnel with Cars and Buses), 1954. Pencil, colored pencil, watercolor, and crayon on paper. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 97.4610. Photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.)

A legend among self-taught artists, Ramírez -- who spent his adult life as an indigent inmate in two mental hospitals in California, diagnosed a catatonic schizophrenic -- created drawings that serve as powerful illustrations of one man's determination to communicate and to rise above his circumstances. His detailed works, produced in the face of profound and fundamental barriers, are rich with expressive power, "like visual diaries of Ramírez's life," according to Brooke Davis Anderson, organizing curator and director of the American Folk Art Museum's Contemporary Center.

Martín Ramírez features approximately eighty of the artist's drawings on paper, gathered from public museums and private collections around the world, and includes several works never before seen by the public. The exhibition is organized to highlight the development of four of Ramírez's themes: the horse and rider, trains in tunnels, religious figures, and landscapes-all of which stem from Ramírez's memories of life prior to being institutionalized.Wall labels by five separate scholars provide diverse perspectives on the multifaceted nature of Ramírez's artistic production. Gallery guides in both Spanish and English make this and more information available to the public in take-away form. 



Born and raised in Los Altos de Jalisco, a predominantly Catholic region of west-central Mexico, Martín Ramírez (1895-1963) owned horses and a small parcel of land, and had three daughters and one son with his wife, Maria Santa Ana. As a result of political turmoil in his homeland, Ramírez was forced to leave his family in August of 1925 and venture north to California, where he found work on railroads and in mines so that he could send money back home. Despite his relatively prosperous background, Ramírez was left unemployed and homeless in California by 1931. The Depression and the aftermath of the Cristero Rebellion in Mexico had taken its toll; Ramírez was caught between mounting insecurity in the U.S. and what he perceived as total economic and emotional devastation at home.

At that time, lacking a job and unable to communicate in English, Ramírez was picked up by the police and committed to Stockton State Hospital, eventually diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia.After seventeen years he was transferred in 1948 to DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, California, where he created nearly three hundred drawings during the final fifteen years of his confinement.

Ramírez spent the last thirty-two years of his life in mental institutions.Separated from his homeland, his family, and his friends, and unfamiliar with the language of his adopted country, Ramírez hardly talked to anyone during those years, choosing instead to express himself through drawing. Because he did not have access to conventional art supplies, the artist took advantage of what was at hand to make his art. He used food products like mashed potatoes and orange juice; found bits of paper like candy wrappers, flattened paper cups, and hospital forms; and took advantage of hospital supplies like tongue depressors in order to make his outstanding examples of draftsmanship.

In the early 1950s, Ramírez was discovered by Tarmo Pasto, a professor of psychology and art visiting DeWitt from Sacramento State College. Pasto made Ramírez a subject of research on mental illness and creativity, and began to organize exhibitions of his work throughout California and the East Coast. By the end of his life in 1963, Ramírez had become a model and mentor to mainstream "art world" artists like Jim Nutt and Wayne Thiebaud. During his lifetime, four separate solo shows featured his work.

Please click here to view the gallery guide for the exhibition.


(above: Martín Ramírez, Untitled (Madonna), ca. 1948-63, Crayon and pencil on pieced paper, 79 x 41 inches. Collection of Ann and James Harithas. Photo courtesy Phyllis Kind Gallery, New York)


(above: Martín Ramírez, Untitled (Man at Desk), ca. 1948-1963. Crayon and pencil on pieced paper. Collection of Stephanie Smither. Photo by Rick Gardner, Houston.)


The following excerpts are from the article "Martín Ramírez: Motifs and Memory" By Brooke Davis Anderson. Published in Folk Art Magazine, Winter 2007. Folk Art is a publication of the American Folk Art Museum


The exhibition Martín Ramírez, organized by the American Folk Art Museum, gives equal consideration to the biographical, historical, and cultural influences in Ramírez's oeuvre, its artistic quality and merit, and its standing in the context of the work of twentieth-century self taught artists. An interdisciplinary exploration of Ramírez's life and complex, multilayered artwork, the exhibition presents a holistic examination of his drawings and collages beyond the boundaries of his diagnosed schizophrenia and his long -- and mistakenly -- suspected muteness. In almost three hundred drawings, Ramírez returned again and again to a favorite set of subjects: a rider on a horse, a train entering or exiting a tunnel, a Madonna confronting the viewer, and a landscape crowded with details. The artist never seemed to tire of these favored topics, and within the confines of these motifs he demonstrated an amazing variety of modes of expression. While his singularly identifiable figures, landscapes, palette, and lines show an exacting and highly defined vocabulary, they also reveal Ramírez to be an adventurous artist, exhibiting remarkably creative explorations through endless variations on his themes.

Martín Ramírez was fascinated by modes of transportation, and his drawings display a relentless wanderlust. Trains, cars, Volkswagen vans, and horses all receive exceptional attention. In some works, trains even morph into snakes, cars into turtles. In Jalisco, horses were the primary conveyance. Driving through the area today, one still sees people traveling on horseback. Ramírez is remembered by his family as an accomplished horseman, which might explain why he has a clear visual memory of the musculature and posture of horses, as well as the strength and skill needed to ride them.

The horse and rider, or jinete, is Ramírez's most frequently drawn subject; he drew more than eighty of them. The bandolier worn by the rider in many of these works may suggest an armed rebel in Mexico's national revolution or in the Cristero Rebellion, a civil war led by armed Catholic insurgents against the secular government of Mexico, but the images may also suggest a wistful fantasy of Ramírez's-to be home, with his family, and in the thick of the fighting. Sometimes, the horse in these images is rearing; in some of them, the rider is brandishing a pistol, ready to shoot; at other times, the portrait is less action-based.

In these drawings, the jinete is nearly always framed in a boxlike room strongly suggestive of a stage. The artist adapted this device, so while the scenes may seem, at first glance, to be extremely repetitive, the construction of the frame and stage is in fact subtly altered from drawing to drawing. Alterations in shading, line, perspective, color, texture, and scale create a surprising diversity in the entire series.

Nearly as common as the horse and rider in Ramírez's oeuvre, and just as thoroughly explored by the artist, is the motif of a train emerging from or racing toward a tunnel. In some of these works, Ramírez organized the scene quite formally: three or four bands of striped panels divide the space in a firm, horizontal fashion. In other drawings, the structure of the scene is more conventional and pictorial, spread out on long, scroll-like sheets, allowing a more organic interpretation of transportation and landscape.

After having traveled to the United States, at least in part by train, Ramírez worked on the railroad and in the mines in northern California (which were served by rail lines). His larger renderings of trains driving through abstract landscapes feel like visual diaries of the artist's life experience. The forms are pared down to the basics: trains, tracks, and tunnels. While these drawings are compositionally similar and the motifs are the same, subtle differences exist. Just as he did in his horse-and-rider series, Ramírez graced individual train-and-tunnel drawings with distinct details.

Dominating these compositions is the singular form Ramírez always lent to his mountains and tunnels, clouds and smoke -- a boldly drawn set of contour lines that resembles a fingerprint or a mollusk shell or a rendering of electromagnetic radio waves. The visual power of this technique suggests its potent meaning for the artist and points to his sheer pleasure in making lines. In some works, it is this form- -- and not the train or tunnel, or the spirited components of the landscape -- that is the central element of the composition. The outer shell appears to pulsate off the paper, emphasizing the mystery of its interior. The confidence with which the lines of the contours are drawn and spaced indicates an orderliness Ramírez forcefully brought to the scene, as well as a clarity and sense of control over the direction of his artistic expression. The repetitiveness is hypnotic. Even when Ramírez scaled down this abstract motif, making a smaller version appear in trees, mounds, and other forms, one senses a determined and willful repetition of line, of creative power focused into the making of a cohesive, finished work of art.

Evidence of Ramírez's homeland can be found in nearly all of his compositions. The landscapes, horseback riders, architecture, the way his figures are dressed, and even the flora and fauna all point to Mexico-in particular, to the region of Jalisco and, more specifically, to the area near Guadalajara, including the town of Tepatitlán and the surrounding villages. But the works most rooted in the place of Ramírez's birth are his Madonna drawings, of which approximately a dozen exist.

While some of the Madonnas are intimately scaled, the majority are oversize constructions, indicating a grandeur and epic approach by the artist. In these large-scale works, Ramírez demonstrated the technique of building up his working surface step by step. At first using only the materials readily available to him within the hospital confines, he would, as needed, paste together smaller sheets of paper to create a large "canvas." If a composition outgrew its borders, then the borders had to expand. The artist never simply made do with the available space on a given sheet; he always responded to his vision and the inner compulsion to create drawings on his own terms. Ramírez's Madonnas-just like his jinetes and a few incidental figures in other drawings-are typically placed in the center of the composition and occasionally in one of his stagelike settings.

The religious figure that most likely inspired these Madonnas is Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception as represented in the artist's home parish in Capilla de Milpillas. Her iconic attributes, both traditionally Mexican and Catholic, include a globe on which she is standing, with a snake swirling at her feet. Ramírez's renderings nearly always have the figure's arms raised (in sublimation, in praise), frequently with a blue cloth stretched between them. With few exceptions, the Madonnas wear heavily textured and ornamented robes with dense designs that recall sheaves of wheat. They also sport huarache sandals indigenous in style to the artist's homeland. Ramírez crested each of his Madonnas with a crown, which breaks from traditional attributes in depictions of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception; it is perhaps a borrowed image from another revered Mexican saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe. Other than this one departure, Ramírez was unerringly faithful to traditional depictions of this religious figure, and the painting of her hanging above the altar in his home church.

One starts to wonder, after studying any of his drawings at length, if he ever erased. What does it mean, this composition? Of course, one sees in these large landscapes references to contemporary American culture as well as an autobiographical flavor (the Mexican architecture of his home, the trains of his occupation, and the objects of his imagination), but as to the exact content of this particular collage, there will always be questions.

Perhaps the only frustration upon confronting work like this is that we have no true idea about what it signified to the artist. Ramírez was never interviewed, and he did not leave any writings about his artwork, so his intentions and his motivations will never be fully known, although elements of his life experiences undoubtedly pepper each composition. A compulsion to draw seems to have taken over in several smaller abstract works that have little that is obviously representational in them, becoming wonderfully resonant fields of lines. (Jerry Salz, writing for the Village Voice, once cunningly observed, "Ramírez used parallel lines like Slinky toys.") These images recall landscapes of trains and tunnels as much as they reflect the pared-down, expressive joy of marrying stylus to page. If Ramírez's drawings were dated, it would be interesting to know if his abstracts were his earliest works or his last.


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