Artist Profile – Martín Ramírez
Born in 1895 in rural Jalisco, Mexico, Martín Ramírez worked as a sharecropper and a rancher until 1925, when debt forced him to leave his wife and four children to find work in the United States. The next several years found his homeland consumed by the religious and political strife of the pro-Catholic, anti-Constitution Cristero Rebellion, which most likely prevented or discouraged Ramírez’s return. After eight years as a migrant worker, during which time he worked on the California railroad, police took him into custody in San Joaquin, California, in 1931. Unable to speak English, Ramírez was diagnosed as a catatonic schizophrenic and confined to Stockton State Hospital; in 1948, he was transferred to DeWitt State Hospital near Sacramento, where he remained until his death in 1963. Although there are indications that he also drew as a younger man, Ramírez’s approximately 400 surviving works all date to the last fifteen years of his life when his work was championed, exhibited, and supported by the psychologist Dr. Tarmo Pasto and collected by Dr. Max Dunievitz. After Ramírez’s death, Chicago artist Jim Nutt discovered Pasto’s collection of the artist’s work, and Nutt, artist Gladys Nilsson, and gallerist Phyllis Kind purchased the 300 works and arranged for their exhibition and sale. The approximately 140 works from Dunievitz’s collection first came to public attention in 2008.
Exhibiting a kind of iconographic vocabulary, Ramírez’s lovely drawings limn deep, vertiginous spaces through rhythmic repetition, disorienting perspectival shifts, and stagy composition. A mythic presence suffuses the animal, human, landscape, and abstract aspects of the work, all hemmed in by vibratory channels and warrens. A master of line and compositional control, Ramírez used graphite, melted crayons, and found pigments on paper fragments glued together with saliva and oatmeal. He also included collaged elements drawn from magazines and books. Recurring motifs in the work include mounted and armed jinetes (horsemen)—Ramírez was fond of horses and an equestrian back in Mexico—Madonnas, trains and tunnels, cars, and landscapes. Vernacular Mexican and American cultural themes and visual tropes, both nostalgic and resolutely modern, combine in a body of sensuous, dream-like images.