Review: Martin Ramírez: Framing His Life and Art

Martin Ramírez: Framing His Life and Art, by Victor M. Espinosa. University of Texas Press, Austin, 388 pages, 24 color photos and 54 b/w, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4773-0775-5. Hard cover, $40

Victor Espinosa’s long-awaited study of Martin Ramirez — for most of his life an unknown inmate of an obscure California asylum but now an art-world star — joins the 5 or 10 most important books yet published on the subject of self-taught and outsider art.

Martin Ramirez: Framing His Life and ArtIt is the definitive treatment of a universally acknowledged self-taught master and is likely to remain definitive given the rigor of Victor Espinosa’s research. It tells in detail a remarkable story of stubborn creativity and survival against odds that would daunt the most determined genius. It brings great insight to some of the field’s toughest, most sensitive issues, even if you don’t agree with every one of the conclusions.

Espinosa spent years constructing a history of the artist and an interpretation of his work based not on speculation or the fragments of biography floating around the art world but built by tracking every lead and undertaking a carefully written and disciplined reading of the art.

Was there a show at UC-Berkeley in 1952? He finds the guest book with its comments. What about Ramírez’s medical records? He has reviewed them page by page. And exactly how did Ramírez’s work come to renewed prominence in the 1970s? Espinosa doesn’t just recount the oft-repeated discovery story, with Chicago artist Jim Nutt happening on drawings at Sacramento State College and then working with dealer Phyllis Kind to unveil them. The book recounts the path of all the work (or at least the some 450 known drawings) from obscurity to the art market, involving more than just Nutt, Kind and Tarmo Pasto, the psychologist who was Ramírez’s foremost patron and the original conduit for the work that established his artistic reputation.

Espinosa reveals Pasto’s price to Nutt for the original 250-odd drawings he bought ($3,750) and how much Kind sold them for in turn (a lot more). He turns up other surprising—and more fascinating—facts as well. It’s not news that Ramírez drawings were exhibited several times during his lifetime, but it’s a little surprising just how well received they were, at least in some circles. The Berkeley guestbook comments, not to mention some of the reviews of the various shows, demonstrate reactions that were no less sophisticated than many current appreciations of Ramírez’s work.

Why then did the artist effectively vanish from view for the next 20-odd years, until the mid-1970s? One problem was that Ramírez himself remained invisible—literally anonymous as a mental patient whose real name went unpublished—and creatively submerged in the pigeon hole labeled “psychotic art.”

This book puts to bed any interpretation of the work as a reflection of mental illness. Espinosa’s research shows that evidence of clearly schizophrenic behavior is absent from the record. That doesn’t require a claim that Ramírez was absolutely sound mentally, but being “confused,” “laughing foolishly over nothing” and mumbling in a “sing-song fashion” hardly amount to psychosis worthy of commitment, let alone an explanation of his art.

Ramírez’s forcible separation from his family and culture and his long residence in the particular conditions of 20th-Century asylums are clearly true facts and most likely affected his overall mental health. But that doesn’t equal psychotic art. And if Ramírez was more isolated in his creative work than most artists, those conditions still don’t necessarily imply the aesthetic seclusion beloved in art brut cliché. Besides the publications to which he had access and sometimes collaged into his work, Espinosa shows that Ramírez participated in arts-and-crafts workshops and garnered direct feedback on his creative efforts from fellow patients, caretakers, visitors like Pasto and even the renowned artist Wayne Thiebaud.

Espinosa delves at some length into how confinement in asylums—“total institutions” in the totalitarian sense—likely affected the content and style of the art. The analysis doesn’t nail every detail, as he would certainly admit, but it’s far more enlightening than the old theories of schizophrenic art, or just banishing any coherent meaning to the lands of enigma and abstraction. Specifically, Espinosa believes the work “is an autobiography that visually narrates events and represents meaningful places,” both in Ramírez’s Mexican homeland and in California, his residence for the remainder of his adult life.

“While abstract art as a modernist visual discourse consciously intended to abolish representation, everything in Ramírez seems motivated by the need to represent. In this sense, Ramírez’s work contains a tense duality between subjective representation and objective abstraction. Since we do not have enough information to identify all the elements that he intended to represent in his work, all of Ramírez’s representations are, in some ways, abstractions to us: he reduced or retained in his drawings the most relevant, from his perspective, observable or imagined organic and inorganic elements.”

In fact, we can’t know in all cases whether the artist was drawing his fabulous lines to represent something in the world, or simply to decorate his drawings, or even to accomplish something similar to the conscious practices of his abstractionist contemporaries. But as Espinosa demonstrates, we can be confident that the figurative imagery is largely autobiographical.

That interpretation seems very much like common sense. What’s amazing is that it took years of research and advocacy by Espinosa and a handful of others (including Brooke Davis Anderson and Randall Morris) to make it so painfully obvious that Ramírez was attempting to show his version of a real world, not simply insane or mysterious fantasies.

If it wasn’t any inadequacy on the artist’s part that confused the issue, it still took more than research and advocacy to escape years of misleading preconceptions. No matter how well received those 1950s shows may have been, the broader art world, at least in the United States, was not ready to receive the drawings in their proper guise—as masterpieces. The evolution of an art world capable of properly valuing the work is another, more complicated story, especially since the drawings were, in many respects, no better understood in 1980 or even 1990 than in 1950. But nonetheless, by the last third of the 20th Century there was a large and growing audience for work variously labeled contemporary folk art, art brut or outsider art, and, whatever the clarity of its understanding, it recognized something special in the Ramírez drawings.

The path from under the mattress of a Mexican immigrant in a California asylum to New York gallery walls was still fraught, though, and Espinosa views it largely through the lens of the unequal power relations involved along the way. Those unequal relations can seem to corrupt interactions at every step, a view especially favored by post-modern critical theory. But the socio-political dimension often resonates more in ex-post-facto analysis than in practice. Most people find personally—if not theoretically–acceptable ways to proceed with their affairs despite mismatched economic and social relationships and the philosophical/ethical risks they undoubtedly pose.

The misunderstandings and personal agendas and ethical gray areas are a necessary part of the Ramírez story, but only part of it. It also can be unfair to expect a player like Pasto, in the 1950s, to behave in ways that conform to more recent standards for both theory and practice. Pasto’s interest in the art of psychotics was arguably progressive at the time, even if it now seems wrongheaded both aesthetically and medically. And it’s hard to decry Pasto personally collecting Ramírez drawings when most of them would otherwise have been destroyed. Espinosa shows no evidence that Ramírez didn’t volunteer them, the unequal power relations created by his residence in an asylum and presumably poor English notwithstanding. The many links in the chain that rescued Ramírez from obscurity deserve to be cut some slack. Better that the art be misunderstand and valued for the wrong reasons than discarded.

On the other hand, Espinosa shows legitimate annoyance with the chain of doctors, collectors, dealers, curators and critics who were satisfied over the years to simply repeat received stories about Ramírez, his biography and mental state. There was a laziness to it all that did favors to no one.

“In practice, the production and exploitation of short biographies and a ‘caption-style discourse’ became two powerful communicative tools for marketing outsider artwork efficiently. This explains why the myth of Ramírez as a mute schizophrenic who produced his work spontaneously and in complete silence and isolation went mostly unquestioned by those who promoted him as a ‘perfect paradigm of Outsider Art.’”

Among other things, a more scrupulous accounting of Ramírez’s story might have made his family part of it much earlier, which would have been positive in terms of both equity and knowledge of the artist’s real history, on which Espinosa rightly puts a mighty premium.
Is the work meaningful strictly as autobiography, however? He writes:

“The dominant discourse in the mainstream curatorial field has tended to focus on the formal elements of the artwork at the expense of biography and social context. For many, the norm is still that the art must ‘speak for itself.’ Ramírez’s trajectory shows, however, that his work was thrown in the trash for many years precisely because it could not speak for itself.”

Taking a contextual view of the art and artist seems almost like an ethical imperative. Indeed, emphasizing the formal qualities of artwork rather than the history that led to its creation is anathema to those academics who treat formalist connoisseurship as an insult to that history, or worse. Yet the strictly contextualizing approach they prefer risks paying more attention to what is commonplace about an artist than what is special. Background and heritage can be highly relevant to understanding an artist’s work, but, in themselves, they are not usually what makes the art important.

A formalist appreciation, on the other hand, respects the artist’s unique vision and talent (and in theory does so without caring about, say, his or her mental health diagnosis). Of course, to ignore a work’s cultural content is an error of formalist extremism, but there ought to be a middle ground. Contextualization and formal appreciation are incompatible only in the polemics of their advocates and critics. There is no one right way to look at art, but arguably the best way accounts for both the artist’s context and the work’s formal qualities.

After reading this scrupulously thorough portrait, there is much about Ramírez, his inventions and choices that we can’t know, as Espinosa acknowledges. But, unless we wish to treat him as feebleminded, as the California authorities did, we can give him the benefit of the doubt that he knew what he was doing, both contextually and formally, which is one reason he did it so well.

This review originally appeared in The Outsider, published by Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago.

One thought on “Review: Martin Ramírez: Framing His Life and Art

  1. Colin Rhodes says:

    A truly forensic study that emphatically returns Ramírez’s humanity and brings to life the institutional times. A great social biography.

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