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FOLK ART NOTEBOOK
by N.F. Karlins
 
The retrospective of work by Martín Ramírez (1895-1963) at the American Folk Art Museum will leave you breathless.

This brilliant Mexican-American artist, who spent most of his life in mental hospitals in California, warps space and telescopes perspectives in a manner that anticipates the psychedelic look of Summer of Love, which took place in San Francisco four years after his death. Just a glance at his 1953 tunnel and landscape piece, made of pieced paper with a Breck girl copied from a magazine, will make your stomach swoon.

Ramírezís drawings shift between naturalistic figures and animals and repetitive abstract elements in fresh and unexpected ways, even though he sticks to just four basic themes -- horse and rider, trains and tunnels, Madonnas and landscapes.†

His repeated lines, whether straight and forming a stage-set for his central figures, or mesmerizing waves corralled into discrete cells (cut off abruptly, like the artist?), are hypnotic and soothing, but with an edge. They are so overwhelmingly controlling that they seem to put your eyes under the influence of some alien electronic force.

Plenty of these drawings are eerie. A train in one horizontal piece appears to be relentlessly tracking from one side of a huge mouth to the other. The black tunnels throughout Ramirezís oeuvre are less tunnels than black holes. And yet theyíre sensual as well as scary. Their velvety blacks hold out the possibility of pleasure as well as pain.

In Ramírezís 1953 Madonna on a stage, the eye is forced into the proscenium but gentled on its way by the subtle tonal variations in the draperies. The sensuality and sophistication of the color blending is as confident and certain as the straightness of the lines, made with the help of a tongue depressor.†

The excellent catalogue for "Martín Ramírez" contains new research on the artist, gathered by Víctor M. and Kristin E. Espinosa over almost 20 years. It locates the artist not in an esthetic never-never land, but contextualizes him as a rural Mexican becoming acclimatized to the rich, fast-paced consumer culture in which he found himself, at least until the Depression hit. This new interpretation requires a reassessment of much we thought we knew about the artist. ††

Ramírez, like every "outsider" artist studied seriously so far, turns out to have been grounded in his time and culture and to have developed his talent over time. The only reason heís outside art history is because art history has been too jaded to appreciate his imagination. But the art market should take care of that in Ramírezís case after this revelatory show.

Ramírez came to the United States as a small landholder in Mexico at age 30 to help support his family. His wife would deliver their fourth child after he left. Taking the train north, he worked on railroads and in mining in northern California, sending money home as well as letters in which he drew in the margins -- so much for the idea that he made art for the first time only after he was hospitalized.

In 1931, Ramírez was picked up by the police, homeless and in extremely poor health, and was committed with a diagnosis of manic depression. Ramírez was not deaf or mute as had been thought. He did speak to people who spoke Spanish. Nor had he been totally cut off from his family. The Stockton State Hospital, where Ramírez was originally incarcerated, sent word of his condition and some of his early drawings to them. He spent two days speaking Spanish with a nephew in 1952 at the DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, Ca., where he had been transferred in 1948. He told his nephew that he did not wish to return, possibly on the basis of a misunderstanding about the family.†

Another reason may have been that by that time, Martín Ramírez had turned himself into an artist and become recognized for his drawings.

Ramírez began to draw regularly in the mid-1930s, even though all of this early work is now lost. He was transferred to the DeWitt State Hospital in 1948, and there came to the attention of Tarmo Pasto, a psychologist who saved his work and offered him better materials. In 1951, he had his first solo show at the E. B. Crocker Gallery in Sacramento. He also gave works to the appreciative staff at the hospital. Any artist would have been heartened by the attention.

Martín Ramírez remained at DeWitt until his death, turning out the approximately 300 works that make up his corpus, which dates from roughly 1948 to 1963. And while his trajectory as an artist seems common enough now, his uncommon esthetic sense and deep-seated passion are anything but, and will always seem wondrous.

For example, to create his works, Ramírez felt compelled to concoct his own materials as well as techniques from what was at hand. Even when he was offered better paper, he usually pieced together discarded bits of used paper using a paste made of spit and oatmeal or mashed potatoes. He sketched his designs in pencil. We now know his colors, applied with matchsticks, were made from a paste of crayons, charcoal, red fruit juice, shoe polish and saliva, which he mixed in small pots he made from oatmeal. He collaged cut-outs from newspapers and magazines like the Saturday Evening Post.†

In Soldado with American Flag (ca. 1950-53), the figure on horseback, his most common theme, for once sports an American flag. Itís tempting to think of this piece as possibly celebrating his show. We also now know he did not make his art totally in secret but allowed art students to watch him work, which indicates that he had pride in what he did.

In a talk at the museum, Víctor M. Espinosa interpreted Ramirezís landscapes as psychic maps of the artistís travels from his rural rancho and the churches of his native Mexico to the shocking American west, buzzing with trains and cars and chock full of consumer goods. That seems especially true for his paper bag scroll from 1953, in which a series of steps rises from the bottom of the drawing. They are traveled by a man on horseback seen several times to indicate his passage through space and time. Thanks to the Espinozas, we know that Ramírez was known as a skilled horseman in Mexico.

I think of Ramírez scavenging papers at night at the hospital and using saliva or mashed potatoes to glue them into exactly the size he wanted. In his drawing of a man at a desk from between 1948 and 1963, I see an idealized portrait of the artist hard at work. The actual drawing is filled with fracture -- the pieces of paper glued together, the many interlocking parts of the composition, the black voids -- and yet itís an absolutely enchanting world.

Brook Davis Anderson, the director and curator of the American Folk Art Museumís Contemporary Center, has done a superb job in organizing "Martín Ramírez," which contains more than 90 of the artistís works.† The exhibition continues through April 29, 2007. The catalogue, a must for any art library, is only $45 in hardback from the Museum (or Marquandbooks.com).

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The Ramírez show leaves one nagging question -- what took so long?† Here is a great artist whose work has been exhibited from 1951 and yet only now is his well-deserved fame among Outsider Art aficionados spreading to the broader art market.

One possible reason is that in New York, art capital of the U.S., art museums other than the American Folk Art Museum have been slow to embrace Outsiders, contemporary folk artists or whatever weíre calling self-taught artists with out-sized imaginations these days.†

Many European and other American art museums, like the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the Milwaukee Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Atlantaís High Museum of Art, have bought Outsider works and exhibited them frequently, often integrating Outsider material into exhibitions from their permanent collections. A lot of New York institutions have only dabbled in the Outsider area. The Met, MoMA, the Gugg and the Whitney have all bought or been given at least a few Henry Dargers, Bill Traylors, Martín Ramírezes, and others -- but havenít done much with them. ††

The Guggenheim was sent ten drawings by Ramírez in 1955, only to lose track of them, rediscovering them in 1998. They are among the most stunning pieces in his retrospective. Why werenít they seen earlier?†

The Whitney, which extended its last Biennial of cutting-edge art by living artists to include artists who were born elsewhere but live or work here, didnít think to embrace distinctive American Outsiders like Malcah Zeldis, Kevin Sampson, Melvin Way, Max Romain, Jonathan Lerman, Aurie Ramirez or Eugene Andolsek, for starters.†

Letís hope that their curators either get to work or that they get help.†Itís about time that the many other extraordinarily gifted self-taught artists get a little support from them. And that these institutions provide New Yorkers with a taste of the exciting work thatís often being done right here.

*     *     *
At least New York galleries are more adventuresome. The Luise Ross Gallery in Chelsea recently premiered the first one-person show of Thomas Burleson (1914-1997). Hundreds of drawings were found stored away after Burlesonís wifeís death in 2001, four years after the artistís own.

The small graphite or colorful mixed media works in "Thomas Burleson: Lone Star" are abstract with figurative elements or take the form of odd anthropomorphic mechanical contraptions. Sometimes, theyíre a little of each.††††††

But the viewer is always pulled inside these claustrophobic works. They are dense with images of stairways to nowhere, cinder block walls, tracks, chutes, propellers, lights, feet that canít seem to move, and so many cartoonish clocks that I couldnít help think of Philip Guston, plus a genial array of dogs, cats, birds and chickens.

In one pencil drawing, a bunch of mechanical parts on a track seems to be beeping a horn to get by a more sedate and slower moving bundle of parts which seems to be walking a dog, also made of gadgets. So thereís plenty of wit here, too. One early drawing in ink on paper illustrates a scatological machine in detail.

Mr. Burleson is a natural colorist. A limited number of colors in a constantly changing palette are used to great effect. In Untitled (Dogs in abstracted vehicle) from the 1970s, a wheel suggests some type of vehicle with two larger dogs and two smaller ones. The smaller ones are trapped in small spaces and the larger pair seems linked nose to nose. Any definitive meaning is alluringly just out of reach, but the chopped-up space creates a feeling of containment. A single, unexpected area of magenta in the center enlivens a palette of brown, yellow, light teal, dark blue and white.

Burleson, who was an abusive parent, spent much of his time at home drinking and drawing late at night. He seems to have started work doodling while working as a night shipping inspector for Lockheed Missile & Space in California, where the Texas-born artist worked for 18 years before retiring and returning to his home state.†

Thomas Burlesonís wife was artistic herself and framed some of his pieces. According to his son Bill Burleson, who preserved the work, his father would draw secretively, finishing a piece, putting it in a box, and then starting another. He was unprepared for the thousands of works, many quite small, that he found after his fatherís death. His father seems to have continued to work until shortly before he died in 1997.

While most of the pieces at the Luise Ross Gallery are about 11 inches by 14 inches, a pink shipping label is smaller, only 8 inches by 5 inches, and comes from 1967, the year of the earliest dated pieces.†Itís a delicately rendered mechanical funhouse done in black and red ink. The white reinforcement around the string hole at the top has been deftly transformed into a propeller.†

Burleson, like many modernists, knew how to keep the white ground of a piece in reserve. His later works are less dense but no less enigmatic, as his Untitled (Agitated figures on construction with rabbits and ducks) from around 1990 suggests.

I talked with Bill Burleson, who feels his father suffered some sort of mental breakdown when he was in the Navy on a minesweeper in 1942-43. Whatever happened made him feel guilty and perhaps accounts for the sense of imprisonment in his work. The artist has certainly made something impressive out of it.

The exhibition remains on view at Luise Ross Gallery, 511 West 25th Street, though Feb. 24, 2007.


N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.