I first encountered the work of Martín Ramírez in the winter of 2007, when our neighbors at the American Folk Art Museum mounted a major retrospective of his drawings and collages. Making my way through the exhibition, I was struck by the vibrant landscapes and recurring iconography that appeared to reflect both twentieth-century modernization and the folk traditions of the artist’s native Mexican homeland: images of Madonnas; horseback riders, or jinete; and, as seen in this untitled work, a recent MoMA acquisition and the first work by Ramírez to enter the collection, trains entering and exiting tunnels. Subtitled Alamentosa, the drawing is a masterful example of the topographic patterns of concentric lines—in this instance, mimicking train tracks—and the organic all-over composition that Ramírez typically constructed.
Born in Jalisco, Mexico, in 1895, Ramírez had no formal training as artist. He worked as a sharecropper and laborer before migrating to the United States in 1925 in search of work to support his family. In 1931, Ramírez was living in dire conditions in northern California, disorientated and knowing little English, when he was arrested for reasons that remain unclear, and subsequently committed to a psychiatric hospital. He later was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and remained institutionalized until his death in 1963. In the mid-1930s, during his confinement at DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, California, Ramírez found an outlet in producing art, making use of what few materials were available to him: food bits, juice, and water to make paints and glue, and brown paper bags, scraps of examining-table paper, and book pages as support.
At around this time he met Dr. Tarmo Pasto, a professor of art and psychology at California State University, who was one of the first people to recognize Ramírez’s extraordinary imagery. He began to provide Ramírez with art supplies, and went on to document and save the majority of his large-scale works from the 1950s, including Alamentosa. In recent years they have become some of the most highly sought and valuable works of art by a self-taught artist.