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In NYC, a folk outsider, a photo muralist

Exhibit re-examines the case of Martín Ramírez

Martín Ramírez used pencils and crayons on rough paper to create stylish pictures such as this one of a tunnel. Martín Ramírez used pencils and crayons on rough paper to create stylish pictures such as this one of a tunnel.

NEW YORK -- Was Martín Ramírez one of the greatest outsider artists of the 20th century, or was he simply one of the great artists of modern times? That is the question posed by a fabulous exhibition of drawings by the self-taught artist at the American Folk Art Museum here .

There is no question that the drawings Ramírez made while locked up in California state mental hospitals from 1931 until his death in 1963 are formally beautiful. Using pencils and crayons on rough, often patched-together sheets ranging from legal size to more than 10 feet across, Ramírez created extraordinarily stylish pictures of trains entering and exiting tunnels in mountainous landscapes, pistol-wielding men on horseback arrested in mid-gallop on luminous theatrical stages, and resplendently garbed and crowned Madonnas levitating like divinities in Catholic church altar paintings.

Ramírez realized his few subjects in a captivating formal language, a primarily linear vocabulary of extraordinary economy and versatility. Cartoonish images are defined by patterns of parallel, straight, and curvy lines, and many compositions are further punctuated by ornamental shapes resembling shields and shells. Some drawings are extremely spare; some, despite mostly muted colors, have a spectacular, tapestry-like richness. Some have pasted-in magazine images of women, trains, and horses. In all, the play between surface pattern and illusory space is delightful, mesmerizing, and thrillingly weird.

Ramírez's style has an antique look about it, as if it had been inspired by ancient Egyptian or Aztec sources. At the same time, it has a modern elegance that calls to mind Art Deco. The expansive landscapes with trains and tunnels and roads bearing streams of modern cars, trucks, and buses have a coolly buoyant, Jazz-age rhythm. With delicate shading creating a shadowy glow, the theater pictures look like they were inspired by Depression-era movie palaces.

No one knows what Ramírez himself thought he was doing or what his pictures meant to him. He spoke so rarely that he was initially believed to be mute as well as schizophrenic. After his work was discovered first by a psychologist with an interest in the art of the insane in the 1940s and again in the '60s by the Chicago artist Jim Nutt , he came to be viewed as a classic case of the psychotic visionary artist. Along with Henry Darger and Adolf Wölfli , he's generally conceded to be one of the three best outsiders of all time.

A large part of the purpose of the American Folk Art Museum show, however, has been to rescue Ramírez from the outsider category, which has come to be viewed by some scholars as an artistic ghetto wherein real aesthetic merit is obscured and artists are seen as childlike idiot savants. Exhibition organizer Brooke Davis Anderson (the museum's contemporary curator) and the show's several catalog essayists want to dispel the myth of the insane genius. They portray Ramírez as an artist not essentially unlike any professional insider, albeit with a less conventional resume. To that end, the catalog supplies a wealth of previously unknown biographical information.

Born in Mexico in 1895, Ramírez married and had three children before heading to California in 1925, where he hoped to earn enough money to pay off the onerous debt on his small farm. (A fourth child was born after he left.) When the Great Depression arrived, however, he was unable to find work. He became disoriented, took to wandering the streets, and was arrested for disorderly conduct. Speaking only Spanish, he could not explain himself, and he was consigned to a mental hospital, where a few years later he began to spend most of his spare time drawing.

At one point in the early '50s, a nephew visited him and talked with him for several hours -- proving that he was not mute -- but Ramírez refused to return to Mexico, apparently because a letter he received before his incarceration had given him the mistaken impression that his wife had run off with Mexican revolutionaries. His relatives back home forgot about him and only learned about his artistic renown when they were contacted by sociologists Victor Espinosa and Kristin Espinosa, whose extensively researched essay on Ramírez's life and work appears in the exhibition catalog.

Much is made in the catalog of how Ramírez's imagery relates to his real life -- to memories of his homeland and his experiences of modern California. His Madonnas are based on figures from churches he attended in his youth; the horseback riders recall his prowess as a horseman and memories of mounted soldiers; the train pictures are about the new railroads that ran between Mexico and the United States. His preoccupation with modern forms of transportation was fueled, too, by magazines from which he clipped images to use in collages. The drawings of cowboys on stages may have been inspired by the little movie theater where films were regularly shown to patients in the DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, Calif., where he resided from 1948 on.

In other words, there's nothing delusional, hallucinatory, paranoid, or otherwise psychologically deviant about his art. It's all perfectly intelligible once you understand the real-world background.

Such myth-busting is probably a good thing. We should be skeptical about the popular fantasy of creativity as a kind of madness -- an idea that dates back to Socrates and lives on in the oeuvres of countless contemporary artists with expensive educations who make art intended to look as if it were created by untrained lunatics.

It's conceivable that under different circumstances Ramírez might have become a successful artist, designer, or illustrator in the conventional professional sense. He had the raw talent. But there is something else about his work that I fear the effort to mainstream him may discount: a mysterious, uncanny, otherworldly quality -- whatever it is that calls to mind the word "visionary." Ramírez's art seems to have come from some deeper part of the psyche than most people will ever know. It's where the trains go when they enter the dark tunnels in the mountains, the place where those wide-eyed Madonnas reign.

A certain sadness shadows Ramírez's drawings. The horseback riders who are boxed-in, isolated, and frozen on otherwise empty stages surely reflect the artist's feeling of imprisonment and isolation as well as compensatory fantasies of escape and freedom. The images of trains and cars suggest an urge to travel to distant lands or home. (In one especially poignant image that he drew multiple times, a little man sits alone at a table on a bare stage while in the background a locomotive rolls by as though in a dream.) The big-eyed Madonnas may fulfill a simple wish to be loved and cared for.

The beauty of Ramírez's art is that he did escape -- not literally but metaphorically into absorbing processes of creation and worlds of his own imaginative construction.

In losing his mind, did Ramírez gain access to a magical inner cosmos? It's not good to romanticize mental illness, but it's not clear, after all, how insane Ramírez actually was. He was not pathologically obsessive so much as intensely dedicated. His life was as much like that of a monk as of a psychiatric patient, and his art feels less like the product of mental disorder than of a transcendentally altered state of consciousness achieved through a kind of ecstatic meditational practice.

Despite its instinctively sophisticated design and intelligible relationship to real life, there remains something hauntingly strange about Ramírez's art. It feels tuned to a frequency outside the bandwidth of mainstream modern awareness. If you're receptive, it might put you in contact with your own inner outsider.

Ken Johnson can be reached at