In 1925, like thousands of Mexicans, Martín Ramírez went to look for work in the United States, leaving his wife and children at home in a small rural community in Mexico. Many Mexican migrants, after a few years of work in the mines, on the railroad, or in the ﬁelds, returned to their homes with some savings. Those who stayed longer soon lost their jobs as a result of the Great Depression and were forced out of the United States. The case of Ramírez was different. In January 1931, at the age of thirty-six, he was detained by the police in Stockton, California, emotionally upset and in very bad physical condition. After a medical evaluation, he was diagnosed with chronic depression and interned in a crowded psychiatric hospital. After spending several months under observation and unaided by an interpreter, he was diagnosed as a catatonic schizophrenic. During the clinical evaluation, he limited himself to simply repeating that he did not speak English and that he was not mad. In those years, for somebody in his situation, his diagnosis meant a life sentence. He was never released. After thirty-two years of seclusion, he died in 1963 at the age of sixty-eight.
Ramírez might have been completely forgotten, like many Mexican migrants who died during their journeys and never returned home to their families. Yet he was saved from anonymity because after several attempts to escape from the psychiatric hospital, he began to draw obsessively. He worked every day, crouched on the ﬂoor over enormous sheets of paper he constructed out of scraps. He patiently glued together the paper he received from the hospital, along with any he found in the garbage cans, using glue he made by mixing saliva with potato. His art materials consisted only of pencils, crayons, shoe polish, red juice extracted from fruits, the charcoal from used matchsticks, and a paste he made by mixing some of the raw materials with oatmeal, his own saliva, and even his own sputum. Other than working on his drawings, Ramírez demonstrated no other interests and did not participate in ward activities; and perhaps because he was able to speak only very little English, he seemed uninterested in talking to other patients. Apart from the time he spent eating, Ramírez dedicated himself only to smoking and producing, according to his doctors, a copious amount of Egyptian-type art. The exact number of drawings that Ramírez completed during his life is unknown: many were destroyed by the personnel of the two hospitals where he was conﬁned. The four hundred ﬁfty or so drawings known to exist today were collected and preserved by two men: a Sacramento painter and professor of art and psychology who sporadically provided him with paper, pencils, and crayons, and the physician in charge of the ward where Ramírez was secluded during the last years of his life.
The content of Ramírez’s drawings shows that he was driven by a strong need for expression, communication, and recognition. His work is ﬁlled with nostalgic scenes of his life in Mexico, including recognizable churches of the towns where he lived, local religious icons, the rural landscape, laborers, common fauna of Mexico, his own domestic animals, people dancing, men making music with a violin and a guitarrón, scenes of bullﬁghting, and, especially, horsemen and horsewomen. The content of his work suggests that drawing became a prime means of preserving his identity, keeping alive his memory, and trying to give sense and order to an external and internal world in crisis. Ramírez’s drawings are characterized by their monumental size, despite his chronic shortage of materials, and unusual, layered texture. But what has most attracted those who have been exposed to Ramírez’s drawings since the 1950s is his ability to construct a very personal visual language through a balance between tradition and modernity, and through a successful integration of the ﬁgurative and the abstract. The modern element and the abstract appearance of his work are achieved by a singular use of linear structures and concentric forms to represent distance and profundity in ways that do not follow the conventions of traditional perspective (plate 1).
The stigma of mental illness and Ramírez’s lack of formal training have made it difficult to classify his work. As this book shows, his drawings were ﬁrst exhibited anonymously in the 1950s and 1960s as examples of psychotic art. Since his work entered the art market in 1973, his drawings have been shown in exhibitions of naive art, traditional and contemporary American folk art, art brut, outsider art, self-taught art, and vernacular art. In the 1980s, after his ﬁrst retrospective, Ramírez’s work began to be recognized by mainstream curators. It was sporadically exhibited in Mexico and the United States alongside the creations of well-known artists such José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, Ruﬁno Tamayo, Salvador Dalí, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, and Joan Miró. Ramírez’s work was introduced to the Latino community in 1987 after his inclusion in the ﬁrst large survey of Hispanic art in the United States.4 Yet the stigma of mental illness made it problematic for his work to be accepted by the Chicano/Latino art ﬁeld. Ramírez is a cross-border artist who produced all his work in a transnational third space, that is, far away from his homeland, completely marginalized from society in California, without being part of any immigrant or Latino artistic community. Only in recent years has Ramírez become a symbol of the Mexican immigrant experience and a source of inspiration for many Latino and Latina artists and writers in the United States.
I saw Ramírez’s work for the ﬁrst time at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University’s contemporary art museum. In 1999 the center hosted the blockbuster traveling exhibition Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century: An American Anthology, which was organized by the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. The show included the thirty-one self-taught artists considered most representative, in the United States, of an emergent ﬁeld called outsider art. Other than Ramírez’s works, which I had seen only in reproductions, I recognized pieces by Horace Pippin and Grandma Moses, and especially the paintings by Howard Finster, who created the 1985 cover for the Little Creatures album by the band Talking Heads. That exhibition introduced me to the works of Henry Darger, Bill Traylor, A. G. Rizzoli, Eugene von Bruenchenhein, William Hawkins, Thornton Dial, and Purvis Young. The works of those artists were a revelation, but the exhibition was a contradictory visual and conceptual experience. The artworks in the 300-piece show, including ﬁfteen representative ones by Ramírez, were not uniﬁed by any formal criteria, and the artists’ bodies of work had nothing in common with one another. The artists’ unique personal experiences were all marked by social marginalization, but they came from contrasting cultural backgrounds. The only common element, according to the curatorial statement, was the fact that the works were produced by socially marginalized self-taught artists who did not have any contact with the art world. This framing discourse, which valued the “outsiderness” and the social identity of the artists, had, from my perspective, a paradoxical result when used in a contemporary art museum dominated by discourses emphasizing formal qualities and conceptual frameworks. In the end, the two discourses, outsiderness and mainstream formalism, involved a strategy of cultural covering that simpliﬁed and romanticized the conditions under which the works were produced, ignoring the speciﬁc visual sources, personal experiences, and cultural worlds that shaped the artists’ intentions, thereby silencing their attempts to communicate.
Other than his name, the biographical information presented by the exhibition labels and in the short text on Ramírez included in the catalogue showed that the organizers knew only that he was born somewhere in the Mexican state of Jalisco sometime at the end of the nineteenth century, that he had been diagnosed as a chronic paranoid schizophrenic and secluded in an unspeciﬁed California mental institution during the Great Depression, and that he had been transferred, years later, to DeWitt State Hospital, where he produced hundreds of drawings and died in the early 1960s. The exhibition labels reduced his identity to his diagnosis as schizophrenic. The lack of information about Ramírez did not matter much to the museum, because the exhibition displayed his works and those of the other artists just as art, without an excess of context or biography. To be accepted by a contemporary art institution, an artwork produced by an outsider artist had to speak for itself. The exhibition catalogue claimed that his work, like that of the abstract expressionists, did not offer any clues about the life story of its producer.8 Ramírez’s works, however, showed not only clear references to his cultural roots, but also autobiographical references and visual representations affected by experiences of cultural displacement and seclusion.
Disturbed by the art world’s apparent disdain for the details of Ramírez’s speciﬁc cultural roots and the experiences that might have shaped the production of his drawings and possibly inspired some of the most recurrent motifs in his work, I began looking for his background in California and Jalisco. My journey began with a visit to Sacramento and the former DeWitt State Hospital, located in Auburn, where Ramírez died, to seek access to his psychiatric ﬁle and a copy of his death certiﬁcate.9 The death certiﬁcate included valuable information that had not been published at that time, such as the names of his parents: I learned that Ramírez’s second last name was González. By using this information in an intense archival search in Mexican church records, I eventually found his exact place of birth in Los Altos de Jalisco, where two of his daughters were still alive. I learned that Ramírez had had a wife and four children in Mexico and that his story was a painful one of family separation, labor exploitation, cultural displacement, forced seclusion, and isolation in California. I learned also that the family knew about Ramírez’s recognition as an artist, but had not made any attempt to claim legal rights to his artwork.
The preliminary ﬁndings on his speciﬁc cultural world, his migration during a period marked by religious war in Mexico and economic crisis in the United States, his seclusion in two psychiatric hospitals, and the relation of all those experiences to the central motifs of his visual production played an important role in the organization of the 2007 exhibition of Ramírez’s art, which was held at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and curated by Brooke Davis Anderson. The show broke attendance records and received considerable attention in the press and the media. In admiring reviews by New York art critics, Ramírez was recognized “simply as one of the greatest master draftsmen of twentieth-century art.” Besides helping organize the exhibition and writing some of the wall texts, I coauthored a short reconstruction of Ramírez’s life that was included in the exhibition catalogue. The national visibility that this exhibition generated led to the “discovery” of 144 previously unknown drawings in the garage of a California house. This astonishing ﬁnd opened a window of opportunity for his descendants, as the Estate of Martín Ramírez, to legally establish ownership rights to a large number of his works.
Brooke Davis Anderson curated a second Ramírez retrospective at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid in 2010. In the same year, one of Ramírez’s “masterpieces,” known as Alamentosa, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its permanent collection (plate 1). The price of Ramírez’s drawings has steadily increased since they were ﬁrst introduced into the art market by the Phyllis Kind Gallery in 1973. At the 2011 Armory Show in New York, a ninety-by-thirty-six-inch Ramírez drawing inspired by an image of the Immaculate Conception sold for $500,000 (plate 2).
Martín Ramírez shows how his recognition is part of the valuation, preservation, and exhibition of artifacts produced inside psychiatric institutions, a long process that started in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century and was extended to Latin America and the United States during the mid-twentieth century. In Rio de Janeiro during the 1950s, Nise da Silveira assembled the largest collection of so-called psychotic art in Latin America. In the United States, most of the art produced during the early twentieth-century inside psychiatric institutions was not preserved. But in the 1920s and 1930s, works by untutored individuals attracted the attention of Alfred H. Barr, the ﬁrst director of the Museum of Modern Art, and a network of people surrounding him who supported modernism. Thus, the conditions for the preservation of psychotic art were created, and some U.S. artists became inspired by the “spontaneity” of self-taught artists. With some exceptions, as in the paradigmatic case of Henri Rousseau, the work produced by marginalized Others has not been given the status reserved in the mainstream art world for professionally trained Western artists. Most of the visual works produced by people from the underclass or from non-Western cultures have been historically relegated to lower-niche categories inside the art world, such as tribal, ethnographic, folk, vernacular, psychotic, disabled, or outsider, principally because of their lack of professional, formal artistic training.
It was not until the last two decades of the twentieth century that the mainstream art world began taking serious interest in what is now popularly called outsider art. Today, this genre makes up a part of the contemporary fragmented and globalized art world. The number of collectors, dealers, fairs, auctions, art critics, publications, and museums specializing in the promotion, preservation, and exhibition of work by outsider artists keeps growing around the world. Some mainstream museums have encouraged the fashion in outsider art by incorporating this kind of work into their permanent collections, organizing blockbuster exhibitions of important collections of outsider art, and featuring the works of some of the most recognized self-taught art masters side by side with formally trained or professional contemporary artists in important venues such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Venice Biennale. In addition, museums have organized large retrospectives of some of the most recognized outsider masters. For example, the James Castle retrospective that opened in 2008 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago, and was followed three years later by an exhibition at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid.
Together with Ramírez (1895–1963) and Castle (1899–1977), the most recognized outsider artists in the world are Adolf Wölﬂi (1864–1930), Aloïse Corbaz (1886–1964), Madge Gill (1882–1961), Bill Traylor (1854–1949), and Henry Darger (1892–1973). Like Ramírez, these artists are often described using sensationalistic, simplistic biographies. Castle is often described as a rural artist
who was born deaf and never learned sign language, yet produced a large body of work on paper on his family farm in Idaho. Wölﬂi is known as a Swiss handyman, accused of child molestation, and psychiatric patient who produced hundreds of drawings with colored pencils. Corbaz, a Swiss governess, is said to have imagined a passionate affair with a German emperor. She ended up in a psychiatric institution, where she produced colorful pencil drawings. Gill is a housewife from London who practiced spiritualism and supposedly felt driven by an invisible force to draw mural-size works using ballpoint pen on paper. Traylor is a former slave and homeless person who is mostly known for drawing on discarded paper while living on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama. Finally, Darger, a Chicago janitor with a very limited social life, is famous for writing a 16,000-page novel illustrated by several hundred watercolors and collages depicting hermaphroditic children.
Certainly, Ramírez’s life story is an inspiring example of perseverance, endurance, and powerful artistic production created under extreme and difﬁcult conditions. The unlikely survival of his work, the myths about his life that were created and promoted by some art dealers, and the process through which his drawings have increased in both aesthetic and material value present a fascinating story. Yet the politics behind the process of Ramírez’s artistic recognition and legitimization by mainstream institutions poses many questions regarding the commodiﬁcation of works produced by marginalized creators and the reproduction of hierarchies in the contemporary art world. If circulation inside the art world is what deﬁnes art, how can works produced outside the art world be transformed into art and gain recognition? When, for whom, and under what conditions do objects produced by an outsider become art? How does an outsider become recognized as an artist? Is the recognition of an object and its producer always a simultaneous process, or can the transformation of an object into art not necessarily entail a similar recognition of its producer as an artist? More speciﬁcally, what actors and discourses are crucial to understanding how a Mexican migrant worker without artistic credentials came to be situated as a paradigmatic outsider artist by some scholars and hailed by inﬂuential New York art critics as simply one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century? What does Ramírez’s work lose in the process of decontextualization that is part of any mainstream assimilation?
This book answers some of those questions by offering the ﬁrst reconstruction of Ramírez’s life as a transnational migrant worker and involuntary psychiatric patient in two California institutions, an analysis of the visual and memory sources that shaped Ramírez’s artistic production, and a reconstruction of its trajectory from 1952, the year his work was introduced to the art world, to its recent assimilation by mainstream art institutions. I show how Ramírez’s three-decade incarceration in psychiatric institutions and his classiﬁcation as a chronic paranoid schizophrenic stigmatized yet also protected what his hands produced, creating conditions for the preservation and initial valuation of his work. Following a tradition initiated in the nineteenth century that connected madness with creativity, the framing of Ramírez, ﬁrst as a psychotic artist and later as an outsider master, transformed stigmatization into veneration. Mainstream recognition of Ramírez, although marked by ongoing assimilation of the artwork, has been coupled with the cultural exclusion of its producer because of his diagnosis as schizophrenic. In other words, while madness has been used as a marker of authenticity in the ﬁeld of outsider art, it has also impeded the artist’s complete acceptance by the mainstream art world.
This sociological biography offers a thick reconstruction of this singular yet paradigmatic case through information collected in archives, analysis of published material, visual images, interviews, and participant observation. My use of this methodology requires that I specify some of its limits and potentials. Although the study of a singular experience is not a popular approach in mainstream sociology, two of its founders have nevertheless produced monographs on artists. And in recent years, sociology has witnessed the emergence of what some scholars call a “biographical turn.” Unlike traditional sociology of art, which ignores the individual dimension of creativity by emphasizing the role of conventions in the process of creation, sociological biography facilitates the study of the individual embodiment of artistic agency. More broadly, sociological biography contributes to the study of the lives of marginalized people who have been excluded from history as individuals and reduced to “a multitude of lives crushed by poverty and oppression.” As the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg asserts, the reconstruction of “lives that have been cancelled [and] destined to count for nothing” has historically faced many obstacles. Besides the lack of legitimacy of the subject, the most important obstacle to the study of singular individuals from the underclass is the scarcity of written evidence of their behaviors and attitudes: their culture has been largely oral, especially during times when illiteracy was dominant among those social classes.
Ramírez, like most Mexicans at the bottom of the rural world in the early twentieth century, was part of a culture that was largely oral. It is not unusual, then, that he did not leave any written information about his life or the motivations that drove his intense production of drawings. Thus, recuperation of Ramírez’s life story is hampered by a radical lack of written sources. Yet he left one of the largest bodies of visual work ever produced by a Mexican transnational migrant worker. The absence of any direct testimony by the artist has generated a great deal of speculation about the possible meaning or visual sources of the central motifs of his work. The four hundred ﬁfty or so drawings that have been located so far are the only available source from which to explore Ramírez’s vision and the worldview they embody. By analyzing Ramírez’s images as autobiographical documents, I show that sociology can contribute to decoding visual language by situating the few existing facts about a life in a historical, cultural, and visual context. Ramírez’s drawings are undoubtedly characterized by a powerful visual singularity, but instead of analyzing the formal and supposedly intrinsic qualities of his images, I focus more on the connections between meaning and memory, and between content and life experiences.
The study of the correspondence between artworks and the lives of their creators, as well as between artistic creation and identity formation, has been called into question by theories emphasizing formalism and viewers’ construction of the meaning of artworks. Attempts to delegitimize the study of the correlation between lives and artworks, however, have come at some cost for the study of the visual expressions produced by individuals marginalized by their class, race, ethnicity, or gender. Awareness of a singular existence opens the door to approaching art as existence, reformulates the nexus between artworks and identity, and unmasks the framing discourses— particularly what I call the cultural covering strategies—implicated in the reception process, strategies that decontextualize and silence the voices of creative marginalized individuals. To paraphrase Robert Storr, the postmodern emancipation of the viewer from the intentions of the professional artist is problematic for marginalized artists like Ramírez, since the victory of the viewers has given them the power of the colonizer to ascribe almost any signiﬁcance and meaning to the artworks they encounter.
Chapter 1 puts in historical context the few known facts about Ramírez’s life before his hospitalization in a Californian psychiatric institution in 1931. The chapter introduces Ramírez’s life as a ranchero in Los Altos de Jalisco, Mexico (1895–1925), transnational migrant in California (1925–1930), and exile as a consequence of a religious war (1926–1929) in his homeland that damaged his family and frustrated his plans to return home. Besides providing a biographical and historical context for Ramírez’s formative years, this chapter helps identify some of the cultural and memory sources that fed his work, as well as some of the narrative and autobiographical elements present in his drawings.
Chapter 2 focuses on migrants in psychiatric institutions and the historical conditions of Ramírez’s involuntary psychiatric commitment to Stockton State Hospital (1931–1948). The accuracy of the diagnosis imposed by the California psychiatric system is one of the most controversial aspects of his biography. This chapter analyzes Ramírez’s hospital ﬁle, including the transcripts of his interrogations during two clinical conferences. This information indicates that Ramírez’s mental state was evaluated under arbitrary conditions in a social context that included a strong cultural and language barrier as well as prevalent racism against Mexicans and immigrants in general. Whatever the accuracy of his diagnosis at the moment of his detention, his involuntary seclusion in two psychiatric hospitals for more than thirty-two years must have affected his psychological condition.
Chapter 3 reconstructs Ramírez’s transfer to DeWitt State Hospital (1948–1963), the social circumstances and constraints under which Ramírez produced his body of work, and his “discovery” by the artist and professor Tarmo Pasto. This chapter ﬁrst contrasts the image of psychiatric hospitals as concentration camps and “houses of horror,” which began to take hold in the U.S. imagination during the 1940s, with ethnography produced during the 1950s that describes the social organization, cultural life, and daily routine inside those institutions as far more multidimensional than previously thought. I interrogate some notions and narratives about Ramírez’s creativity that have been reproduced for many years by writers, curators, and scholars. It has been assumed, for example, that Ramírez worked secretly to preserve his drawings from destruction, reinforcing the myth of the spontaneous creation of his work in conditions of isolation. But can an inmate inside a total institution under an extensive regime of surveillance secretly produce drawings whose dimensions sometimes reached ﬁve-feet-by-twenty feet? I show that during the late 1940s and 1950s, not only were patients in the California psychiatric system encouraged to produce art, but also, and more importantly, some works were preserved because of a shift in psychiatric discourse from valuing creative activity in and of itself as a healing process to valuing the object produced by that healing activity as a tool for therapy and psychiatric diagnoses. Without those institutional changes, artistic activity would not have been promoted, and some products would not have been preserved. I show the importance of taking into account not only the adverse social conditions that shaped Ramírez’s visual production, but also the routines, surveillance, space restrictions, access to speciﬁc materials, visual resources, intervention through arts-and-crafts therapies, and particular decisions made during his individual process of production. This chapter shows that Ramírez was encouraged to produce numerous drawings; this is why a considerable body of his work was preserved. His work was produced in a social context with the collaborative intervention and encouragement of speciﬁc actors driven by the existence of speciﬁc regimens of value that they internalized and reproduced. Ramírez’s status as a “creative patient” under the observation of professionals, trained artists, and hospital visitors inﬂuenced both the character of his work and his self-perception as an artist.
Chapter 4 traces the introduction of Ramírez’s works into the art world as examples of psychotic art, follows their trajectory in the 1950s and 1960s, and reveals the complete exclusion of their creator. Ramírez was never invited to any of his openings, nor was his name included on wall texts or in press reviews. During this ﬁrst stage of recognition, the stigma of mental illness and the legal and ethical barriers attached to art produced inside psychiatric hospitals impeded the commodiﬁcation of Ramírez’s art. In those years, the discourses that linked creativity and madness did not extend beyond a small circle of academics and curators. This ﬁrst stage of recognition was fundamental for the production, preservation, and ﬁrst exhibition of Ramírez’s art; but three actors were missing from that process: art dealers, a community of collectors, and recognized art critics. His drawings reached a new community of art collectors and a new level of recognition only after he was introduced into an emergent art market and framed as the epitome of the new genre ﬁrst called contemporary folk art and more recently labeled outsider art.
Chapter 5 explores the commodiﬁcation of Ramírez’s work, the construction of his reputation as an outsider master, and his ongoing assimilation into the mainstream art world. I begin by reconstructing the artistic networks that facilitated the acquisition of Ramírez’s drawings by the artist Jim Nutt and the gallery owner Phyllis Kind. I then follow the introduction of Ramírez’s work into an emergent art market for contemporary American folk art in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York from the 1970s through the 1980s. This chapter shows the difficulty of framing Ramírez as a primitive, naive, or contemporary American folk artist by discussing three exhibitions crucial to the construction of his reputation as an outsider master: the Outsiders exhibition in London in 1979; his ﬁrst large traveling retrospective, organized by the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia in 1985; and Parallel Visions, a traveling show organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1992, which paved Ramírez’s path toward mainstream recognition. I show how after the work of an outsider is introduced into the art world and the process of recognition begins, its trajectory is similar to that of any other artifact: mediators (dealers, critics, curators, and scholars) play a central role in creating a discourse that frames, labels, packages, and legitimizes both the artwork and the artist’s reputation. But because of the social, ethnic, and racial disparities between outsider artists and insider advocates, mainstream institutions will often accept and assimilate outsider artworks yet maintain distance from the outsider artists themselves.
In the concluding chapter, I explore the central motifs and narrative elements present in Ramírez’s work. By putting these themes in a biographical context, this chapter shows how new information about Ramírez’s life offers the possibility of understanding how his experience of displacement and seclusion shaped the content and form of his visual production. My aim in making the connections between life experiences and artistic work is to help understand how the process of recognition, commodiﬁcation, and framing discourses leads to a cultural covering that dehistoricizes and decontextualizes the visual works produced by marginalized self-taught artists such as Ramírez. Finally, analysis of some of Ramírez’s mural-sized landscapes and the works that I call “transnational maps,” maps that narrate his journey from rural Mexico to the oppressive modernity of Northern California, shows that his artwork is not a passive manifestation of mental illness but an example of resistance, survival, and artistic agency from the perspective of a subaltern