The Art of Martin Ramirez
Martin Ramirez came to the States from Mexico in 1925 to earn money for his family working mines and railroads. Unfortunately for him, as for so many others, he made it just in time for the depression. Homeless and unable to communicate, he was picked up by the police. He was labeled a catatonic schizophrenic and put into a psychiatric hospital, then a tuberculosis ward, closed off from the larger world for almost half of his life. Ramirez was a small, frail man who found refuge from the violence of the ward under tables, painting.
He used matchsticks dipped in the melted wax of crayons to draw and made his own paint pots out of scrounged oatmeal, formed and baked on the ward’s heaters. He used paste made of bread or potatoes and saliva to adhere magazine clippings to discarded paper and used tongue depressors for rulers. From these meager supplies and in a place few would say was ideal for fostering creativity, he made art that surpasses much of what today’s inflated artists can crank out with the best tools and most pandering art crowds in their corner. Still, for all this backstory, his work isn’t remarkable because he was diagnosed as schizophrenic or because it came from beneath a table in a mid-century psych ward but because, simply put, his work is remarkable.
Both his work and his ways remind me of Henry Darger. They both created for their own sake with the simplest of means. For the reclusive Darger it was simply that no one knew he was creating anything at all despite his 15,000 page book and grand two-sided, mural sized illustrations — a world to which he retreated almost entirely. Ramirez, in many ways, was a victim of his time and perceived illness. While he chose not to speak, he was separated from the word by a system, not a choice. He created knowing his hundreds of paintings were going to disappear from the sight of everyone, himself included. It was common practice for patients’ art to be confiscated and burned and his were no exception. That is until Tarmo Pasto came along. Pasto was an artist and psychologist studying mental illness and creativity. He was the first to take seriously Ramirez’s paintings and began saving them from destruction. He organized gallery shows and garnered an impressive amount of exposure for the work. As with most artists — whether by luck, tradition or good timing on the part of the seller — the works made no real money until five years after Ramirez’s death when Pasto sold them to an artist and his dealer to put his son through med school.
Since the explosion of interest and monetary value, many once lost works have been discovered, most having been stored in bundles in a state fitting of something just above garbage, tucked away in garages and forgotten corners. In an all-too-typical turn of events, now that he’s gone and famous, people are engaging in legal battles to determine ownership and sales rights regarding his work, even against his relatives. When he was just a mental patient, all Pasto had to do was be the man between an artist and a burn pile.