Martín Ramírez is one of the best-known Latino artists in the United States whose work is present in the collections of some of the most important museums in the country. Yet, his approximately 450 drawings and collages produced from within the confines of various California psychiatric institutions are often seen as outsider art, a label that overshadows his cultural identity as an immigrant from Mexico who moved to the United States in the 1920s.
Significantly, Ramírez’s work depicts a vocabulary of images that speaks directly to the experience of diaspora, displacement, and immigration. Drawing from cultural sources from both countries, Ramírez portrays elaborate and complex designs with themes of tunnels, railway tracks, trains, boats, and architectural structures and shapes; other recurring motifs include deer, turtles, and both female and male riders on horseback. Architectural imagery evoke the religious buildings and structures of his natal region in Mexico, whereas the animals and the horse riders reference his rural background; the tunnels, arches, and other means of transportation make us think not only about Ramírez’s work on the railroad but also about negotiating identities while traveling between cultures.
The precision of his forms as well as the boldness of his compositions, many of them combining collaged elements and multiple panels, make Ramírez’s artistic production one of the most impressive bodies of drawings of the twentieth century.
About the artist
Born in 1895 in Tepatitlán de Morelos, Mexico.
Died in 1963 in Auburn, California.
In 1925 Ramírez moved to California to support his wife and children in Mexico by working on the railroad and in the mines. After losing his job during the Great Depression, Ramírez was picked up on the streets by the police and committed to Stockton State Hospital. While hospitalized, Ramírez turned to drawing, using whatever materials he could find. Though Ramírez was diagnosed with various mental health conditions, including manic depression and catatonic schizophrenia, these assessments, as well as his presumed inability to speak, are today questioned, particularly in light of his status as a non-English-speaking immigrant. In 1948 Ramírez was transferred to DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, California, where he remained for the rest of his life and where he produced the majority of his extant artwork. Although Ramírez’s artworks were exhibited during his lifetime at the De Young Museum in San Francisco among other museums, most of his paintings only gained recognition posthumously, through retrospective exhibitions held at the American Museum of Folk Art in New York (2007), the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid (2010), and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (2017).