At age 88, Rufino Tamayo continues exploring the special and symbolic grounds of the imagination through his mysteriously magical paintings, lithographs and "mixografias." One of a handful of truly innovative and gifted modern masters, his ability to combine Mexican Pre-Columbian myth and popular art with technical experimentations and palette, texture, and an innovative utilization of line and plane, has earned him the most prestigious international honors and prizes, including the Venice Biennale (1950) and the Grand Prix at the Sao Paulo Biennale (1953). His works, candidly urbane, sensuous, humorous, tragic, violent and austere, are included in major collections throughout the world and were featured in the fall, at the inauguration of the new Modern Museum of Art in Santa Ana, and at Artspace, the Cultural Foundation Gallery in Woodland Hills. Later this month, an exhibition of his "Mixografia" works at the Mixografia Workshop will also celebrate the opening of the Tamayo Restaurant in Los Angeles, which will feature rotating exhibitions of his work. Moreover, an homage retrospective of his work, which includes murals and major paintings from museums and private collections, as well as a series of new paintings especially created for the exhibition, opened Dec. 9 at the Palace of Fine Arts and the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City. Vigorous and dynamic, his physical appearance and energy belying his age, he paints everyday in his Mexico City studio and travels to openings of his exhibitions throughout the world in the company of his wife and companion, Olga Tamayo.
First published in Spain by Ediciones Poligrafas, this book chronicles Tamayo's work with 158 illustrations of paintings from 1924 to 1986 and includes a comprehensive critical essay by Jose Corredor-Matheos on the technical and painterly aspects of his work. A Spanish 20th-Century art historian, Corredor-Matheos approaches Tamayo's work through its basic elements, themes, form and color: "In Tamayo, the themes, forms and colors appear again and again, though the way he transforms them always makes them seem new." Corredor-Matheos traces the evolution of that transformation through specific works and through the painter's biography and commentary along with references to other essays, including those of Xavier Villarrutia, Juan Acha, Luis Cardoza y Aragon, Juan Garcia Ponce and Octavio Paz.
Tamayo's relationship to color goes back to his place of birth (Oaxaca), and his childhood surroundings of tropical fruits. In conversation with Corredor-Matheos, he offers insights into these influences and into his understanding of the Mexican people and of their landscape: "Mexicans are not a happy race but a tragic one." Mexico is also poor he states, and as a consequence, economic circumstances limit the Mexicans' use of color to those of nature, ochres, blues, the reddish tones of the earth. These fundamental bases, the rich, bright fruits of the tropics and the austere sobriety of the landscape set the stage for the duality and dialectic that Tamayo utilizes to create and control the composition throughout his work. Color is an element that is in constant flux and a key to the transformation that takes place in Tamayo's work, according to Corredor-Matheos, for the strong contrasts of his early periods give way to a gray that does not seek medium tones: " . . . Perhaps what he wants above all is an imposition that gives life to the work itself." This ambiguity finds its counterpart in the themes and the content within the work, the represented image.
Tamayo's imagery, like his sense of color, also emanates from his own roots. The first Mexican artist who incorporates his country's art into the international art world, he is also a full-blooded Zapotec Indian. The vastness and the profundity of the indigenous world within his work is basic to it; yet it is never flamboyant or superficial, for Tamayo blends these elements into his contemporary and necessarily Western reality. These influences come into play in his dualities: color/construction, figuration/abstraction, references to everyday life/symbolism and symmetry and its deconstruction. And they come into play through the utilization of a human figure and through an aesthetic that focuses on the act of painting as an end in itself, for the two-dimensional limitations of the work are essentially Tamayo's space. That confinement is basic to him as is his repetition of the human figure, for it retains, as Corredor-Matheos asserts, " . . . The leading role in the cosmic adventure." "The figure of man, as occurs in the art of all ages . . . , concentrates the meaning and symbolizes the whole universe." Yet this representation is illusory at best, for Tamayo's work is not realistic. It has as Paz has pointed out, a poetic reality. Indeed the reduction of the human figure to a doll-like or skeletal form is another dialectical revelation of the painter's eye, of his tenderness, human and satirical vision. If as Ponce has stated, Tamayo's latest works " . . . lead us to the earliest, and vice versa. There is no change in them, but rather a continuous natural growth," the corresponding vision of the human form by the painter also fluctuates, transforming itself from an image reminiscent of ancient cultures to modern extraterrestrial beings. The human figure is a key to Tamayo's world view, because it is a form governing the shift between the abstract and the concrete as well as an expressionist symbol of the universe.
A valuable edition to the painter's bibliography, Corredor-Matheos' stylistic and scholarly overview of Tamayo's entire oeuvre offers original and penetrating perspectives into an understanding of the painter's work. In addition to his insight for essay, Corredor-Matheos has provided a basic bibliography as well as a checklist of the illustrations. My only regrets are the omission of full-page illustrations and a certain lack of clarity in Kenneth Lyon's translations, but these are minor problems, for in all, "Tamayo" is an excellent and accessible critical introduction to Rufino Tamayo's world.