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Mexican Artist Rufino Tamayo, 91, Dies : Culture: He is hailed for bringing Mexican themes into the mainstream.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Artist Rufino Tamayo, who gained international fame for incorporating the bright colors and motifs of Mexican folk art into distinctly modern works, died Monday at a Mexico City hospital. He was 91.

Tamayo was hospitalized June 12 with pneumonia and had been listed in serious condition since then. Friends said his health had been failing since he underwent open heart surgery in Houston nearly two years ago and that for months he had been unable to paint.

Critics laud Tamayo for bringing Mexican themes into the mainstream of international art, the same quality that drew sharp criticism early in his career. As a contemporary of Mexico’s great muralists--Diego Rivera, David Siquieros and Jose Clemente Orozco--Tamayo resisted strong pressure to follow their leftist, nationalist dogma, which dominated art here after the agrarian revolution of 1910.

“I have universal pretensions,” he once told Los Angeles Times editors.

Art critics agree that he achieved those pretensions, attracting interest from respected collectors and museums in Europe, Japan and the United States, including the Guggenheim, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Modern Art Museum in Paris and the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome.

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Tamayo was one of the best-known and best-selling contemporary Latin American painters. One painting, “Mujeres Cantando” (Women Singing), sold for $770,000 at Sotheby’s in New York in May, 1990, the auction house said.

Tamayo was the most recent artist included in the “Mexico: Splendors of 30 Centuries Exhibit,” organized for the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles in September.

Show curators said that he was the last Mexican artist unquestionably recognized as a master.

However, intellectuals and art critics said that Tamayo was the beginning, not the end, of an artistic movement.

“Tamayo radically changed Mexican painting, liberating it from academic superficiality and the revolutionary triviality of the muralists,” said Octavio Paz, winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for literature. Paz, who has written several essays on Tamayo, spoke in a telephone interview from Madrid.

Judith Alanis, spokeswoman for the Cultural Center for Contemporary Art, said that Tamayo created a movement that has influenced all young Mexican artists by inspiring them to express Mexican themes in an international artistic language.

Tamayo himself once said, “If I have any influence on young artists in my country, it is in the direction of freedom.”

Born Aug. 26, 1899, in Oaxaca, a southeastern Mexican state, Tamayo was a Zapotec, a member of one of the few American Indian groups that have achieved a 20th-Century cultural renaissance, said Natan Warman, director of the National Indigenous Institute.

Orphaned at the age of 8, he went to live with an aunt who owned a fruit stand in a Mexico City market. Fruit, especially watermelons, later became an important theme in his work.

Tamayo’s aunt enrolled him in business school when he was 16, but he concentrated more on night classes in drawing and eventually entered Mexico’s distinguished San Carlos Art Academy. However, the school’s emphasis on copying works of art frustrated him.

He moved to New York in 1926, gaining a reputation in the United States before he became well-known in Mexico. That rankled the nationalistic Mexican muralists.

They were further enraged when Tamayo used his first mural commission to paint Indian angels holding musical instruments on the stairway of the National Conservatory of Music in 1933.

Until then, the proper theme of public murals had been socialist realism, strongly influenced by the agrarian revolution.

Besides gaining him enemies, the mural also gave Tamayo the opportunity to meet his wife, Olga Flores, a music student whom he married in 1934.

Tamayo remained controversial throughout his life.

In 1981, his donation of 300 art works to create a contemporary art museum on land that the government provided in Mexico City’s famed Chapultepec Park created an uproar. Critics considered turning scarce green space into a museum to be elitist, and the government did not want to pay to construct the building.

The broadcasting giant Televisa smoothed feathers by putting up money for construction. But soon after the building opened, Tamayo began feuding with Televisa over how to manage the museum.

The public squabble became so embarrassing that Televisa donated the building to the government and opened its own museum nearby on private land.

Tamayo was also an accomplished guitarist who enjoyed playing popular Mexican songs.

He told art book author Claude Marks, “Most of our friends are writers and musicians--very few are painters or sculptors.”

Besides Paz, writer friends included Homero Aridjis, who said he watched Tamayo, his hand shaking, finish one of his final drawings--a sea turtle to be the symbol of the Group of 100, a loose-knit organization of intellectuals concerned about the environment.

Tamayo and his wife, who survives him and who was his business manager for 57 years, have been generous contributors to social and cultural causes. They donated pre-Columbian art and endowed a museum in his native Oaxaca in 1974 and they also have built hospices and nursing homes throughout the country.

The couple had no children.


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