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Forgotten Splendors : Mexico’s Ramos Martinez Re-Emerges From L.A. of ‘30s-'40s

TIMES ART WRITER

Alfredo Ramos Martinez is back.

The Mexican artist was a big name in Los Angeles during the ‘30s and ‘40s when he lived here and did his best work. A powerful painter of monumental portraits and evocative Mexican themes, he exhibited his paintings in local galleries and museums, accepted commissions from Hollywood luminaries and painted murals on garden walls. When he died at 73, in 1946, he left a vast, unfinished mural in the Margaret Fowler Memorial Garden at Scripps College in Claremont.

Ramos Martinez was even more prominent in his native Mexico, before he settled in Los Angeles to get medical treatment for his daughter’s bone disease. Considered a father of Mexican modernism, he was also an influential educator, directing Mexico City’s School of Fine Art from 1913 to 1928 and founding the Open Air Schools of Art for Mexican youth.

In recent years, however, Ramos Martinez has fallen into near obscurity. And “Mexico: plendors of Thirty Centuries” provides no enlightenment. The blockbuster exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art contains no work by this native son--perhaps because he left home.

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But never mind. A Ramos Martinez revival is afoot. Louis Stern Galleries, at 9528 Brighton Way in Beverly Hills, offers a glowing exhibition of his paintings (through Jan. 6, 1992), complete with an illustrated catalogue. Bryce Bannatyne Gallery, at 604 Colorado Ave. in Santa Monica, is exhibiting a recently salvaged Ramos Martinez mural as the imposing centerpiece of a group exhibition, “Mexican Modernists: 1920-1960" (through Dec. 29). Lang Gallery at Scripps College has also scheduled a Ramos Martinez show, drawn from the college’s collection and local holdings (Oct. 27-Dec. 15).

Dealer Louis Stern, a longtime collector of Ramos Martinez’s work, seized the moment of “Splendors” and its related festivals to organize a show and document the artist’s life and art. His efforts have been noticed. Such major collectors as Los Angeles’ Frederick Weisman and Mexican media mogul Emilio Azcarraga (who underwrote “Splendors”) have already snapped up paintings from the show. The exhibition is deemed so important in Mexico that it will travel--in extended form--to the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City and the new Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in Monterrey, the artist’s birthplace.

Persuaded that Ramos Martinez is a major Mexican artist, Stern says he has been largely forgotten because “he made three cardinal mistakes: In the first place, he left Mexico at a time when he was a national treasure and some Mexicans resented that. Second, he was an independent spirit and not as controversial or political as Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco. Third, he went to Hollywood.”

Ramos Martinez’s work was influenced by Post-Impressionism during a 14-year sojourn in France, but he eventually returned to an indigenous style that celebrates the quiet strength of Mexican people and simple pleasures of their lives. Today he is known for quintessentially Mexican paintings of dignified Indians. Their monumental proportions and rounded volumes make the humble figures resemble stone sculpture, while their stoic expressions lend the faces a timeless power.

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Ironically, the artist did his strongest, most “Mexican” work while he lived in Los Angeles (1929-1946, except for an extended visit to Mexico in 1942-45). Works on view from the Los Angeles years include archetypal portraits, bold still-lifes and genre scenes painted in oil on canvas or tempera on newspaper (often The Times).

While Stern’s exhibition was assembled over many years, Bryce Bannatyne’s show is the result of a 14-month struggle to remove a wall from a Beverly Hills garden and transport it to his Santa Monica gallery. “It was pretty crazy. I’d think twice about doing it again,” he said. But there the mural is--all 9,000 pounds of it (including steel and wood supports)--stretching across a 9x35-foot space in his white-walled, light-filled gallery.

The mural was painted in 1934 for a garden wall at screenwriter Jo Swerling’s Spanish-style home on Rodeo Drive. As its theme, Ramos Martinez chose a Oaxacan harvest festival, called Gelagetza. He portrayed a tableau of solemn Indians with baskets of flowers and fruit in a mountainous landscape and incorporated a wooden door by framing it with a schematic figure with a large head and upraised hands.

Bannatyne discovered the mural after research revealed that a Ramos Martinez work was at the old Swerling home. “I entered the house through the door in the mural, but didn’t know what I was looking for, and the mural was mostly covered with piles of trash, so I walked right by it into the house,” he recalled. But when he found nothing and returned to the garden, he suddenly realized what was hiding behind the debris.

The house was for sale and--considering its valuable location--it seemed destined for destruction, so Bannatyne worked out an agreement to buy the wall. But the owner insisted that he replace it with a plain wall, and the City of Beverly Hills required that the new wall conform to current building codes. That process entailed jacking up a tile roof covering a walkway next to the mural, pulling out the mural and constructing a new wall. (Two smaller portions of the mural on adjoining walls could not be saved.)

In the meantime, conservator Nathan Zakheim was called in to study and treat the mural. Among Bannatyne’s challenges were extracting the mural, loading it onto a truck and squeezing it into his gallery--with one inch of clearance in the doorway. It’s a harrowing tale, full of impending disasters, but it has a happy ending--at least temporarily.

The dealer’s next challenge is to find a local home for the mural. “I’m tired of all my great stuff going to New York,” said Bannatyne, who has been in the business for 20 years, first dealing primarily with 20th-Century American design and more recently concentrating on American and Latin American modernism.

“I’ve had inquiries from other places, but I’ve put them on hold. My dream is for the mural to stay in Los Angeles,” he said. The problem is to find a collector or institution that can accommodate the large work and afford the undisclosed asking price.

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His campaign is likely to be tough, but Bannatyne is determined. “Los Angeles has great traditions, but we don’t preserve them,” he said. “Somewhere along the line, you have to say, ‘Wait a sec. Shouldn’t you stick your neck out and see if you can save this part of our heritage?’ ”


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