Dubbed an “illustrious unknown” recently by one writer, Mexican painter and muralist Alfredo Ramos Martinez has finally begun to command his own limelight, after 50 posthumous years in the shadows of the Big Three--Siqueiros, Orozco and Rivera. Since 1991, several retrospective exhibitions have restored deserved luster to Ramos Martinez’s reputation.
Two shows were in Mexico, and one was held at Louis Stern Fine Arts, which is now following up with a more focused selection of paintings from Ramos Martinez’s years in California, from 1930 until his death in 1946. Aside from a few painfully stiff compositions, the work abounds in elegance and concentrated beauty, not to mention irony.
The irony stems from Ramos Martinez’s own convoluted evolution of a nationalist style. Born in Monterrey in 1871 and schooled in Mexico City, he spent 14 formative years in France where, by his own admission, he became an imitation French artist, overly indebted to the Symbolist and Postimpressionist currents raging there. When he returned to Mexico in 1910, he mourned the subversion of his own individualism, lamenting: “Could I only be so unsophisticated again!”
For the next two decades, however, he held fast to the lessons he learned in France, and propagated them widely through his position as director of Mexico City’s School of Fine Arts and founder of a group of schools teaching outdoor painting to Mexican youth. It wasn’t until he quit his position at the academy in 1928 under political pressures stewing since the revolution, and in 1929 moved to the United States in search of medical help for his young daughter, that Ramos Martinez fulfilled his own earlier desire for a pure, personal style grounded in the experience of his own native land and people.
The look and feel of his work changed radically upon his settling in Los Angeles in 1930. Gone were the affectations of style and subject accrued during his years in France and exploited to great acclaim in Mexico. Instead, Ramos Martinez turned to a pared-down, sculptural manner of rendering and to portrayals of indigenous Mexicans in harmony with their rural surroundings. “Contemplacion” (1942) is as pure and striking as they get: a view of the back of a seated woman, legs folded under her, dark braids draped weightily down her back, before the vague suggestion of mountains and sky or water. She sits with all the compactness, integrity and timelessness of stone.
Ramos Martinez painted often on the classified sections of local newspapers, a practice he began in Brittany when he ran out of drawing paper. A debate seems to be quietly raging among scholars about whether the artist continued to use newsprint out of necessity or with political intent, as a way of asserting his own spiritually-infused mexicanidad against the backdrop of American consumerist materialism.
Either way, the graphic effect is dynamic. The grid of the classifieds becomes architectonic scaffolding for the overlying images of organic forms, while the lines of text fade in and out behind opaque streaks of color. The effect is tailor-made for the self-conscious, Postmodern conflations of the 1990s.
* Louis Stern Fine Arts, 9002 Melrose Ave., (310) 276-0147, through Jan. 3.