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Citizen of the World

Times Staff Writer

Almost halfway through “Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted,” the comprehensive painting retrospective at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, there’s a work of modest size that fuses the Mexican Modernist’s unmistakable brilliance with his undeniable limitations. Intense, deeply personal, beautifully drafted and painted with a complex color sense that just won’t quit, it also seems almost formulaic.

Rufino Tamayo was an extravagantly gifted draftsman and colorist. But his originality was circumscribed. Mostly he tweaked conventional School of Paris painting with his unique and sophisticated palette.

This particular canvas is nearly square, just slightly taller than its 28 3/4 -inch width. It depicts a twisting, agonized figure cut off at the knees and trapped inside a box. The arms reach out to press against walls that seem to be closing in -- the painting is titled “Claustrophobia” -- with splayed fingers suggesting bird or animal claws. The beak-like mouth of the jagged head is thrown open, prepared to shriek out an adjacent window.

Tamayo’s shattered figure is painted in a familiar Cubist and Surrealist style, reminiscent of Picasso, Braque and Wilfredo Lam. In its boxy linear enclosure, tilted on a slight diagonal to further destabilize the scene, the torso also recalls Francis Bacon’s tormented Expressionism.

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And the colors are downright Fauve. Principally secondary hues, they are dominated by a flaming orange that allows under-painting of violet to show through, while little optical explosions of green are tucked into the folds of flesh. In fact, there’s so much hot orange that the purple sky glimpsed outside the little window seems like an icy refuge.

The Mexican artist usually applied his paint thinly to let the neutral canvas tamp down the chromatic intensity a bit. Matisse never used a palette quite like this, but the principle of turning color into a pictorial character is the same. Tamayo, a Zapotec born in Oaxaca in 1899, is amplifying the folkloric colors of southern Mexico.

Finally, the composition of “Claustrophobia” echoes through European art history. With its slashed rib cage and flayed innards, it invokes Rembrandt’s famous picture of a butchered animal, split open and stretched limb from limb, which hangs in the Louvre. That “Slaughtered Ox” inspired Chaim Soutine, who is said to have kept a rotting carcass in his studio, which he regularly doused with fresh animal blood. And it turned up two years after Tamayo’s work, in a 1956 painting by Bacon, as a looming, vice-like form behind the head of Pope Innocent X.

Rembrandt adapted the slaughtered carcass motif from 17th century genre paintings showing the routine activities of everyday life in Amsterdam. But in his hands it also became a personal symbol, painted during an awful period when the once-successful artist was forced to sell off most of his possessions to cover crushing debts. The flayed meat’s allusion to a crucifixion is also hard to miss -- a self-aggrandizing aura that might be what appealed to the troubled Soutine and Bacon.

And, I suspect, to Tamayo.

With the Mexian muralists

“Claustrophobia” is one of a large group of tormented figures he painted in the late 1940s and mid-1950s -- the period that the Santa Barbara show hopes to resuscitate as the artist’s main contribution to Modern painting. (Tamayo was also a sculptor and printmaker, but the large exhibition -- 97 works -- is restricted to his paintings.) He had left Mexico in 1936, and for the next 13 years lived and worked mainly in New York. Just as European Modernists fleeing Hitler were arriving to add to the city’s artistic ferment, Tamayo, less dramatically, was trying to get away from a sense of constriction back home.

This self-imposed exile in Manhattan did not endear him to Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and especially David Alfaro Siqueiros, the muralists who regarded their art as a banner of Mexican nationalism and as essential to the cause of social revolution there. Tamayo, three to 16 years their junior, wanted no part of it. He was a socialist, but he regarded freedom as a false promise if it also required painting a certain range of subjects and only in Realist styles. What good was revolution to an artist if it meant being pictorially shackled?

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“Heated Discussion” (1953), a painting made a year before “Claustrophobia,” expresses his discontent. The pair of arguing figures is demonstrably Tamayo, on the left, and Siqueiros, on the right. The space between them is a tangled knot of virtual lobster claws, all chest-jabbing fingers. Their sharp, buzz-saw forms and hot orange-pink hues convey the agitated fury of a pair of red-faced antagonists. Tamayo split the canvas in two, suggesting a degree of equanimity and mutual respect for the combatants’ conflicting points of view. But it’s worth noting that he portrays Siqueiros as the aggressor. Tamayo leans away from him as if to say, “Just leave me alone!” Yet very subtly he gives himself just a hair more than half the compositional space, so things aren’t quite so diplomatic after all.

In place of the other Mexican muralists’ nationalist political commitments, Tamayo was committed to a cosmopolitan role for the artist. That explains the stylistic laundry list, from Cubism to Oaxacan popular art, that he cobbles together. It also informs his themes and subjects, including the classical Western motifs of the female nude and the still-life -- sometimes featuring a ticking clock, always filled with the ripest of tropical fruit -- to represent mortality’s essential mystery.

But rarely does a sense of sheer, joyful inventiveness radiate from his work. Instead it can feel crabbed and dutiful -- knowledgeable rather than truly experienced. It’s as if Tamayo knew that cosmopolitanism -- literally, being a citizen of the cosmos, not just of this or that locale -- is what he wanted. But beyond that he seems regularly at a loss.

The show is refreshingly candid in assessing this dilemma; a wall text describes a regular theme after the 1950s (he died in 1991) as being the sentimental depiction of man facing his solitude in the eternity of the cosmos. Visitors to Mexico City’s famous Camino Real Hotel will recognize it in “Man Facing Infinity,” the massive lobby mural of a sleek, streamlined yet antique figure looking toward the comet-streaked heavens. The childlike sentiment is more charming than profound; I prefer his unpretentious pictures of watermelons any day.

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In stride: the ‘40s and ‘50s

The problem, I think, is that Tamayo’s work really isn’t very urbane at all. Instead he is a gifted, rather late practitioner of established School of Paris painting. All artists look to other art -- “Good artists copy,” Picasso supposedly said, “great artists steal” -- but it’s part of the process of struggling to find something singular. Rarely does Tamayo get much beyond assembling bits and pieces familiar from other artists’ work.

He did hit his stride with it in the 1940s and ‘50s, as this show effortlessly demonstrates. That was precisely the period when the School of Paris was being superseded by the New York School. Mexico’s ties to France reach back to the days of Emperor Maximilian, and French academic artistic traditions were deeply entrenched there. In this peculiar sense, Tamayo’s art seems old-fashioned -- and perversely nationalist in spite of itself.

Still, this handsomely organized and thorough show, the first such survey in nearly 30 years, provides a good overview of an important if second-tier artist. The curators are the SBMA’s Diana C. du Pont and Juan Carlos Pereda of Mexico City’s Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporaneo, and they’ve assembled a massive, profusely illustrated book to accompany it. (There is no catalog with checklist.) The essays are extensive and informative, but beware the color-separations in the illustrations, many of them too yellow.

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Given Tamayo’s adamant refusal of a nationalist ethos, it’s interesting that this exhibition’s effort to “reinterpret” a Modern icon is happening now. Since the 1990s a growing contingent of Mexican artists has become significant on the world stage -- far more than at any time since the 1930s. Cosmopolitanism may have eluded Tamayo, but today it’s becoming the norm.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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‘Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted’

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Where: Santa Barbara Museum

of Art, 1130 State St., Santa Barbara

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, closed Mondays

Ends: May 27

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Price: $6 and $9, free on Sundays

Contact: (805) 963-4364, www.sbmuseart.org


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