Victor M. Espinosa, Published by University of Texas Press
Release date, November 2015
by Clairborne Smith
Imagine the story of a migrant from Mexico who ends up in a psychiatric hospital in California, where he devotes his time to creating idiosyncratic art that makes him a sought-after and respected artist (but not until after his death). Doesn’t that sound like the plot of a well-meaning, touching arthouse flick? In the movie version, there’d be one doctor or nurse who valiantly has faith in the patient’s unique artistic faculties, when no one else sees the artist’s talent. The real story of Martín Ramírez’s life is just as inspirational—until his death in 1963, Ramírez did, in fact, doggedly pursue his art at the DeWitt State Hospital, when very few people believed in him—but also more mysterious. One of Ramírez’s paintings, Alamentosa, is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art; in 2011, a 90 x 36-inch drawing inspired by an image of the Immaculate Conception sold for $500,000.
After much work, and by employing a lot of patience, Victor M. Espinosa, the author of the new book Martín Ramírez: Framing His Life and Art, was able to find Ramírez’s files from the hospital, where Ramírez lived for several decades. Those files answer certain questions but invite others: namely, was Ramírez truly schizophrenic? (He claimed he wasn’t.) And what is the relationship, if any, between madness and artistic genius? Espinosa, who teaches in both the United States and Mexico, makes a compelling argument in the book that viewing Ramírez’s art as the product of an insane mind isn’t at all fruitful, or even accurate. Instead, Espinosa says, Ramírez’s intricate paintings, which often depict journeys, are best understood as the result of the cultural displacement any migrant undergoes. I talked to Espinosa recently about Ramírez’s life and his art.
I’m wondering if you said to yourself, “What is the most difficult thing I can investigate? I’ll write a book about that.” First of all, the details of migrants’ lives are hard to document, especially in a historical context. Secondly, Ramírez was a psychiatric patient for much of his life, where
issues of confidentiality intervene with a writer’s desire to tell his story.
Since the first day, I knew that looking for Martín Ramírez was going to be a challenge. I was still in Mexico when I heard about Ramírez for the first time. It was in 1989, the year the Centro Cultural Arte Contemporaneo in Mexico City organized the largest Ramírez exhibition to that date. I was then working on a project on US migrants from Jalisco, Mexico, which is one of the most important areas that sends migrants to the United States. For me, in Ramírez’s art there was a lot of evidence that indicated that he was probably from that area. An example is the constant presence of the Virgin Mary, as the Immaculate Conception, in his art. This saint is really important in the area called Los Altos de Jalisco.
But it was not until I finished my dissertation, published as El Dilema del Retorno, and moved to the United States that I decided to start looking for Ramírez. Leaving my mother, my siblings and my friends in Mexico and adapting to a new place was not easy. I realized now that over the years, my research on Ramírez kept me alive.
Besides the lack of information about him, at first I also found some difficulties in obtaining access to the people from the art world who had his artwork. Since it was difficult to find resources to finance the research, I remember asking a director from a museum that had Ramírezes in the permanent collection to write a letter. I was not asking for a letter of recommendation. Since only a few people knew about Ramírez, I was only asking him to state in the letter the importance of doing in-depth research and finding out more about Ramírez’s life. He refused to write the letter and said that it would be too controversial to know more about Ramírez’s life. He did not say why, but it was obvious that people inside the art world—I mean people personally connected with some of the collectors who owned his art or the dealers who sold his art— were afraid of the possibility that research like mine could eventually help to find relatives that could claim ownership of Ramírez’s art.
In those years, people also believed that Ramírez’s files did not exist. In fact, it is amazing that the Ramírez files were preserved only because his file number ended in zero. After the psychiatric hospital was closed, all the files that did not end in 0 were destroyed. The intention was to keep only a representative sample of the patients. It took me years to locate the files. Having access to that information also took years. It was not possible to publish that information until the formation of the Estate of Martín Ramírez.
In the end, finding Ramírez took 10 years of my life and a lot of resources, since the project was almost self-funded. Since the process was slow and had many barriers, I had to be really patient and find a way to work on other projects in the meantime.
Sometimes it was like facing a wall without more doors to go through. I would have to back up a little bit and think about the next move.
Does your research reveal whether there was anyone inside the hospital who was a champion for him and his art?
His two main supporters, Professor Tarmo Pasto and Red Cross volunteer Gail Northe, did not work at the hospital. They both provided materials, encouraged him to keep working and preserved a large number of his works, and they did see Ramírez frequently. At some point, they stopped visiting him. Pasto, the professor who supplied him with paper and materials and preserved the larger number of his works, lost track of him during Ramírez’s last years. Pasto, for example, did not know when Ramírez died. It seems that for most of Ramírez’s life inside the institution, nobody working at the hospital was really valuing his work. It was not until the last year of his life, when Dr. Dunievitz met him. He saw Ramírez very frequently, provided materials, and also saved a large number of his works. He was also the first to communicate in Spanish with him. He spoke Spanish and used to visit Mexico for vacations. It seems that Dunievitz was the first member of the medical staff who had some training and interest in art: he liked to play the violin; he liked to paint, enjoyed photography and was part of the local art world in Auburn, where the hospital was located. In short, it seems that he was the first person inside the hospital who valued the aesthetic characteristics of Ramírez’s work.
You make the argument that Ramírez’s work isn’t best understood as the product of an insane mind or a passive manifestation of his mental illness. How best to understand his work, then?
Some people have tried to make a direct connection between his mental illness and his art. They are basically arguing that his art is affected by his mental state. My feeling is that making that connection is very problematic. First, it is not really possible to prove that there is a connection between the formal characteristics of a painting and a schizophrenic condition. It is also too late to prove that Ramírez was an incurable schizophrenic. Besides many cultural barriers, he was institutionalized when the notion of schizophrenia wasn’t very well-developed. He was legally declared a schizophrenic; he also died with that diagnosis. But we don’t really know what kind of psychiatric problems he had or didn’t have. What I prefer to do is to explore his art as an expression affected by his immigrant experience.
His art was affected by his experiences of physical and cultural displacement: family separation in times of war, nostalgia for his homeland and his memories. The way he represents space and distance on paper, for example, is the result of a visual need to represent two very different points in space (Jalisco and California) on a two-dimensional surface. Even very sophisticated art historians and curators are trapped in the mindset of believing that his way of using line structures is simply a product of an affected mind. I think that’s not the way to go. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but I’m saying that in order to go with that argument, they first have to find a way to prove that he was a schizophrenic. If they find a way to prove that, we can move the conversation and discuss how his art is the product of a mentally ill mind.