I'm incorrigible -- a deadline always seems to strike me as an invitation to meet it at the last posssible moment. That's why, although I had looked forward to its October opening for the better part of a year, we found ourselves in a last minute dash down the Interstate to Milwaukee from Madison Sunday afternoon to catch the amazing Martín Ramírez exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum before it closed. Darkness was already falling on the Calatrava pavilion when we got there, but the trip was worth it. It was a stunning show that makes you rethink what we mean by the term "outsider art," for this is not work that can easily be filed away and pigeonholed by such a well-worn term.
If you're not familiar with the work of Ramírez, Roberta Smith's NYT review when the show opened last year at the American Museum of Folk Art in New York provides a good introduction and is accompanied by a slide show (there's also a wealth of information, along with a video, at the MAM's website about the show).
The American Folk Art Museum’s transporting exhibition of the scroll-like drawings of the Mexican artist Martín Ramírez (1895-1963) should render null and void the insider-outsider distinction.Although the drawings of Martín Ramírez are visually stunning in reproduction, you really have to see them up close, in person, to get a real sense of their scale and full impact. The huge horizontal and vertical scrolls have a power more often associated with paintings than drawings. It was an amazing experience.
Ramírez, who created the roughly 300 drawings that make up his known work between 1948 and 1963 while confined to a mental hospital in Northern California, is simply one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. He belongs to the group of accessible, irresistible genius draftsmen that includes Paul Klee, Saul Steinberg and Charles Schulz. Well selected and beautifully installed by Brooke Davis Anderson, a curator at the folk art museum, this show of 97 drawings, some mural-size, is the first museum exhibition of Ramírez’s work in New York and one of the best shows of the season.
Whatever ideas about art you hold dear, expect them to be healthily destabilized here. If a purely visual, white-cube experience of the autonomous art object is your thing, you may be startled by the illuminating correlations between the artist’s newly excavated biography and his pulsating images.
If you think art is anything but autonomous and that, rather than speaking for itself, it mainly says what we want it to say, then you must deal with the way these works made enough noise to survive against almost impossible odds.
If you revere outsider artists as pure, isolated, often insane visionaries who exist outside time and place, make way for a so-called outsider whose work reflected many of the specifics of his cultural and historic moment. In addition, Ramírez’s art was in step with the explorations of many “insider” artists of his time, especially in his use of collage and images from popular culture.