(The following is a guest post by Holly Krueger, head of the Paper Conservation Section of the Library of Congress Preservation Directorate.)
Last December, the Library of Congress unveiled a remarkable drawing by the “outsider artist,” Martin Ramirez. The drawing depicts a Madonna figure standing on a blue globe surrounded by canyons filled with anthropomorphic cars. The story of its discovery and rescue is an interesting one.
Ramirez emigrated from Mexico in 1925 to find work to support his family. By 1931, he was institutionalized in California where he remained for the rest of his life. Diagnosed as catatonic, manic-depressive and finally schizophrenic, Ramirez never saw his family again and died in 1963. While institutionalized, he began to create beautiful, enigmatic drawings with found materials. He masticated bread, oatmeal or potatoes to paste together sheets of “junk mail” and drew with various materials, including homemade inks and matchstick heads. The work was so compelling that it drew the attention and support of his doctors – who supplied him with materials – and notable artists like Wayne Thiebaud. The work of Ramirez is highly sought after and has been the focus of several major exhibitions and published monographs.
During routine processing of the Library’s Ray and Charles Eames collections, curator Tracy Barton found a crumpled up object at the bottom of a document box. Once she removed and gently unfolded it, she thought she was looking at a child’s drawing (Figure 1), something the Eames’ were known to collect. Upon turning it over and seeing the patchwork of pasted together junk mail, with a bit of detective work, she knew she had something much more. (Figure 2). Barton had uncovered a previously unknown drawing by Ramirez, a Madonna figure that is especially rare in his oeuvre. Because of the materials used, this piece is considered by experts to be one of his earlier works.
The drawing was transferred to the Library’s conservation experts to receive much needed treatment to make it stable and presentable enough to handle and display. Senior Paper Conservator Susan Peckham began the process of resurrecting the heavily damaged piece with a thorough examination and consultation with Prints and Photograph curator Katherine Blood. The drawing was greatly distorted with many tears and creases, having been stored in the bottom of a document box for many years. The homemade adhesive created and used by Ramirez had proven irresistible to insects while in the Eames warehouse in California, resulting in many losses throughout. (Figure 3).
The surface plane was gradually restored through a variety of moistening and flattening techniques. The process was especially complicated by the number of different types of paper pasted together to form the support, as well as the extreme solubility of some of the media used. (Figure 4) In order to mend the tears, Japanese paper strips were adhered with wheat starch paste, transparent enough to provide stability while maintaining legibility of the back of the drawing. Paper toned to blend in with the surrounding support filled in any losses. To restore visual integrity to the drawing, Peckham then painted in those losses by drawing the lost design onto a separate piece of thin tissue cut out to the exact dimensions of the loss and then adhered that to the drawing so that no non-original media was added directly to the paper itself (Figure 5) .
Compensation of the loss of design areas was an aspect of the treatment that required numerous consultations with Blood. The aim of color compensation was to enable the viewer to read the drawing without being distracted by losses, while maintaining the story of the drawing’s journey from Ramirez to the Eames warehouse in California to, ultimately, the Library of Congress. Peckham achieved a perfect balance. (Figures 6 and 7)
Concurrent to the conservation process, Peckham worked with the Preservation Research and Testing Division (PRTD) to analyze some of the materials in the drawing. XRF and Fadometer readings identified some of the pigments to the extent that responsible exhibition conditions could be determined, anticipating a high demand for viewing in the near future. PRTD was also able to support the theory that bread was used as the basic adhesive in construction of the support. Through the analysis provided by PRTD and Peckham’s research into and identification of likely media used, details of Ramirez’s methods and materials are better understood, enhancing the preservation state of this remarkable drawing.
After treatment and analysis were completed, the drawing was framed and unveiled during a ceremony that included members of the Ramirez family. It remains on view through March 15 in the “Exploring the Early Americas” exhibition on the second floor of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building.
You can read more about the Ramirez drawing in this blog post.