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Uncovering a Treasure

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The file boxes of Charles and Ray Eames yielded all sorts of eclectic items to archivists processing the collection at the Library of Congress – a letter from Georgia O’Keefe in this one, a receipt for a Moroccan robe in that one, printed butterflies in another.

An untitled Madonna created by Martín Ramírez about 1951. Estate of Martín Ramírez / Prints and Photographs Division
An untitled Madonna by Martín Ramírez, ca. 1951. Estate of Martín Ramírez / Prints and Photographs Division

Buried in one carton, senior archives technician Tracey Barton found a crumpled, yellowed tube of paper that, when unrolled, revealed an astonishing image: a crowned Madonna standing atop a blue orb, a snake at her feet devouring a rabbit, cars riding down canyon roads, all drawn in childlike fashion in pencil, crayon and colored inks. The flip side was equally amazing.

The paper support was constructed of more than 20 pieces of junk mail – postmarked envelopes, solicitations for racy photos, ads for gardening supplies – glued together. The artwork bore no obvious connection to the Eameses, a husband-and-wife team that in the 1940s and ’50s pioneered modern design in furniture and architecture.

Sorting through the miscellany of their lives, Barton had made a stunning discovery: a previously unknown work by an artist described in the New York Times as one of the most important of the last century.

Barton, a senior archives technician in the Manuscript Division, in 2009 had begun processing a large and disorganized addition – about 220 boxes – to the Library’s collection of Eames material.

“It was very, very eclectic, which is what I love about the chaos of this addition,” she said. “You never know what you’re going to find.”

The artwork Barton found bore no signature, but the makeshift canvas offered clues to the creator’s identity: The junk mail was a strong sign the piece was an example of “outsider art,” a term generally applied to the work of self-taught artists.

Barton conducted an online search based on her hunch about the nature of the piece and on places and dates she lifted from the junk mail: “Auburn California 1951 outsider art.”

“All of a sudden, Martín Ramírez came up,” she said.

Ramírez, it turned out, was a prominent figure in outsider art, and the style of the drawing Barton discovered perfectly matched other examples of his work.

The artwork’s paper support is made up of more than 20 pieces of junk mail – ads for gardening supplies, racy photos, vitamins and magazine subscriptions. Photo by Abby Brack Lewis
The artwork’s paper support is made up of more than 20 pieces of junk mail – ads for gardening supplies, racy photos, vitamins and magazine subscriptions. Photo by Abby Brack Lewis

In recent years, Ramírez has been the subject of two major retrospectives at the American Folk Art Museum in New York and one at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. The New York Times, in a review of the 2007 show at the folk art museum, called Ramírez “simply one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.”

“From the moment his work was seen by his first champion, nobody has ever doubted the beauty, the importance and the cultural significance of Ramírez’s art,” said Brooke Davis Anderson, who curated the shows in New York and Madrid. “He’s never had a bad review.”

An Immigrant’s Tale

Ramírez’s story is fascinating and tragic. He grew up in Mexico, got married, had children and, in 1923, bought a small ranch in the state of Jalisco. Two years later, he emigrated alone to California, where he hoped to find work that would support his family. Because of political and religious strife in Mexico, Ramírez decided not to return home.

He would never see his family again.

Ramírez, impoverished and disoriented, was arrested in 1931 and hospitalized at Stockton State Hospital, where he eventually was diagnosed as schizophrenic.

In the mid-1930s, he began to make drawings using whatever paper was at hand – scraps from examination tables, bags, magazines, envelopes, bits glued together with a paste of bread or potatoes mixed with saliva. On these canvases, he created images that reflected the traditions of his Mexico home and his experiences in California – Madonnas and caballeros, churches and tunnels, trains and animals.

Martín Ramírez / Estate of Martín Ramírez
Martín Ramírez / Estate of Martín Ramírez

In 1948, Ramírez was transferred to DeWitt State Hospital near Sacramento, where he lived the rest of his life – and where his art was discovered.

Tarmo Pasto, a professor of psychology and art at Sacramento State College who frequently visited DeWitt, began to supply Ramírez with material and to save his art. He also arranged for shows of Ramírez’s art in the early 1950s.

Solving a Mystery

Barton frequently shared her discoveries with Margaret McAleer of Manuscript, who serves as the Eames collection’s main archivist. Barton and McAleer were moved by Ramírez’s story and by the piece Barton found.

“I thought it was gorgeous,” McAleer said. “It amazes me that someone who tragically was in a psychiatric facility – and whatever he was dealing with in his mind – could have created such a composition.”

Still, a big question remained: How did this artwork make the unlikely journey from a psychiatric ward to a file box at the Library? Barton and McAleer hoped the answer would reveal itself as the collection was processed.

A year after the discovery, McAleer received a three-word e-mail from Barton: “I found it.”

The “it” was the solution to the mystery: a letter to Charles Eames from Don R. Birrell, director of the E.B. Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento. In the letter, Birrell references a conversation they’d had about “schizophrenic drawings” and informs Charles that he’d just mailed to him several examples of this art to keep “if you wish.”

It all made sense: The Crocker gallery put on Ramírez’s first solo show, and the letter was dated April 9, 1952 – shortly after that show closed.

“I glanced at this letter from a gallery director, and all of a sudden it all came into focus,” Barton said. “I got a chill up my spine.”

The piece found by Barton is one of the earliest Ramírez drawings in existence, according to Victor M. Espinosa, who has extensively studied and written about Ramírez.

A Rare Find

Espinosa says most of the drawings Ramírez made on recycled paper – like the Library’s – were destroyed long ago and that the bulk of his surviving works were produced after 1953, when he had access to drawing paper.

“This is an amazing example of the way Ramírez worked before he had access to regular paper,” Espinosa said.

The image shows Ramírez’s representation of the Virgin Mary as the Immaculate Conception – one of only 15 Madonnas in Espinosa’s database of the roughly 500 known works by Ramírez. At the Madonna’s feet, a snake devours a rabbit – something Ramírez might have seen in Jalisco. The virgin, wearing traditional Mexican garb, holds before her a shawl evocative of another traditional Mexican garment, a rebozo.

“What’s nice about the Madonna is that you see an honoring of a Catholic, iconic tradition, but he’s made it a hybrid figure by giving it a Mexican costume,” Anderson said.

Lynn Brostoff performs an X-ray fluorescence examination of the Martín Ramírez piece. Photo by Katherine Blood
Lynn Brostoff performs an X-ray fluorescence examination of the Martín Ramírez piece. Photo by Katherine Blood

Repairing a Masterpiece

The passing decades – and the time spent rolled up in a file box – took their toll on the piece: The Madonna suffered insect damage, large tears, deep creases and some losses.

After the discovery, Library conservators repaired some damage and stabilized the piece but took a light approach to cosmetic work. What may appear as damage, after all, is part of the piece’s story to tell.

“It is thrilling to welcome this new treasure to the Library’s visual art collections and share Tracey’s discovery with the world,” said Katherine Blood, a curator in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division. “We are honored that the Ramírez family has entrusted this uniquely compelling piece of the artist’s legacy to the Library’s care.”

The Martín Ramírez Madonna will be on view to the public for three months, through March 15. The piece will be on display in the “Exploring the Early Americas” exhibition on the second floor of the Jefferson Building.

You can learn more about Ramirez and the significance of his painting in this brief video featuring curator Katherine Blood and blog post from the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division.

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