Originally Published in Blogs by Tara Parker-Pope
Last year, The New York Times called the Mexican artist Martín Ramírez “simply one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.” What is so remarkable about his achievement, beyond the mesmerizing repetition of lines and images in his drawings, is that all of the work was created inside a mental institution.
Mr. Ramírez, who died in 1963, was an immigrant who fell on hard times during the Great Depression, and for the last 30 years of his life he was institutionalized after a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
After a major exhibit of his drawings last year at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, a cache of previously unknown work was discovered. Now 25 of those new drawings, created during the last three years of his life, are on display at the museum through April 12. This weekend, the museum is presenting a panel discussion in which historians and sociologists will explore Mr. Ramírez’s life and work, including the circumstances of his diagnosis and whether his work really reflects a mental illness.
Scientists have long studied the link between creativity and mental illness, and the lines between the two are often blurred. Studies suggest that creative people often share more personality traits with the mentally ill than “normal” people in less creative pursuits. One Stanford University study compared patients with bipolar disorder with a group of healthy people. They found that graduate students in creative disciplines shared more personality traits with the bipolar patients than with their healthy but less creative peers, according to a study published last year in The Journal of Affective Disorders.
In the case of Mr. Ramírez, scholars continue to debate whether the artist really suffered from mental illness. Some see a thoughtful sanity in the work. Brooke Davis Anderson, the director and curator of the Contemporary Center at the Folk Art Museum, says the latest exhibit shows that Mr. Ramírez developed artistically over the years, employing a greater use of color and a bolder exploration of the abstract near the end of his life. And unlike art that is sometimes typical of the mentally ill, she said, he didn’t need to fill in every space on his canvas.
“That diagnosis does stick to him,” said Ms. Anderson, who will be speaking on Saturday’s panel at the museum. “But he wasn’t afraid of white space at all, His reliance on motifs and animals indicate a more sane and less mentally ill part of Mr. Ramírez. There’s great diversity in the decorative palate, composition and scale.”
Whatever the answer, the work and the artist’s personal story are fascinating. He created art long before the days of “art therapy” classes. Later in his career he was given art supplies, but early on he was forced to cobble together his own tools to make art. He made bowls out of dried oatmeal, grabbed scraps of paper in the hospital, used burnt matchsticks to draw, and made paste for collages out of potatoes and saliva.