How he survived the Great Depression in “El Norte” is unknown, but in 1931, drifting and apparently mentally ill, he was picked up by police in California’s Central Valley. For many years, Ramírez was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and jails, and in 1948 was sent to DeWitt State Hospital, a former U.S. Army facility in Auburn, near Sacramento, which became his home until the end of his life. Back then, conditions at state “mental hospitals” in the U.S. were commonly described as abominable. Ramirez’s illnesses, which included schizophrenia and tuberculosis, were considered incurable, so he was not subjected to electric-shock treatments.
At DeWitt, he met Tarmo Pasto, a psychology professor and artist from a nearby college who took an interest in Ramirez’s drawings. He had been making pictures for years, starting with sketches on letters to his family in Mexico. Pasto gave him art supplies, but Ramírez continued to make many of his drawings using matchsticks dipped in a paste he made himself of melted crayon wax, fruit juice, charcoal, shoe polish and his own saliva. Crouching on the floor, he drew on and affixed collage elements to assorted found papers, which he glued together to make larger sheets using a paste he made from his saliva and masticated potatoes. Pasto, who studied artistic creativity in the mentally ill, featured Ramírez’s drawings in exhibitions on this theme that he organized and presented at regional venues.
DeWitt closed in 1972. Around that time, the artist Jim Nutt visited Pasto and saw the collection of around 300 works Pasto had received from Ramírez. Mr. Nutt shared the news of his find with Phyllis Kind, his Chicago-based dealer at that time. Like Mr. Nutt and other Chicago Imagist artists, Ms. Kind was interested in folk and outsider art. “I was always on the lookout for art that was unlike anything I had seen before,” Ms. Kind told me recently by telephone from San Francisco, where she lives in retirement. “The way forms erupted within Ramírez’s compositions, the way he choreographed his rhythmic line and his formal affinities with minimalist art—the sophistication, technical skill and originality I saw and felt in his art took my breath away.”
Mr. Nutt, Ms. Nilsson and Ms. Kind purchased almost all of Pasto’s Ramírezes and divided them up among themselves. Ms. Kind presented her first show of Ramírez’s work in Chicago in 1973. Being able to bring such striking, fresh material to market was a major coup for this dealer who played a big role in developing a market for outsider art in the U.S. Before the era of overhyped everything, on its own unmistakable merits, Ramírez’s art seized the outsider art field’s attention; today, it has found a new audience among contemporary-art collectors, curators and critics. Last year, the Museum of Modern Art acquired a Ramírez, Untitled (Alamentosa), a large, vertical-format work from around 1953 with an especially well-drawn train and repeating, decorative forms that create a sense of three-dimensional depth. Although the Mexican artist was no self-conscious modernist, MoMA appears to have recognized his work’s strong affinities with some of the definitive forms of modern art.
Those aesthetic links are evident in the pictures in the exhibition from the “last works” that were discovered in California in 2008. Several are variations of rows of rollicking arches that offer a playful response across the decades to Paul Klee’s well-known version of the same subject. Rhythmically geometric and mostly monochromatic, with dense patches of red or brown filling each arch’s shadowy depths, they would look right at home alongside Piet Mondrian’s grids, Frank Stella’s black, striped paintings or a stack of Sol Lewitt’s white cubes. In Untitled (Vertical Tunnel), circa 1960-63, and Untitled (Tunnel With Vertical Abstraction), circa 1952-55, Ramírez’s bold line undulates in jazzy romps that fill the pictorial space with throbbing abstract forms.
By contrast, works like Untitled (Abstract Patterns With Four Animals), circa 1953, with its wild beasts and a bird perched in mesa-like pedestals that float in space, and Untitled (Landscape With Horse and Rider), circa 1960-1963, Ramírez renders his subjects with the same precise line that once shaped ancient Aztec sculptures and that turned up, centuries later, in Diego Rivera’s illustrations for books and newspapers.
From the erstwhile Nutt-Nilsson holdings come such large, knock-out pieces as Untitled (Trains and Tunnels), circa 1952-53, and Untitled (Landscape with Seven Figures and Buildings), circa 1950. The former, a panoramic composition, features voluptuous examples of Ramírez’s familiar, snaking tunnels, whose rolling lengths of concentric forms resemble gigantic caterpillars. A steady stream of motorists in identical cars flows out of one tunnel into the erotic, black-void openings of two others, whose vibrant, yellow and red shadings are surrounded by purple archways. Elsewhere in this energetic image, a low-rise building lined on one side with a rectangular arcade and on another with a round-arch façade that recedes into the distance is topped by a row of boxy forms whose illusionistically rendered depths seem to penetrate the paper’s surface. In the latter picture, a tall, white-faced figure armed with a pistol looks across to a woman in a red dress on horseback. She plies a kind of elevated track, while costumed figures resembling those from Mexican posadas (religious pageants) move around a majestic building with two domed, arcaded towers.