Rufino Tamayo – (by jane davila)

Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) was a Mexican painter, a contemporary of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Unlike the political/socialist muralists, Tamayo’s work was determinedly apolitical and was influenced by his independent studies of the modern artists of the day, his subsequent trips to New York and Paris, and his exposure to the art of the Impressionists, the Fauvists, the Cubists, the Surrealists and the Abstract Expressionists. In each case, the influence of these movements informed his art, but did not overtake or subvert it. His Mexican heritage and his lifelong, avid fascination with pre-Colombian art shows in his use of color, his subjects and the texture and the plasticity of his use of paint. He combined modern European painting styles with Mexican folk themes. By a continuous process of assimiliation and change, Tamayo turned his painting into his own visual, metaphorical language.

In Tamayo’s first period we find many still lifes, the Music mural, the Homage to Juarez and other compositions that show a certain affinity, inevitable and natural, with the work of other Mexican artists of that time. But soon he was to give up this style forever and embark on a very different adventure. Between 1926 and 1938 he painted a great many oils and gouaches, still lifes and landscapes: arches, cubes and terraces, to place him in the line of Cezanne. — Octavio Paz

Naturaleza muerta con pie, 1928
Naturaleza muerta con pie, 1928

By going a little further along this road he was to come to Braque.

Woman with Pineapple, 1941

Woman with Pineapple, 1941

Another important work from the fertile period when he studied the modern European masters:

Women of Tehuantepec, 1939
Women of Tehuantepec, 1939

Later in his career he became known for his mastery of color. In his own words:

My palette is limited, as limited as possible, for I think that the secret of color consists not in the use of all the colors in existence but, on the contrary, in the proper handling of just a few, from which one may extract all the possibilities of tone.

Man and Woman, 1972
Man and Woman, 1972

Dos personajes atacado por perros, 1983
Dos Personajes Atacado por Perros, 1983

In an interview with an Argentinean journalist, Tamayo said:

I do not believe in either Mexican or Latin American painting. I can only conceive of painting in its most universal sense. The increasing importance of the mass media has done away with everything that could be localistic… I have always been opposed to pseudo-Mexican art. The most one can say is that there is a kind of common stamp, since all of us do belong to a certain place and to a certain moment in time. But art is universal. If one has authentic roots, there is no need to look for anything: that stamp that identifies us will appear of its own accord.

My main concern, really, is to resolve the picture with its own elements: to define its balance, with that mysterious sort of mathematics which, even when it is applied intuitively, makes it possible to turn a picture upside down without any loss of significance, quite independently of the subject — for the subject doesn’t really matter. But what interests me most of all is man and the way he faces the problems that surround him. Art must belong to its time: it should not be concerned with memories but with what is happening now. And the artist is the antenna. He cannot be passive or content merely to dream. Art is fundamentally a message, a means of communication.

I think Rufino Tamayo is an excellent example of both how to absorb and digest artistic influences and not lose yourself to them, as well as how to comfortably inhabit your heritage, recognizing that it inexorably appears in your mode of expression but that it needn’t be its only defining characteristic.

Hombre Mirando Pajaros
Hombre Mirando Pajaros


7 Responses to “Rufino Tamayo – (by jane davila)”

  1. 1 june March 25, 2007 at 8:58 am

    And a further thought for Contributors and contributor-would-be’s: I love the notion of a “Close Reading,” focusing on just one painting and talking about it.

    We could do that same kind of thing on Ragged Cloth, examining one of our favorite works of art up close.

    Think about it. I don’t think we should use the Times title, but as a way to feature a particular kind of thinking, it seems to me it would work. If someone has a suggestion for a title for the feature as an on-going entity, let’s hear it.

  2. 2 june March 25, 2007 at 8:54 am

    The New York Times today (Sunday March 25) has a “Close Reading” feature on one of Tamayo’s paintings. A large number of his works (around 100) are on exhibit at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

    The Close Reading feature examines “Los Astologos de la Vida” “The Astrologers of Life” — stargazers writ large. It also has further information on Tamayo, particularly his work in the 40’s and 50’s.

    And I learned what art which is sort of representational and also abstract is called “abstract figuration” (deKooning/Picasso) or “figurative abstraction” (Tamayo).

    And good morning to you all. I’m practising my html code below, but since I can’t check whether I’ve got it right before I post, I’ll give you both an elegant link and the clumsy http link.

    Tamayo in the Times

  3. 3 Maria Guzman March 24, 2007 at 12:58 pm

    I first saw Tamayo’s work at a Manhattan museum many years ago – probably MOMA. It instantly drew my attention and he’s remained one of my favorite contemporary artists ever since. His use of color, tonal values and abstract form is masterful.

    As an artist myself (digital)I fully understand his disinterest in socio/political messages, which doesn’t imply one need turn one’s back to these concerns. Yet art by his definition deals with universalistic themes. To constantly immerse oneself into the daily follies of mankind leaves only despair – or provides a rich source of black humor at best. (I might add this is why I never felt strong affinity with Feminist Art nor fit in with Goddess Worship groups, etc. – although god knows I tried:-)

  4. 4 June March 18, 2007 at 8:49 am

    Thanks, Jane,

    The additional quotes are really helpful — and fascinating.

    I’m thinking that this time period — 1910 — 1960 or so — was full of painters who felt strongly that their art was getting at the heart of universals, although they all disagreed about what that universal was.

    Even Rothko, who is lumped in with the Abstract Expressionists, didn’t believe his paintings were about paint (which is what Greenberg et al thought) but were about the spiritual heart of man (a black heart it was, too….)

  5. 5 Jane Davila March 18, 2007 at 4:35 am


    The answer to your question: “Doesn’t Tamayo contradict himself, as when he says “I do not believe in either Mexican or Latin American painting” and “Art must belong to its time: it should not be concerned with memories but with what is happening now.”” is in part because he resisted what he called the “dogma” of the social muralists and this caused a lot of problems for him in Mexico. His description of the issue: “Too young to have been able to influence this Mexican pictorial movement when it first began, I disapproved of the direction my predecessors had given it. Whatever qualities revealed by the painting of the initial period, the painters’ obesession with practicing not so much painting as _Mexican_ painting led them to neglect the real plastic problems and to fall into the trap of the picturesque. Seeing what had happened, and even though I was myself convinced that our paintings should be Mexican in its essence (but without on that account forgetting the technical aspects, which had been neglected), I reacted very strongly against the established conventions and started a movement that aimed at restoring to our painting its purest qualities.”

    And “My position has brought me a lot of problems in my country; sometimes I have been regarded as a sort of black sheep of painting. The others were painting Indians and socio-political events, but concerning themselves exclusively with external aspects, without ever going to the heart of things. And anybody who didn’t conform to that idea of painting was lost. That is why I decided to go to New York, and it was in that city that my conception of a universalistic art was, in fact, confirmed.”

    He left for New York where he was exposed to more art (Matisse in particular at a show in Brooklyn) and artists. One of the pervading themes of his work (paintings, murals and mixographs) was the exaltation of universal myths, concepts which seemed to him to be essential for all mankind. He was able to remain closely tied to his country, its colors, its ancient cultures because he was able to assimilate the influence of artists like Braque, Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse while experimenting with his own techniques, symbolism and expression.

    I’ve been trying to find a good definition for a term that shows up a lot in spanish when discussing visual art, “artes plasticas”. I think it’s a good description of textile art as well. The closest I can find is art in a tangible form, or art expressed in a subjective form.

  6. 6 Olga March 15, 2007 at 3:06 am

    Thank you very much for the introduction to this artist. On googling him I particularly like his 1950 painting Dos Amantes contemplando la luna.

    It is interesting to see who can transcend influences of whatever kind, and I enjoy visiting retrospective exhibitions of great artists, such as Jackson Pollock for that reason. It is so much like learning a language: first we have to listen, to hear what and how others are speaking in order to try to speak for ourselves, choosing the what as well as the how.

  7. 7 june March 14, 2007 at 8:20 pm

    Doesn’t Tamayo contradict himself, as when he says “I do not believe in either Mexican or Latin American painting” and “Art must belong to its time: it should not be concerned with memories but with what is happening now.” Certainly in his earlier work, even when he is using modes popularized in Europe, he seems to me to come out of Latin America — it may be what I love about him. The last image isn’t so located, but seems to follow what went before. Your comment, that one’s heritage, “needn’t be its only defining characteristic” seems most apropos.

    I am a bit confused about Man and Woman — woman I recognize, but “man….” hmmmm.

    Thanks, Jane

Comments are currently closed.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 221 other subscribers


%d bloggers like this: