We are grateful to María Ramos Martínez Bolster, Margarita Nieto and Louis Stern for their assistance in confirming the authenticity of this work. To be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's paintings to be published by the Alfredo Ramos Martínez Research Project.
In 1933, Alfredo Ramos Martínez who had taken up residence in Los Angeles, California leaving a long-established career as an arts administrator, mentor and painter in Mexico City, received his first mural commission for the patio of the home of Jo Swerling, a prominent Hollywood writer.(1). During the three years since his arrival in 1930, he had held important exhibitions including a solo show at the Los Angeles County Museum, 1930, a show at Barker Brothers during the citywide "Artist's Fiesta," 1931, including shows at the Hollywood Assistance League and the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery. This commission however, marked a turning point in his work--not only did it introduce his work to a new circle of collectors including the director Alfred Hitchcock, costume designer Edith Head and actress Corinne Griffith, it also afforded him to the opportunity to explore a large space, the walls of the patio of Swerling's home. Ramos Martínez's move to California had brought about a dramatic change in his approach to painting which was now defined by the appearance of geometrically conceived archetypal figures that were increasingly more abstract, an element which was also more apparent in the background treatment of his compositions.(2)
In this outdoor mural, entitled "Guelaguetza," (the word means "offering" in the Zapotec language of the state of Oaxaca) Ramos Martínez utilized the walls to paint a landscape of mountains and sky with groups of quasi-columnar female figures that are portrayed bearing offerings of fruit-filled baskets on their heads. One small group, a composition of standing, sitting and kneeling men and women prepare a corn offering to Xilonen, the Goddess of tender corn, to whom the "Guelaguetza" is dedicated. The conception of these geometric and hieratic figures mark a turning point in Ramos Martínez's work--they are what will ultimately characterize his California style. The full expression of that style is evident in Las Floreras.
In Las Floreras (The Flower Vendors) 1933, Ramos Martínez leaps beyond the formal spatial constraints of the 36 x 30 canvas surface by applying this geometric abstraction in his portrayal of these two female figures. The space is now divided in half, the top a deep blue, and the bottom half, geometrically structured ochre blocks outlined in black, creating both mass and volume. Against this background, a side view of two curvilinear female figures confronts the viewer. Walking one in front of the other, both bear oblong baskets filled with flowers, which form enormous overflowering circles that dominate the painting. What is extraordinary, is the treatment of their bodies, created by clean strong lines, curving forward under the weight of their lowering burdens. A shadowy black area extends from their braid-plaited hair and widening down their backs and enhancing the spatial volume in the painting. The flowers, stars of white six- petaled lilies, reddish and yellow ranunculous, orange and yellow chrysanthemums form two double circles which draw the viewer's eye upward and around the painting. In three years, Ramos Martínez has moved from archetypal figuration that still recurs to the representational, arriving at a modernist spatial solution. A contradiction in terms, he is creating spatial mass through volume on a small spatial surface.
This Ramos Martínez painting fits into the aesthetics of his moment in time--utilizing the elements of Art Moderne which involved the reduction of classical motifs to geometric stylization. What is essentially new and revolutionary, is that he utilizes Mexican archetypal figures to create this new language. Las Floreras a work that exemplifies this aesthetic however beguiles us, fascinates us and seduces us as viewers because of its purity of line, its reduced palette and its narrative strength. Two women walk in single file bearing flowers--a simple and powerful visualization of womanhood itself--women/flowers and bearers of life.
In the years that follow, this compositional shift will continue to dominate Ramos Martínez's work. In 1934, he is commissioned to paint the frescoes for the Santa Barbara Cemetery Chapel. The patrons are Mrs. George Washington Smith, the widow of the architect who created the Spanish Colonial Revival Style in Santa Barbara, and Henry Eicheim, the violinist/composer and one of the first musicians from the United States to document, transcribe and collect instruments of the music of East Asia.(3) It is clearly evident that these two patrons recognized the admirable and innovative modernist aesthetic so apparent in Ramos Martínez's work. Indeed, these frescoes continued to explore the rectilinear and geometric abstraction that simply and elegantly defines a new modernism.
Margarita Nieto, Ph.D., Los Angeles, September 2007.
1) Still extant although the house in which it once stood was demolished, the mural underwent restoration by the Santa Monica/Venice gallery owner Bryce Bannetyne, and exhibited at the Bryce Bannatyne Gallery in the fall of 1991 in an exhibition, Mexican Modernists: 1920-1960.
2) Research for this essay was first conducted under a Smithsonian Senior Post-doctorate Fellowship at the Archives of American Art, 1991 and has continued in conjunction with The Ramos Martínez Research Project LLC, María Ramos Bolster, Ph.D., Margarita Nieto, Ph.D., and Louis Stern, Director. 3) These two patrons became familiar with Ramos Martínez's paintings through an exhibition of his work, which was held in the Faulkner Memorial Gallery in the Santa Barbara Central Library in 1934.