In 1989 the year he painted Hombre guiñando un ojo (Man Winking), Tamayo celebrated his ninetieth birthday, but presumably, continued to work eight hours each day in his studio as he did all his life. In November of that same year, he would undergo open-heart surgery and shortly thereafter paint his last work (El muchacho del violín [The Boy with a Violin]).(1) Though painted at the end of his life, Hombre guiñando un ojo exemplifies the universal humanism, abstract figuration, and modernist aesthetics that preoccupied the Mexican master throughout his long, international career.
Tamayo spent most of his career outside Mexico, first in the United States, then in France.(2) He made several trips, some extended, to New York in the 1920s and 1930s, and in late 1938 established more permanent residence in Manhattan with his wife, Olga. From the late 1930s throughout the 1940s, the Tamayos led a privileged bicultural life, spending winters in New York and returning to Mexico every summer. A month after his arrival in New York, he secured an exhibition at the Weyhe Gallery.(3) From his first exhibitions abroad, Tamayo received consistent critical acclaim and praise in the United States. In the postwar period, Tamayo began to enjoy widespread critical and financial success, both in the United States and in Mexico. In New York, his hybrid Mexican and international style attracted viewers at the Valentine Gallery, a venue that underlined the artist's ties to European and U.S. modernity. But critics never ignored his roots in Mexican popular indigenous culture, viewing Tamayo's art as an authentic "American" version of the Africanizing primitivism of Picasso and the Paris School. By the time the Tamayos settled in Paris in 1949, he was on the cusp of full commercial and critical success and he continued to travel extensively and to return frequently to Mexico. While his work had been consistently praised by critics since the 1920s, he now enjoyed economic fortune. His participation in the Venice Biennale in 1950 captured attention in the United States and Mexico, while a spate of articles in 1951 in the U.S. popular press reiterated the generous and enthusiastic responses of European critics, who, perhaps like Tamayo, were repositioning themselves as power shifted from Paris to New York. For these critics, his work combined School of Paris modernist aesthetics with a burgeoning international abstract figuration. Tamayo's success and fame continued as he showed with the Knoedler Gallery until the early 1960s, then with the Perls Gallery, and then, after 1975, with the Marlborough Gallery. The Tamayos moved back to Mexico in 1960, where they wished to live "forever."(4)
As his international fame increased, Tamayo became preoccupied with his legacy at home. For the last three decades of his life, he was often at the center of aesthetic and political debates within Mexican culture regarding the role of nationalism within the visual arts. His universal abstract figuration and the lack of overt politics in his work had always distinguished him from los tres grandes and garnered him more lasting attention abroad. By the 1940s, however, he felt increasing pressure to assert his Mexicanness as tensions mounted between the discourses of "arte puro" and "arte politico." In the midst of these disputes, as the cultural elite and government officials debated the status and nature of Mexico's national, post-Revolutionary culture, Tamayo became involved in two major projects that established him as a "newsworthy patriarch" within the Mexican cultural milieu of the 1970s and 1980s(5): the donation of his pre-Hispanic collection to Oaxaca as the Museo de Arte Prehispanico de Mexico Rufino Tamayo and his collection of international modern and contemporary art as the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City.
Tamayo was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, to parents of Zapotec Indian heritage, and therefore it is often assumed that he had a deep understanding of Indian culture. Mexican-based artist Jean Charlot explained, "Tamayo is one of the few who can validly claim as his the picturesque subject matter of tropical Mexico."(6) In other words, Tamayo's ethnicity legitimized his native vision. Art historian Mary Coffey has revealed how Tamayo condemned the politically disingenuous and paternalistic nationalism inherent in the paintings of indigenous subjects on some of Mexico City's walls, whereby the post-Revolutionary elite had reconstituted the Indian as timeless and pure.(7) For Tamayo, his ethnicity was never marshaled for the sake of a political program, but instead to tap a so-called authentic, indigenous point of view or spirit that would enable him to explore pure plastic elements of painting. Distinct from the Mexican School's portrayal of indigenous life, Tamayo's evocation of native sources came through at the level of formal manipulation and affinity with folk and pre-Columbian art. His ethnicity, then, distinguished him from most fellow Mexican artists and also granted him special status in the international avant-garde, where currents of primitivism held sway. He adapted his style to accommodate modernist concerns and pictorial values, while still keeping his "Mexicanness" in tact.(8) Although after the 1930s his works rarely illustrate specific indigenous or native content, they continued to reveal his deep commitment to the abstracted figure based on the fusion of pre-Columbian and modernist forms. The figure is always grounded in reality, but as Mexican writer, poet, and diplomat Octavio Paz famously stated, Tamayo's late modern painting embodies the "timelessness of myth."
Hombre guiñando un ojo, like many of Tamayo's late works, depicts a male figure in a direct, frontal pose facing the viewer, grinning, and gesticulating. The man is seated on a simple, modern, ladder back chair, which supports him, anchors the composition, and serves as an armature for the painting. Draped in a tunic that opens in the front and ends at the bent knees, the figure clutches the open robe with his right hand, and raises his other hand in an odd gesture, a benign wave or salutation. The forefinger and thumb meet, the fingers are clutched, and the pinky is held out, suggesting the figure is making a hand signal--a secret language, a code, or perhaps just a colloquial gesture. As is customary with the artist's repertoire of solitary figures, the background is empty, but radiates a diaphanous sprinkling of colors--shades of grey, purple, blue, and the famous Tamayo pinks. A circular patch of color hovers above indicating a shadowy sun or moon.
An accumulation of geometric shapes--triangles, trapezoids, parallel lines--Hombre guiñando un ojo exemplifies the two-dimensional painting style Tamayo adapted for his own purposes from artists such as Picasso and Braque. A study of contrasts between curves and right angles, the painting manifests numerous formal echoes. The raised hand gesture, the grin, the collar of the shirt, the stylized hair, and the abstraction of his winking eye all play with the shape of a curve--perhaps a sly and coded reference to his celebrated sandias. By pulling at the tunic, the figure turns the cloth into a decorative pattern of emanating folds and pleats, which offsets the repeating horizontals of the chair back. The rough texture placed over precise line drawing blurs contours in the manner of Jean Dubuffet. Adding to the overall sense of primitivism, the bilateral symmetry of the composition and the stone grey color of the man is reminiscent of ancient art. As Olivier Debroise has noted, Paz's autobiographical statements iterated in 1989 (the same year in which Hombre guiñando un ojo was painted) could be analyzed as interpretations of Tamayo's art: "I understood the antiquity of Picasso and Klee and simultaneously, the modernity of the Zapotecs and Maya. It confirmed my early experiences about the plurality of civilization...the co-existence of times."(9)
Hombre guiñando un ojo evokes other dualities and oppositions. Like many of Tamayo's works, it is both playful and sinister. With one hand the figures waves and gesticulates in affirmation, with the other he grabs at his groin area, heightening the tension. The two gestures are almost reverse images of each other and therefore reinforce their connection. Similarly, one eye is open and the other is closed, while the grin is both benign and menacing. Hombre guiñando un ojo is one of Tamayo's trickster figures, a jester, an alter-ego for the artist and the practice of painting--one of those figures that "speak to us, yet also withhold speech; we must guess through their silence that which is inexpressible, but which we are invited to perceive in some way."(10)
Anna Indych-López, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Art
The City College of New York
1) Suckaer, "Chronology," in Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, exh. cat., ed. D. C. du Pont, California: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2007, p. 426.
2) The biographical information in this paragraph is condensed from A. Indych-López, "'None of Those Little Donkeys for Me': Tamayo, Cultural Prestige, and Perceptions of Modern Mexican Art in the United States," in Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, p. 343-365.
3) He was able to do this as a result of meeting the critic Walter Pach through his friend the writer Octavio Barreda. See I. Suckaer, Rufino Tamayo: Aproximaciones, Mexico City, Editorial Praxis, 2000, p. 92.
4) A. Valdés Peza, "Cuándo y Dónde," El Universal (Mexico City), August 18, 1959; Radar, "Llegó Tamayo," Exélsior, Mexico City, December 28, 1960. Cited in Suckaer, "Chronology," p. 422.
5) O. Debroise, "Reaching out to the Audience: Tamayo and the Debate on Modernism," in Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, p. 380.
6) J. Charlot, "Rufino Tamayo," in An Artist on Art: Collected Essays of Jean Charlot, 2 vols., Honolulu, University Press of Hawaii, 1972, p. 357.
7) Mary Coffey, "'I'm not the Fourth Great One': Tamayo and Mexican Muralism," in Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, p. 250.
8) A. Indych-López, "'None of Those Little Donkeys for Me,'" p. 345-47.
9) Paz, "Poesía, pintura, música, etcétera: conversación con Manuel Ulacia," Vuelta 155, October 1989. Cited in Debroise, "Reaching out to the Audience," p. 386. Debroise is referring to the notions of timelessness and historical continuity in Tamayo's works.
10) J. Corredor-Matheos, Tamayo, Mexico, Ediciones Polígrafa, p. 27.