We are grateful to art historian Juan Carlos Pereda for his assistance cataloguing this work.
In 1947 when Tamayo painted Hombre feliz he was at the height of his cultural prestige in the United States with several one person exhibitions at the Valentine Gallery behind him, a midcareer retrospective exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum, and a monograph published by Robert Goldwater, among other activities and exhibitions leading up to that year. Indeed, Tamayo exhibited Hombre feliz (listed as Happy Man in the exhibition pamphlet) as part of his solo exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery that took place December 8 – January 3, 1948. It is precisely around this time in the 1940s that Tamayo’s production reveals a radical change in subject matter, style, and mood. Both contemporaneous critics and scholars today consider this period to be the continued maturation of Tamayo’s style, and Hombre feliz is a critical work within the development of his work.
Beginning in the early 1940s, Tamayo had begun to pare down his compositions, many of which were now isolated figures. During the war years, he had also begun to incorporate references to the cosmos, the birth of the atomic age, and veiled references to crisis and trauma. In addition to images of constellations, this period is also marked by the artist’s exploration of the darker side of humanity: fiery landscapes, cataclysm paintings, and screaming figures. Hombre feliz builds upon this extended body of work, yet also signals new departures that critics responded to favorably.
Writing in the New Yorker in December 1947, Robert M. Coates stated: “Tamayo…has always leaned toward the somber, and his dark tones and deliberately violent distortions have led him at times into mere angry murkiness. Now his mood and his manner have come closer to integration, and the dark tones are lightened, figuratively at least, by the heightened imaginative power he brings to bear on them. I liked particularly…the small, brighter “Happy Man.” Another critic noted, “Tamayo’s form has never been “purer;” that his control of space has never been more effective or original, that his colors, generally deep, except where they blaze out in brilliant yellow-orange, never have been more daring and at the same time more subtle, and that generally speaking, his work has lost the strange fierceness of other years—that is has become, instead, free uninhibited, almost joyous.” 
As this last review suggests, Hombre feliz is remarkable for its bright yellow and orange glow, formulated by the piercing rays of the sun, which contrasts with the darkness of the silhouetted figure in the foreground. Notably, the single orange ray of the sun shines down on the large rear wheel of a truck in an otherwise barren landscape. The sharp angles of the sunrays cut through the sky with Cubist bravura, picking up the figural distortions of the man whose curvilinear forms are also set against the glowing striations. Punctuated with swaths of red, the figure gestures to the viewer, removing his hat as if greeting us and extending his thumb on his other hand. A mischievous or even menacing grin overtakes his mask like face as his large head tilts his body backward toward the sun. The cone-like shape of his neck and torso mirror the geometric shapes of the rays while his round head echoes the circles of the sun and the wheels of the truck. Tamayo masterfully creates spatial tension through simple shapes, color blocks, and painted lines.
It should be noted that in 1947 Tamayo famously declared in the New York Post, “None of those little donkeys for me” as a means to distinguish his work from the picturesque, folkloric subject matter of the muralists. Later that year he engaged in a contentious debate with his fellow Mexican artists David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco about the state of Mexican painting in the pages of the Mexican newspaper El Nacional. In New York, Tamayo’s work had always offered an alternative to what was perceived as the dogmatism of the Muralists, and U.S. viewers appreciated his imagery for its “intuitive” and “authentic” nature. His ethnicity, as a mestizo from Oaxaca, distinguished him from most fellow Mexican artists and granted him special status among the international avant-garde as he increasingly moved away from overt Mexican content, yet still evoked a primitivist ethos and energy that appealed to audiences. Painted in a year when he was actively and discursively challenging the so-called Mexican School, Hombre Feliz and the works of this period represent this increased universalism and a determined and strategic participation in the international avant-garde. Yet for all its joyousness and warm glow, Hombre feliz perhaps is also a veiled reference to the polemics of Mexican painting publicly debated that year. Is the figuring smiling or perhaps grimacing? Does the inclusion of the truck indicate that the figure is an agricultural laborer, perhaps a bracero? Or is he an urbanite donning a fedora hat? Does he reflect mid-century angst? Or is he simply a happy man? Tamayo, however, does not provide answers or illustrate programs. He leaves the viewer wondering, forsaking local content for universal archetypes and compositions filled with primal force and energy.
2018-2019 Stuart Z. Katz Professor of the Humanities and the Arts
The City College of New York, CUNY
Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Art
Ph.D. Program in Art History, The Graduate Center, CUNY
1 Tamayo had solo exhibitions at the Valentine Gallery in 1939, 1940, 1942, 1943, 1946, and 1947. The exhibition, Rufino Tamayo: Exhibition of Paintings by the Mexican Arts, took place at the Cincinnati Art Museum from January 10 to February 3, 1947. And Quadrangle Press published Goldwater’s monograph, Rufino Tamayo, in 1947.
2 Tamayo had sought out gallery representation with Pierre Matisse in 1938, but “Ines Amor, Tamayo’s dealer in Mexico, arrange[d] for him to be taken on by Valentine Dudensing, another prominent dealer in New York.” Beth Shook, “Timeline,” in E. Carmen Ramos, Tamayo: The New York Years (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2017), 144-46.
3 James Oles, “The Howl and the Flame: Tamayo’s Wartime Allegories,” in Diana C. Du Pont, ed. Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted (Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2007).
4 J.M. “Distinguished Work Displayed in Many Galleries,” New York Telegram, December 13, 1947, 21-22.