Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991)
Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991)
Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991)
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Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991)

Hombre contra el muro (also known as Personaje)

Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991)
Hombre contra el muro (also known as Personaje)
signed and dated ‘Tamayo, O-81’ (lower right) inscribed and dated ‘PERSONAJE, 1981' (on the reverse)
oil and sand on canvas
70 7/8 x 49 1/4 in. (180 x 125 cm.)
Painted in 1981.
Marlborough Gallery, New York.
Mary-Anne Martin Fine Art, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
New York, Marlborough Gallery, Rufino Tamayo: Recent Paintings, 5 November - 2 December 1981, pp. 6 and 38 (illustrated in color). This exhibition also traveled to London, Marlborough Fine Arts, 3 - 27 February 1982.
Post lot text
We are grateful to art historian Juan Carlos Pereda for his assistance cataloguing this work.

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Lot Essay

Born in Oaxaca in 1899, Tamayo built his career between Mexico and the United States as he began to define a maverick position within the Mexican avant-garde. He held teaching positions in Mexico City and New York in the 1920s and 1930s amid the ascension of the Mural movement, whose ideological arte social-político he countered with a defense of arte puro, a more autonomous, critical model of mexicanidad advocated by the Contemporáneos, a modernist group of artists and writers. Across a celebrated career that spanned the twentieth century, Tamayo dwelled on the motley complexion of humanity, imaged in men and women—mythical and Mexican—who brave the world with resilience and empathy. A brilliant colorist, he gained international renown in the postwar years following his triumph at the XXV Venice Biennale (1950) and undertook a series of high-profile mural projects, among them Nacimiento de nuestra nacionalidad (Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, 1952), two interpretations of Prometheus (Paris and Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, 1957 and 1958), and El hombre frente al infinito (Hotel Camino Real, Mexico City, 1971). He has been the subject of numerous retrospectives, notably at the Guggenheim Museum (1979), the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (1988), the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (2007), and most recently the Smithsonian American Art Museum (2017).

“His subject now is man,” Paul Westheim observed of Tamayo in the late 1950s, “man, who, apart from his condition as a collective being, is discovering himself as an individual and intransferable being, whose essence cannot be transferred any more than his life can be lived by anyone but himself” (Tamayo: A Study in Esthetics, Mexico City, 1957, p. 11). Tamayo confirmed his essential humanism, declaring, “I am interested in Man. Man is my subject, Man who is the creator of all scientific and technological wonders. To me that is the most important thing in existence” (“A Commentary by the Artist,” Tamayo, exh. cat., Phoenix Art Museum, 1968, p. 4). Archetypal figures, Tamayo’s men and women encode cosmic dualities: life and death, past and future, myth and memory. They are at once universal and distinctively local, engendered from their inscription within national and indigenous traditions and yet sensitized to the existential crises of modernity. “Tamayo’s man,” Westheim concluded, “is burdened with sadness, or is bursting with happiness; he laughs, and at times he cries. . . . The tragedies, the tensions, the conflicts that spring from human association do not make him suffer. His suffering springs from inside himself, from his questions that have no answer, from his anxiety in trying to understand the incomprehensible, from his own humanity” (op. cit., p. 22, 25).

“The figures that appear in Tamayo’s latest pictures are the isolated figures or couples that we know, though always viewed afresh,” observed critic José Corredor-Matheos in 1987, “the face like a mask, the mouth and nose drawn geometrically, like the decoration of ancient cultures. The color is fragmented, broken up, sprinkled like gas. Everything here is nuanced, without any stridency, a strange flowering.” The minerality of Tamayo’s color in Hombre contra el muro conveys a feeling of hard-earned equanimity and eternity; the figure appears as both a living presence and an ancient skeleton. As in Mujer de pie (1978) and Hombre a la puerta (1980), the parallel bands that frame the man’s torso recall similar decorations seen in Mesoamerican codices, a nod to Mexico’s past and to Tamayo’s own collection, which he left to Oaxaca in the Museo de Arte Prehispánico de México Rufino Tamayo, inaugurated in 1974. The striped design and color scheme (mottled reds and grayish turquoise) of the background in Hombre contra el muro further recall the extraordinary Mayan wall paintings at Bonampak, which describe courtly life and ritual practice. “His figures are more archetypal than ever before,” Corredor-Matheos reflected. “What should matter to us now are those reds, crimsons, pinks, yellows, greens, blues, blacks, and whites—they and the figures which they go to make up in absolute freedom. Those figures 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” (Tamayo, New York, 1987, pp. 26-27).

“The symbolism of ancient art becomes transfiguration in Tamayo’s painting,” the Mexican poet laureate Octavio Paz declared. “The world for Tamayo is still a system of summonses and responses, and man is still part of the earth—he is earth. Tamayo’s attitude is more ancient: he is nearer the source.” Tamayo’s late work is poignant and auspicious, an affirmation of his enduring belief in humanity and in the process of painting itself. “Painting is the name we give to the relationships between sensations and the forms they create as they entwine and move apart,” Paz concluded. “The most immediate and most direct sensations: colors, forms, touch. A material world that is also a mental world, yet retains its materialness: those colors are painted colors. All Tamayo’s critical inquisitiveness tends towards the salvation of painting, the preservation of its purity and the perpetuation of its mission as translator of the world” (“An Art of Transfigurations,” Rufino Tamayo: Myth and Magic, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1979, p. 16, 21-23).

Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park

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