We are grateful to the estate of the artist and the Fundación Ricardo Martínez for confirming the authenticity of this work.
We are grateful to Dr. Mark Ruben for his assistance cataloguing this work.
I love these things that surround me. For that reason, I live surrounded by pre-Columbian art. Now, of course, I am a modern man and try to create something different; (the pre-Columbian) is a point of reference, but distant.
Impactful in the artistic development of Ricardo Martínez must have been his witnessing of his older brother Oliverio’s sculptural execution between 1934-37 of the four groupings of 38-foot tall stone figures for the major public work, Mexico City’s Monumento a la Revolución. Assisting on the project was sculptor Francisco Zúniga, who Ricardo met at the time and formed a lasting friendship with. Zúniga’s voluminous approach to the figure and focus on native Mexico in his own work, and Oliverio’s monumental scale, would dialogue with, even shape Ricardo’s later expression and imagery. Seventeen years Ricardo’s senior, Oliverio was an accomplished artist at that point, having trained briefly at the Escuela National de Bellas Artes, and then teaching at the Escuela de Escultura y Talla Directa, where he rose to subdirector level; he competed for the government public art commission and won, his proposal chosen out of five finalists of 44 entries. Oliverio’s accomplishments encouraged young Ricardo, who, a talented draftsman, would nonetheless try law school before studying at the Academia de San Carlos and giving up that institutional path as well, choosing instead to carve out his own artistic trajectory solo; he would be self-taught, and for the last four decades of his career, self-represented. Oliverio’s death at age 37 from tuberculosis, even prior to the monument’s completion, must have been a tragedy deeply felt by his younger brother. It was the translation of three-dimensional form, of mythic proportions, into two dimensions that became painter Ricardo Martínez’s life-long pursuit.
In the ample studio that Martínez built for himself in the early 1950s behind his home at Calle Etna 32 in the Colonia Los Alpes, he painted daily surrounded by his collection of more than 300 pre-Columbian figurines and masks, predominantly Olmec.2 The architect Fernando González Gortázar notes the shared importance of Olmec carved stone and ceramic production to both brothers Oliverio and Ricardo in their “love of closed (solid) mass, rotundity of form, and a combination of hieratism and expressiveness.”3 Ricardo absorbed and re-interpreted, as he acknowledges in his epigraph, qualities of Olmec production such as the significant weight, thickness, and feline-jaguar features (wide-set, almond-shaped eyes, and sensuous lips, for example) of the objects that he studied so closely.
In canvas after canvas, the painter focused on the human figure; he approached the body in a sculptural manner, not with chisel and hammer in hand, but with charcoal and brush. Line was the basis of every canvas. He suggested three-dimensional form: solid, permanent silhouettes in the darkness, wrapped in atmosphere and revealed by light; through the merging of figure and ground Martínez tested gravity—the play between weight and the weightless. Consistently employing a limited color palette, he used value, a range of tones juxtaposed against a strong accent color, to mold his bodyscapes, languorous scenes lit with high contrast. His compositions built with large, rhythmic positive and negative spaces, he simplified form as he moved towards increasing figurative abstraction.
Before completely arriving at the signature style described here, that he perfected from 1959 until his death in 2009, Martínez painted a “body of costumbrista paintings produced between 1954 and 1958 that portray the everyday, contemporary life of the Indian peasant set against a field of color; smoking cigarettes, reading a letter or newspaper, playing the guitar, carrying hand-woven baskets, gardening, and holding local identifiers—luscious regional fruits, hand-made cheeses, and crops of the land.”4 In these genre scenes, Martínez emphasized traditional dress coupled with symbolic objects; men wear white cotton garments and regional hats, while rebozos (hand-woven shawls) cover the women. They inhabit a rural setting, or a limbatic, in-between space. Thematically Martínez here presents a late indigenismo,5 valorizing the Indian as the basis of mexicanidad at a time when the Mexican government had long-turned its attention away from advancing post-Revolution social reform, to prioritizing industrial modernization, a post-Cardenas Era direction initiated by the administration of President Ávila Camacho following WWII.6
El gusto (Taste) of 1956, presents two men at a table or counter amidst seven, uncapped and apparently empty, bottles of brown and green glass, likely colors reflecting those best suited to keep light from harming the hops. More subdued than Rufino Tamayo’s El borracho feliz of 1946, these men are nonetheless content, smiles on their lips, their thirst satiated. It was not to social realism or to creating epic narratives of Mexican history that Martínez would be tied, but rather, as an artist of the Ruptura, the mid-century break with the Mexican School of Painting, he committed to an atemporal indigenismo explored through abstract figuration. Always grounded in the pre-Columbian, but achieving its highly contemporary interpretation, Martínez exercised his fascination with light and sculptural form, exploiting and perfecting in his life’s production of some 700 artworks, the emotive and formal aspects of his painting.
Teresa Eckmann, Associate Professor of Contemporary Latin American Art History, University of Texas at San Antonio