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


Rufino Tamayo (Mexican 1899-1991)
signed and dated 'Tamayo, O-57' (upper right)
oil on canvas
32 x 39½ in. (81.3 x 100.3 cm.)
Painted in 1957.
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York.
Gardner Cowles collection, New York.
Anon. sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries Inc., 25 February 1970, lot 71 (illustrated).
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Exhibition catalogue, XIV Salon de Mai, Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1958, p. 3, no. 222 (illustrated).
D.C., 'A la Galerie de France' in Les Beaux Art Bruxelles, Brussels, 25 April 1958 (illustrated).
R. Squirru, 'Rufino Tamayo: Mexicano de pura cepa' in Américas Revista semestral, Vol. 15, No. 11, Mexico City, November 1963, p. 29 (illustrated).
L. Cardoza y Aragón, Mexican Art Today, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico City, 1964, no. 53 (illustrated).
E. Genauer, Rufino Tamayo, Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, 1974, no. 48 (illustrated in color).
Paris, Galerie de France, Tamayo Peintures, April 1958, no. 7.
Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, XIV Salon de Mai, 11 May- 1 June 1958, no. 222.
New York, Knoedler Galleries, Tamayo, 17 November- 12 December 1959, no. 23.
Mexico City, Museo de Arte Moderno, Rufino Tamayo, September 1964, no. 31.
Venice, XXXIV Biennale Internazionale d'Arte di Venezia, 22 June- 20 October 1968, no. 9.

Lot Essay

"I'm the first of a new modality of Mexican painting that tries to have a universal voice," Tamayo proclaimed in 1953, supplanting what he felt was the provincial chauvinism of his Mexican contemporaries with a cosmopolitan, universalizing pictorial language.(1) Tamayo enjoyed immense international prestige by the end of the 1950s, taking his place as an ambassador of modern Mexican painting abroad and, equally, becoming an increasingly prominent presence in the cultural life of Mexico City and his native Oaxaca. "Between 1955 and 1967 Tamayo's career took off with high-profile commissions at home and abroad," Mary K. Coffey has remarked, noting how the artist's universally charged murals from this time registered a profound "postwar meditation on Mexico's emblematic resonance for the modern age."(2) Like the major mural works from this era, which include Homage to the Indian Race (1952), for the Mexican government, and Prometheus (1957) for the University of Puerto Rico, his contemporary works on canvas probe myriad pan-historic and cosmic themes that had begun to evolve during the 1940s.

Claustrophobia belongs to a small series of works from the 1950s that retains the tense psychological and emotional undertones of the wartime allegories, distilled through haunted and often menacing imagery. Like the earlier Claustrophobia (1954), in which tilting red walls close in upon a monstrous humanoid figure, and related paintings such as The Tormented (1948) and Spectral Bird (1956), the present work suggests the probing depths of Tamayo's response to the Second World War. "His work of this period can be best understood in light of both the ascendancy of Existentialism and the resurgence of humanism during the 1940s and 1950s," curator Diana C. Du Pont has noted. "It intersects these efforts to come to terms with the unprecedented violence that marred the first half of the twentieth century, the human genocide and world wars that were seen as assaults on civilization."(3)

The angular, attenuated creature that dominates the present Claustrophobia evokes the feelings of foreboding and generalized anxiety that characterized the postwar climate. The personification of claustrophobic fear and neurosis, the monstrous figure appears here as a creature of the nocturnal imagination. Rising grimly behind an empty bed, bat-like wings outstretched and claws still gripping at the headboard, the figure could be a nightmarish emblem of a post-apocalyptic world. The hermetic, suggestively ominous space of the present painting is intensified by Tamayo's resonant colors, from which he draws out a magnificent richness of ruddy tones. Long celebrated for his color, Tamayo shows here his refinement and intuition as a colorist: against the moody background of scarlet pigment flecked with sand, the spectral birds are rendered with tonal highlights of coral-red, jade-green and a touch of indigo that deepens the shadows below. Ultimately, as Paul Westheim reflected, "Tamayo's art is a dramatic expression, saturated with conflicts and tensions, collisions of destructive forces, an art that reflects how fate sifts down onto man, and man's heroic struggle against this fate that is sifting down onto him. It is an art that rides with night and shadows, with demoniac powers of darkness, and with the mystery of the stars."(4)

Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park.
1) R. Tamayo, quoted in Diana C. Du Pont, "'Realistic, Never Descriptive': Tamayo and the Art of Abstract Figuration," in Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2007, 34.
2) M. K. Coffey, "'I'm not the Fourth Great One': Tamayo and Mexican Muralism," in Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, 259.
3) Du Pont, "'Realistic, Never Descriptive,'" 89.
4) P. Westheim, Tamayo: A Study in Esthetics, Mexico City, Ediciones Artes de México, 1957), 15.

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