“I was made in New York,” commented Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo. “…(Where) I learned to see paintings and to critique my own work.” Tamayo’s third residency in New York City lasted for fourteen years beginning in 1936. The big apple held the artist’s dreams of success. Upon arrival he recalls taking his wife Olga directly to 57th street and commenting, “Here are the best galleries…and I promise you that one day here you will see my work exhibited in them.” Making good on his promise, by January of 1937 Tamayo presented a one-man show of his paintings, gouaches, and drawings at the Julien Levy Gallery located at 15 East 57th Street. Levy further helped Tamayo secure a teaching position, which he held from 1938-47 at the private, progressive Dalton School, thus alleviating his precarious financial situation at the time. By the summer of 1938 Tamayo had signed a contract with the then-emerging, now long-established Galería de Arte Mexicano (GAM), who paid him a monthly sum in advance of sales. Traveling to Mexico City, he presented his first solo show at GAM in September of that year. Shortly thereafter Tamayo accepted New York art dealer Valentine Dudensing’s offer to represent the artist in his cutting-edge gallery located, not surprisingly, on East 57th Street. Girl on a Balcony of 1938 is from this exciting, fructiferous period and is stylistically in line with figurative paintings Niña bonita (Pretty Little Girl) and Nueva York desde la terraza (New York from the Terrace), both of 1937. In all three works Tamayo builds on his prior formal discoveries with regard to rhythm and pattern, while also arguably approaching the portrait and a sense of place through the lens of his transcultural experience.
The girl stands on a terrace, a railing separating her from the colonial neighborhood beyond with its church dome in the distance. The youthful girl, her age not easily determined, wears a modern dress, sash, kid gloves, a bow in her hair, and Mary Jane shoes. White balls, echoed in Nueva York desde la terraza, lay at her feet. Indian heritage is not emphasized here, unlike the women in Tamayo’s Vendedoras de frutas of the same year, whose skin the artist paints the color of burnt sienna. Perhaps Tamayo self-identifies with this mestiza (person of mixed race), as she is located at the threshold, not quite of the big city or belonging to the pueblo. Tamayo has said that the color white, which he uses here extensively, is inspired by the white of limestone that covers the façades of buildings in his native Oaxaca.
Tamayo mined the history of Mexican cultural production as he shaped the kind of synthetic approach to modernist art that we see in Girl on a Balcony. “It is very well known that while the other painters considered their Mexicanness to consist simply of the act of representing the occurrences of our country’s past, I in turn submitted myself to our great tradition and lived from it.” In 1922, while still a student at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes, Tamayo was hired by Minister of Education José Vasconcelos, not to form part of the emergent mural program, but as a draftsman in the department of ethnographic drawing of the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía where the artist interpreted the designs of pre-Columbian artifacts for their use by artisans in contemporary popular art. Over the course of his artistic career Tamayo synthesized what he learned about form and color from pre-Columbian art and popular crafts, in combination with the lessons of his contemporary Mexican easel painters, and the European avant-garde, particularly Pablo Picasso. While Girl on a Balcony recalls the portraiture of the contracorriente artists (those who went against the historical, epic content of Mexican muralism and painted personalized themes) María Izquierdo and Abraham Ángel, Tamayo looks, as Izquierdo did, to the precedent of 19th century provincial portraiture, such as Jalisco artist José María Estrada. The latter is evident in the composition of Girl on a Balcony and the stylistic treatment of the subject: in the centrality of the full-length representation; the purposeful thickness and doll-like stiffness of the figure; her child-adult age ambiguity; as well as her framing between strong vertical columns and floor.
Within a year’s time of Girl on a Balcony’s painting, Tamayo’s work would shift in response both to the outbreak of World War II, as well as the impression made on the artist in viewing the 360 works that comprised the exhibition Picasso: Forty Years of His Art at the Museum of Modern Art, as well as Picasso’s Guernica on exhibit at the Valentine Gallery. In the early 1940s Tamayo would engage his knowledge of the formal aspects of pre-Columbian form and high-key color to produce a series of Picassian animals as universal allegories of war.
Teresa Eckmann, Associate Professor of Contemporary Latin American Art History, University of Texas at San Antonio
1 Rufino Tamayo in an 1980 interview with Cristina Pacheco in La luz de México: Entrevistas con pintores y fotógrafos (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995), 586. My translation.
3 See Ingrid Suckaer, “Chronology,” in Ed. Del Conde, Teresa, Tamayo (Boston: Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company), 418-420.
4 See Ingrid Suckaer, “Biographical Nuances,” in Ed. Del Conde, Teresa, Tamayo (Boston: Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company), 195-197.
5 Rufino Tamayo in a 1980 interview with Cristina Pacheco in La luz de México: Entrevistas con pintores y fotógrafos (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995), 589. Author's translation.
6 Rufino Tamayo in the film by Manuel Gonzalez Casanova, Tamayo (Mexico City: UNAM, 1967). Author's translation.
7 Suckaer, “Chronology,” 416.
8 Jorge Alberto Manrique, “Las contracorrientes de la pintura mexicana” in El nacionalismo y el arte mexicano: IX coloquio de historia del arte del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas (Mexico City: UNAM, 1986), 259-270.