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Through May 20, 2007 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara

by Margarita Nieto

“Niña bonita (Pretty Little
Girl)," 1937, oil on canvas.

"Animales (Animals),"
1941, oil on canvas.

"Retrato de Olga (Portrait of
Olga)," 1964, oil on canvas

"El hombre frente al infinito (Man
before the Infinite)," 1950, oil on canvas

"Amigo de los pájaros (Friend of
the Birds)," 1944, oil on canvas.

Rufino Tamayo’s paintings reflect the aesthetic and social complexities that defined Modernism.  Born in Oaxaca, Mexico into an era of political and aesthetic turmoil, he was driven by an avid curiosity to explore a painterly language beyond Mexico.  He resided in New York in the 1930s and ‘40s, then was in Paris during the late 1940s and ‘50s.  That he sought a world beyond Mexico during the post-1910 revolutionary twenties was already controversial, exacerbated by his experimentation with and exploration of Western art.  The cultural environment of the 1920s and ‘30s, imbued as it was with a combination of ultra-nationalism and Marxist-socialism best represented by Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, did not look kindly on what was considered the colonizing West (i.e. Europe) and its historical presence in Mexico.  Tamayo, who proudly acknowledged his own indigenous heritage, simply and firmly applied the aesthetics of space, proportion and volume drawn from pre-Columbian art into his works.

These issues that spilled over, as well, into the battle between ”committed” public art and easel painting are addressed in this well-researched and beautifully installed exhibition of some 100 works. It is the first of Tamayo’s works in the United States in twenty eight years, and the first major retrospective on the west coast.  In addressing them, the exhibition also confronts unspoken and ignored issues of racial, economic, and gender issues in the Mexican art history narrative.

Organized into three large chronological segments, the exhibition traces Tamayo’s unfolding narrative beginning with the twenties through the eighties (the last work is dated 1985).  But beyond chronology, it focuses on Tamayo’s initial experimentation with prevailing art “-isms” of that time and beyond.  The show traces Tamayo’s evolving abstract figurative style that is finally resolved in the geometric planes of figures built from linear volume; it also highlights his abstract language as an extension of and reflection on pre-Columbian forms. There is also a continuing dialogue between the painter and canvas, evinced in his use of surface textures produced by sand and marble.

The subtext of this narrative lies in the constant references to national and regional elements, the hidden traces of class, race, and gender.  Case in point: the 1932 portrait, “Niña con aro” (“Girl with Hoop,” 1932), a composition with a white rectangle in the foreground.  A background of a curvilinear yellow complemented by a curvilinear blue and a cloud is dominated by the figure of a little girl in a sailor suit.  She holds a large hoop in her hand.  A superb portrayal of figurative portraiture, it silently states the unsaid:  the child is brown and yet is dressed in an urban outfit of the time.  In one stroke, Tamayo integrates the indigenous peoples, the Mexican “other” (Diego Rivera’s fruit sellers and cargo bearers address this as well) into contemporary society.  The theme is recapitulated, if less directly, in the portrait of his lover, the painter María Izquierdo, “Retrato de María Izquierdo” (Portrait of Maria Izquierdo,” 1932), in “La familia” (“The Family,” 1936), and in “Niña bonita” (“Pretty Little Girl” 1937).

Tamayo’s conflicted relationships with women, in these examples with Izquierdo and his wife, Olga, form a subtle subjective subtext.  The relatively short relationship with Izquierdo stimulated an explosion of experimentation in their mutual works during the thirties and also provoked life-long tension with Olga.  This dialogue, whose references continue throughout his life, included a hidden and erotic language involving objects from the natural world and modernity.  These are charged with meanings and significations: a blue light bulb seemingly descends onto two open conch shells in “Los caracoles” (“The Seashells, 1929); telephone wires crisscross seeking communication; lighted cigarettes, a pipe, a gun, become phallic references.  Halved papayas and watermelons evoke Cézanne and a simultaneous succulent sensuality.  A recurring open window, that of the house once shared with Izquierdo, becomes her constant presence despite her absence.  The sensual dark nudes, art historical references to Olmec sculpture and referents to Henri Rousseau, all are homages to Izquierdo as well.  His use of surrealistic symbols as stand-ins for a personal narrative is also found in the presence of the fair-skinned model, Olga.  In the late portrait “Retrato de Olga” (“Portrait of Olga,” 1964) she is finally consigned to the status of an iconic Mayan goddess.  His signature watermelon and a ghostly form—perhaps representing the artist—also appear in the red canvas behind her.

From the forties on, the two extremes of Tamayo’s worldview conjure images of ferocious dogs, of madness and torment--all critiques of war and violence as well as a contemplative meditation on the vastness of nature and the cosmos.  The menacing growling dogs protecting meager bones in “Animales” (1941) juxtapose a critique of modern society, while at once referencing classical pre-Columbian Izquincles, a dog of Mexican origin.  The other view, as in  “Amigo de los pájaros” (“Friend of the Birds,” 1944), evokes humankind’s communication with the natural world.  During the fifties, Tamayo re-invoked the cosmos, that parallel universe of the ancient Mexicans, as evidenced in “El hombre frente al infinito” (“Man and Infinity,” 1950), in which the reclining figure, a chac mool, half dark and half light, observes a dual celestial body, also half dark and half light.

Drawing from multiple sources of knowledge, and seeking a freedom beyond then topical political rhetoric, Tamayo’s painterly extension beyond the limits of national borders and absolutes, contributed significantly to the modern re-invention and re-invigoration of Mexican art.  This exhibition is a tribute to that spirit.