First published: Winter 2012
Those are the questions that have long intrigued admirers of the skillfully composed, mixed-media works on paper of the Mexican-born self-taught artist, who has earned a secure place in the outsider art field’s canon of most-remarkable talents. Except, of course, when those are not the main questions a researcher might ask, as when those who take a postmodernist critical approach to their subject matter, downplaying concerns about a body of art’s authorship, focus instead on the conditions – social, cultural, political, economic, historical – in which a particular form of artistic expression develops or from which it has emerged.
By contrast, a so-called formalist approach to understanding and appreciating a work of art assumes that it can effectively convey to a viewer whatever it has to say without the intervention of any kind of analytical or interpretative frameworks or theories, or maybe even without any explanatory, biographical information about its maker. For a strict formalist, form is content, and therein resides a work’s meaning. Likewise, any work can, does and maybe even must speak for itself.
However, notes Víctor M. Espinosa, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Ohio State University (Columbus): ‘From the sociologist’s point of view, the work of art can never speak for itself. The sociologist believes the work of art also has meanings that are constructed socially.’ Espinosa notes that it is art critics and other observers of works of art who derive meanings from or imbue them with meanings. He adds: ‘That’s why Ramírez’s work was thrown in the trash in the 1950s – (precisely) because it couldn’t speak for itself.
Someone had to speak up on its behalf, pointing out its significance in certain contexts, such as in an art-historical context.’ At Dewitt State Hospital in northern California, the psychiatric hospital in which Ramírez spent the latter part of his life, the intervener who recognized the diagnosed schizophrenic’s creations as works of art was Tarmo Pasto, a professor of art and psychology from a nearby college. He visited Ramírez regularly after first meeting him at Dewitt in 1950, gave him art supplies and showed his drawings in public exhibitions.