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Subject of new PMCA exhibit, Alfredo Ramos Martínez, was hiding in plain sight

Alfredo Ramos Martinez,
Alfredo Ramos Martinez, "Head of a Nun," 1934, tempera on newsprint.
Alfredo Ramos Martinez/Pasadena Museum of California Art

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Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California is at the Pasadena Museum of California Art through April 20.

The paradox of why a great, historically vital Mexican painter is so unknown to modern Angelenos probably has to do with his having spent most of his last 17 years right here in Los Angeles. Alfredo Ramos Martínez was hiding in plain sight.

Ramos Martínez has at last been exposed by a major new show at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. It's accompanied, appropriately, by a separate exhibit of contemporary Chicano artists who may never have heard of him.

Ramos Martínez died 68 years ago, while working on his last mural project at Claremont’s Scripps College, the "Flower Vendors."

(Ramos Martínez at work on "The Flower Vendors." Credit: Scripps College)

Like all of his best American work, it is purely and singularly focused on his native land. Exhibit curator Amy Galpin says Ramos Martínez fled Mexico in 1929, just as many American artists were going to Mexico. But creatively speaking, he truly never left the land of his birth. He simply expressed and developed himself as a Mexican artist in Mexico’s lost northern province — the one we all live in now. So he belongs to California as well.

Ramos Martínez lived his last twenty years in the shadow of three famous compatriots: Diego Rivera, Clemente Orozco … and David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose “America Tropical’’ can now be viewed in downtown LA. Older than these great revolutionary muralists, Ramos Martínez trained in Europe. Although he became a great arts educator, his devout Catholicism put him out of phase with the Tres Grandes and their insurrectionary modernity. It’s also likely that he was deeply affected by the Cristero civil war that raged until 1929, a war that caused the deaths of thousands of militant Catholics at the hands of Mexican troops.

(Alfredo Ramos Martínez: Soldados Mexicanos)

Such upheavals don’t show up in Ramos Martínez’ work, but curator Galpin argues that nevertheless, politics, not ideology, fill much of his later work. Particularly the silk-screen pictures he did on American newspapers in the 1930s. Spreading scenes of austere and impoverished peons over want-ad listings of bankrupt businesses for sale, for instance. The saddening news in the rigid grids of post-Great Crash newspaper columns provides both a background and framework for the ceaseless struggle of the Depression Decade. Galpin notes a further irony: Some of Ramos Martínez’ most affecting scenes are spread over the pages of our own L.A. Times — which was in the 1930s editorially committed to deporting poor Mexican migrants.

These immigrants Ramos Martínez portrays as somber, tranquil. He emphasizes the verticality of their faces, stressing an ancient patience, even among the young. He painted here at a time when this city’s Mexican heritage (think of Olvera Street) was being reclaimed by local Anglos with a vehemence that verged on parody.

But Ramos Martínez never lapsed into caricature. His subjects’ faces, while sometimes gorgeously geometrical, brim with character and dignity.

If the exhibition has a shortcoming, it’s the lack of Ramos Martínez’ earlier work. Did he embrace Modernity while he was in Europe, as did his great Uruguayan contemporary, Joaquin Torres-Garcia? And if so, how much of it do we see here — particularly in his strikingly colored Mexican landscapes?

Instead, the museum contraposes something called Serigrafía, which is billed as surveying “the powerful tradition of information design in California’s Latino culture” with 30 silkscreens dating to the 1970s. These include indelible UFW posters like Xavier Villamontes’ "Boycott Grapes,’’ whose symmetries frame an Azteca crushing the blood out of the forbidden fruit; Esther Hernandez’s “Sun Mad,” the skeletal raisin girl ...

... and Mark Vallen’s “Nuclear War,” the greatest cover ever to appear on LA Weekly.

They are as overtly ideological as Ramos Martínez was not, but they still evoke his spirit, his ganas.