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Friday, June 1 • 3:00pm - 3:30pm
(Material Questions) Martin Ramirez’s Creative Compulsions: The Composition, Construction and Conservation of His Monumental Collaged Drawings

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Like many “outsider” artists who were not championed by the art establishment until late in their careers or well after their deaths, Martin Ramirez was until recently a somewhat mysterious figure. The details of his biography were scant and the 42 years that passed between his death and their coalescence in a 2015 biography by Victor Espinoza bred apocryphal tales of his artistic process. Ramirez immigrated to the United States from Mexico, worked for a time, and then found himself homeless on the streets of Los Angeles only to be incarcerated into the state’s mental hospitals for the last decades of his life. His isolation and diagnosis as a catatonic schizophrenic fueled rumors that without access to art supplies, he was compelled to squeeze grapefruit to make ink from their juice and to macerate bread, mashed potatoes, and cereal to make adhesives. While it is true that Ramirez’s circumstances necessitated ingenuity, such descriptions of his desperation detract from the technical skill, sophisticated visual lexicon, and thoughtful revisions that he employed in the production of some 400 extant drawings (as well as many more destroyed by hospital staff) over a period of three decades. Fashioned from papers that Ramirez removed from waste paper baskets and magazines, from the cafeteria’s paper placements and napkins, and from paper bags of all sorts, the artist’s collaged supports are works of art in their own right that possess a tactile three-dimensional quality. His imagery includes trains running into tunnels, men on horseback, towering madonnas, and Spanish colonial-style architecture. In anticipation of the inaugural exhibition of the new Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (ICA LA), a large number of Ramirez’s works housed in Chicago collections were examined and conserved. Among them, a monumental 18-foot-long drawing that Ramirez constructed from hundreds of scraps of paper would become central to the exhibition after a major conservation intervention. To better understand Ramirez’s materials, technical study and scientific analysis were undertaken to characterize the adhesives and various components of the drawing media and colorants. Research into arts education in public schools and institutions like the ones in which Ramirez lived was also undertaken to determine what products were available to students and patients alike in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Combined with observations made during the conservation treatment of the large drawing noted above, as well as 14 others, a better and more precise understanding of Ramirez’s materials, his methods of constructing his supports, and the types of damage to which they are susceptible over time, will be presented.

avatar for Harriet K. Stratis-[PA]

Harriet K. Stratis-[PA]

Stratis Fine Art Conservation LLC, Art Institute of Chicago (Retired)
Harriet Stratis is a paper conservator and technical art historian. In 2017, after 30 years as a museum professional, she established a private practice and is focussed on consulting for museums and private collectors to carry out technical research and/or conservation treatments... Read More →

avatar for Mary Broadway

Mary Broadway

Associate Paper Conservator, Art Institute of Chicago
Mary Broadway is the Associate paper conservator at the Art Institute of Chicago Additional Co-authors include: Mary Broadway, Veronica Biolcati, Ken Sutherland, Francesca Casadio, Emeline Pouyet, Agnese Babini, Gianluca Pastorelli, Danielle Duggins, Marc Walton

Ken Sutherland

Conservation Scientist, Art Institute of Chicago
Ken Sutherland is a scientist in the Department of Conservation and Science at the Art Institute of Chicago. He held previous positions as scientist in the Conservation Department of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Research Fellow in the Scientific Research Department of the National... Read More →

Friday June 1, 2018 3:00pm - 3:30pm MDT
Texas Ballroom A Marriott Marquis Houston