MARTÍN RAMÍREZ, a Mexican-born peasant who spent the last three decades of his life in a California mental hospital, is now recognized as one of the state’s greatest artists. His alleged misdiagnosis and subsequent incarceration in a psychiatric institution, almost certainly against his will, inspired some of his greatest work — part of a trend known as “outsider art.” The tension between the hard facts of Ramírez’s experience and the beauty of his work is key to appreciating him — in particular because his ultimate subject is a mediation between his past and present conditions.
During the time of his confinement he began to draw and paint, eventually producing a remarkable oeuvre that is critically acclaimed for its graphic precision and stylistic expression. He was a memory artist, devoted to the preservation of his own history. He drew the animals, religious icons, trains, and people that reflected his past. With the strong, hypnotic lines that structure each and every piece, Ramírez reflected his current conditions, and sought psychological protection for himself under difficult circumstances.
The Swiss writer Robert Walser worked as a secretary in Berlin and died a resident of a psychiatric institution in Switzerland. Walser, who was Ramírez’s contemporary, willingly entered a sanitarium after a long period of mental, social, and economic strain. His psychic fragility and sense of personal defeat led him to a different kind of writing, both microscopic and coded. His indecipherable lines of tiny text create hypnotic visual landscapes.
It took translators years to decipher the handwriting in Walser’s latest works. The elaborate subterfuge with which he wrote his stories reflects the author’s desire to avoid the outside world — to protect himself from that world, much in the same way that Ramírez did.
A number of fascinating books have been published in recent years about each artist, including Euan Macdonald: We Already See So Much, Martín Ramírez: Reframing Confinement, Pencil Sketches: Dickinson/Walser, and Microscripts. Considered together, they form a parallel story of two men who never met in person, yet share a remarkable story of confinement and creativity — a story that comes together in their work.
Ramírez was born in the state of Jalisco, in Mexico, during the winter of 1895. The dirt would have been red and dry around the Rincón de Velázquez, the small ranch where he was born, and stayed that way through the spring — the land of that region is “skinny,” as the Mexican writer Agustín Yáñez has called it, and demands much work from those who till it.
What he knew growing up was hunger and hard labor. Animals were the most valuable things in his village. Everyone who could afford cattle bought them; the area is well known for skilled horsemen. His family was poor and landless. His only experience of art came from trips to the parish churches, the baroque interiors of San Francisco de Asís and Capilla de Milpillas and San José de Gracia.
There he would have seen angels in the throes of passion, carved into striated marble. Crosses big and small, simple and ornate, in wood and steel and brass and gold. Paintings in luridly bright blues and reds and golds, showing the Virgin opening her arms to the news of the Immaculate Conception. A rainbow of diamond shapes in stained glass.
By 1924, after years of working on other people’s ranches, Ramírez scraped together a payment for 20 acres near San José de Gracia, one of the most fertile areas of an unforgiving valley. He married María Santa Ana Navarro, who knew how to work because she was the daughter of landless peasants herself. In time they had four children: Teófila and Agustina and Juana and Candelario. In his own small way, Martín Ramírez believed that he had achieved greatness. He only wanted to earn enough money to pay off his property loans, to help his siblings, and to make investments for more productive farming. This modest desire led to the end of his life as he knew it.
On August 24, 1925, Ramírez took a train from Atotonilco station to El Paso, Texas, and then another train to California. His plan was to work in the Northern California mines for a few years and send money back home. It was hard labor in the mines, and the Mexican immigrants got the worst of it.
While Ramírez was working in the mines, the pious Catholics with whom he had grown up declared war against the new, secular government that had come to power after the Mexican Revolution. Their attempted counterrevolution came to be known as “La Guerra Cristera” (January 1927–June 1929). It was the kind of war that involved mass public executions, forced resettlements, burning, and pillaging. Ramírez received letters from his family telling him that his animals and property had been destroyed and that his brother had been threatened with execution.
In the midst of the resulting anguish and confusion, Ramírez came to believe that his wife had joined the government army against the Catholic Cristeros. (She had done no such thing.) It was around this time that Ramírez began exhibiting signs of mental strain. The Great Depression exacerbated his suffering: it snatched away what was left of his livelihood in California. In January of 1931 the police arrested him on the street for being homeless and “appearing confused.” He was committed to a psychiatric hospital.
According to the sociologist Víctor M. Espinosa, who examined Ramírez’s medical files for his essay “The Worlds of Martín Ramírez” in Martín Ramírez: Reframing Confinement, the doctors declared him to be “noisy, restless, violent, dangerous, destructive, excited, and depressed.” They wrote that he “sang to himself.” They believed that he laughed in a “stupid manner.” They diagnosed “dementia praecox, catatonic form.”
Over and over again in the examinations he said that he was “no loco, no loco, no loco.” He ended up a ward of the Stockton State Hospital. He tried and failed to escape three times. It was after that last failed escape that Ramírezceased fighting his present circumstances, and, instead, began to draw about the life that preceded them. He turned inward.
He stopped speaking to the doctors, the social workers, the nurses, and the police. They said he had fallen mute. They considered it another symptom of the mental illness that was ravaging his mind. Ramírez ignored them. They hadn’t listened to him in the examining room, and he saw no need to talk to them now. He ceased to worry about anything beyond the representation of his memories.
After he had finished his day’s work on the hospital farm, he would find an empty corner of the floor, roll out whatever paper he had, and crouch to draw elaborate pictures of horses, riders, deer, railroads, saints, and women. He surrounded them with his famous undulating lines.
Straight, curved, or angular, these tightly woven lines form intense schematics in every one of his pieces. They echo his memories of the churches’ striated marble, of working in the fields under the vibrations of the hot sun, of the rough-woven patterns in the ropes and baskets he carried in Mexico. Far from repetitive, they pulse and radiate; although they are meant to provide structure — they form square stages for his animals and cowboys, circular tunnels for his trains, and glorious robes for his Virgins — the lines are the main event, the element that hypnotizes the viewer.
“First and last, Martin Ramirez was a master of space — both measured and mysterious, psychological and decorative,” writes the art critic Roberta Smith in her essay “Radiant Space: The Art of Martín Ramírez,” reprinted in Martín Ramírez: Reframing Confinement. “The primary tool of this mastery was the(?) line, just as its primary purpose was the creation of settings that would both protect and valorize his figures, animals, and machines.”
A fine example are the two works depicting a man riding a donkey from 1960-’63 that are reprinted in Martín Ramírez: The Last Works. The rider is Ramírez’s favorite motif, and in these two pieces he is a friendly presence in the center of the frame. Ramírez wants the viewer to focus on the rider — in both works, he has colored the bodies of man and mount with bright greens, yellows, and oranges — yet we are fascinated by the stark, black-and-white valances and pillars that consume the rest of the image. The rider is completely hemmed in by these forms. Though the lines provide the rider with a stage, they’re also ramparts to defend him from the viewer — the longer we watch him, the further he recedes into the distance.
It’s easy to understand why Ramírez chose to use linear structures. Lines offer a simple and elegant aesthetic solution to the challenge of creating form within a drawing, and that may have been particularly attractive to an untrained autodidact like Ramírez. For a man who had little or no contact with art institutions of any sort, linear forms may have been the best solution from a limited toolbox.
But the more intriguing answer may be that these lines created order and protection for their creator. Much critical attention has been focused on Ramírez’s figurative choices, but his overwhelming concern was with the creation of strong graphics to anchor every picture. Strength and grounding — it isn’t coincidental that these were the obsessions of a fragile outsider who had good reason to be intimidated by the larger world.
Ramírez never spoke of his techniques and never had anyone to teach him what to do. He found his tools in the trash — pencil stubs, charcoal from the burnt ends of used matches. He colored in his lines using chalk and crayons when he could find them. More often he used shoe polish, saliva, and “watercolors” that he made himself from fruit juice and oats and little scraps of paper. He liked reds and browns and greens and blues, the colors of the earth and the sky that he could no longer see.
Some of the Stockton doctors noticed that he was talented, but the hospital was so teeming and chaotic that his work escaped notice until in 1948 he was transferred to the smaller DeWitt State Hospital, in Auburn near Sacramento. There he shared a room with 70 other men; the only art space he had was next to his bed. He built a small storage container for his materials, including potato starch, cigarette rolling papers, bread dough, candy-box wrappers, matchsticks, newspaper clippings, tongue depressors, book pages, colored pencils, paper cups, crayons, nurses’ notes, magazines, and examining-table cover sheets. He was a small man, and the other patients could be violent, so he continued to work on the floor unless the room was empty and he felt safe enough to open his drawings on a table.
At DeWitt, Ramírez started to find an audience. His first fan was Tarmo Pasto, a visiting professor of psychology and art at the California State University in Sacramento. Pasto became a passionate advocate for Ramírez’s work, giving him real art materials for the first time and organizing Ramírez’s first exhibitions. Ramírez could not go, of course, since the exhibitions were at places like the E. B. Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento and the Mills College Art Museum in Oakland. But he might not have appreciated their titles, anyway: “The Art of a Schizophrene” and “Art from the Disturbed Mind.”
There he stayed until February 1963, when he died of cardiac arrest after several days of illness. He was 67 years old, and both he and his family were still so poor that there was no money to pay for the repatriation of his body to Mexico.
Yet the drawings lived on. Pasto had collected and preserved some 300 of them; another doctor who worked at DeWitt, Max Dunievitz, had collected and preserved about 140. These collections became the basis for a body of work that has gradually become internationally known and revered — from 1970s exhibitions at the Phyllis Kind Gallery in New York City and a 1984 “outsider artist” exhibition in Long Beach to a triumphant 2007 exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in New York that left in its wake glowing reviews, splashy monographs, and a feature on the CBS News Sunday Morning.
There were some who were uncomfortable with recognizing Ramírez as an artist. Latino art supporters fought unsuccessfully against his inclusion in a 1987 exhibition at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, charging that the work of an institutionalized schizophrenic was an insult to the Latino community.
In 2008, sociologists Víctor and Kristin Espinosa challenged the artist’s diagnosis after doing extensive research of their own. They found many problems with the way that Ramírez had been confined and treated, including the fact that there were no translators present during at least one of his two diagnostic interviews. They also found that one of the claims about him — that he was mute — was false.
Ramírez didn’t choose to speak very often during the last 30 years of his life, but there were at least two people to whom he did speak. One of them was the artist Wayne Thiebaud, who met Ramírez when he was a student of Tarmo Pasto’s at Sacramento State University.
As Thiebaud recounts in his essay “Remembering Ramírez,” in Martín Ramírez: The Last Works, he went to DeWitt to see a remarkable patient about whom his professor had been talking. He watched Ramírez working quietly on the floor for a while until he noticed that the artist was consulting a small picture in his hand. He guessed it was a model for the piece on which he was working. So Thiebaud, who spoke a little Spanish, asked him if it was a picture of a shoe.
“Sí,” Ramírez said.
Thiebaud then asked him if he had other drawing models.
Again Ramírez answered, “Sí.” He showed Thiebaud several more of the models — little bits of advertisements cribbed from magazines — that he consulted for his drawings.
Another person to whom Ramírez spoke was his nephew, José Goméz Ramírez, who visited him at DeWitt in 1952. His descendants have said that Ramírez told José he would never return to Mexico. José asked Martín for a reason on behalf of his long-suffering wife, María Santa Ana. Martín’s reply, translated into English, was, “Just tell my wife that we will see each other in the Valley of Jehoshaphat.”
The apocalyptic phrase has the ring of family mythology, but maybe Ramírez said it. Maybe he believed it.
Robert Walser also used lines to protect himself against a world he found impossible to manage. Diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1929, and voluntarily committed from then until his death, Walser’s literary subjects — he was a master of the small, the quirky, the ephemeral — are indivisible from his self-conception as a failure.
Like Ramírez, Walser experienced some early success followed by a disastrous immigration. He was born in 1878 in the canton of Bern, Switzerland. His family background was modest. His father ran a store selling stationary, and Walser left school at the age of 14 to apprentice as a bank clerk. Yet he was always possessed by the desire to be an artist: first, an actor, and then, after his sole audition ended in humiliating failure, a poet. He began to write poems, short prose pieces, and short verse plays. Following the publication of his first book, he moved to Berlin, believing that life in the metropolis would advance his career.
It was 1905. Walser began his new life with high hopes. He was willing to take on all manner of odd jobs. (He worked prior to that as an assistant to an inventor and also trained to be a servant in a castle.) On long walks, he fell in love with Berlin’s salons, cafés, shops, trams, and streets.
At first, things went well: he found more success with his writing, publishing vignettes in newspapers and important literary journals. His stories and novels, now considered masterpieces of high modernism, are singular in their unusual form and their bizarre, obsessive delight in the quotidian. The great German critic Walter Benjamin noted his distinctive style: “Here we find ourselves confronted by a seemingly quite unintentional, but attractive, even fascinating, linguistic wilderness.”
His stories about Berlin reflect both the wonders of urban life and the crushing sense of atomization that can go with it, and he collapses these sensations in a fashion that’s both bewildering and true. Writing about a fire in Berlin Stories, for example, he describes a scene in which:
Everyone lurches forward and without realizing it has already begun a conversation with whoever happens to be standing alongside, cheeks are glowing, and now people are even starting to leap and run. They’re suddenly doing something they haven’t tried in a good two years. All at once the world appears changed, expanded, thicker, and more tangible.
Socially, though, he was lost: he was painfully shy. The smallest social defeats could devastate him. Upon first moving to Berlin he wrote a letter to his sister Fanny describing an attempt to socialize:
After lunch I passed the hours gazing at myself in four beautiful mirrors that were hung up in the blue living room, and yet came no closer to making sense of myself — on the contrary, I became stupider and stupider.
Making matters worse, he was struggling to find publishers as his writing matured and grew more challenging. “The more earnestly I longed and strived to put myself on a firm footing, the more clearly I saw myself teetering on the brink,” he wrote in a 1917 piece, “A Homecoming in the Snow.”
As he pulled back from the world, Walser’s method of composition reflected his feelings of withdrawal. Much of his later work was written on found materials: the backs of business cards, calendar pages, opera programs, and other throwaway documents. His handwriting shrank and changed, as he described in a letter to the editor Max Rychner in 1927: “So I experienced a period of disruption that was mirrored, as it were, in my handwriting and its disintegration, and when I copied out the texts from this pencil assignment, I learned again, like a little boy, to write.”
Walser’s “little boy” handwriting looks less like script and more like the miniscule scratches and loops that a needle might make while skipping over a record, didn’t resemble modern German. It is beautiful and graphic, and Walser was careful to preserve organized paragraphs even in his shortest texts. His literary executor wondered if the tiny lines and loops weren’t a code that Walser had invented himself, all the better to capture the sense of desolation he felt in his own mind.
The strange handwriting turned out to be a micro version of Kurrent script, a form of German handwriting with medieval origins. Translators worked painstakingly with magnifiers to collect these documents into a 2012 book called Microscripts and a full novel called The Robber.
The stories in Microscripts reflect the usual themes of Walser’s stories — carefully observed portraits of urban types, meditations on travel by foot or by public transit, small moments in the lives of marginal people like beggars, failures in business or love — but there are also moments when the author breaks through the text to share his fright and anxiety. “You must without fail be satisfied with me, do you hear? Without fail,” reads one such sentence in “Microscript 190.” The story lacks the context for the author’s sudden demand, nor is there any way for the reader to fulfill it. Yet Walser’s anguish is haunting.
In “Microscript 50,” Walser writes of “a victor” who bears a suspicious resemblance to the author himself:
Cursed by the aristocracy and dropped by a town eager to keep up appearances, he wrapped himself up in his cloak, buried his head in his hands, and felt ashamed. In vain did they wait for him at home. No one ever saw him again. Reviled by all, he vanished from sight. A later educator, to be sure, moved by gratitude, erected a monument to him at a suitable juncture.
Walser’s death turned out to be as obscure as the life he had lived. His body was discovered on Christmas Day, 1956. He had died of a heart attack on one of the walks that he loved to take. There’s a well-known police photograph of him lying dead, pitched forward in the snow, his heavy footprints tracking his last steps. Did Walser know that he would be lionized posthumously? Or was the passage a way to make it so, a small cry for future vindication?
He wrote the smallest lines he could in the least likely places. He waited out the rest of his days in the safe haven of a sanitarium, where no one would remind him of what he had tried to gain from the world. He died seven years before Ramírez.
For Walser, as for Ramírez, lines offered an aesthetic solution to the incredible personal challenges of mental and social instability. Both artists used lines to create a peculiar sense of organization that is not immediately penetrable by their observers. Those who sense the destruction of order (either in the world or in their own minds) are motivated to recreate it.
“The psychotic artist is profoundly dislocated, often literally lost in space,” writes the art critic and historian Hal Foster in his essay “Blinded Insights: On the Modernist Reception of the Art of the Mentally Ill,” reprinted in Martín Ramírez: Reframing Confinement. “The obsessive elaborations of this art are not made to break the symbolic order; on the contrary, they are made in its apparent breach.”
Ramírez’s lines protect his figures, but they can be so overwhelming that they crowd those figures out. The lines — the defense — become the subject of the picture. Walser’s lines were used to disguise the meaning of his own words. The lines — the defense — become the hermetic seal, the story in themselves.
Ramírez and Walser had to work this way. They used lines to protect their work, but first and foremost they needed to protect themselves. Barred from acceptance and respectability by their backgrounds and their inability to overcome challenges and failures, they were left with their memories, ambitions, and secrets: the grids, girds, and slivers, and the worlds held within.
Caille Millner is an editorial writer and cultural columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle.