Blue-chip outsider artist Martín Ramírez was memorialized this past Thursday evening in Chelsea with the unveiling of a United States postage stamp. The depression-era Mexican immigrant, who was institutionalized for decades with symptoms of acute schizophrenia, created a series of stunning works on paper now considered among the most important of this genre, and currently on view at the Ricco Maresca Gallery. The event was a moving — and, I would bet, by far the most eclectic — United States Postal Service–sponsored function in recent times.
A mixed marriage of a hipster gallery opening and a formal day-of-issue unveiling of a new postage stamp, the evening was a smorgasbord of ultra-nerdy stamp collectors, post office bureaucrats, the late artist’s heirs, and the crème de la crème of outsider art collectors, curators, and art critics. Actor John Turturro, himself a collector, rubbed shoulders with a fellow clutching his copy of the American Philatelist, freshly autographed by New York’s Post Master General. Ramirez’s work, now valued in the hundreds of thousands, hung aside a U.S. Postal Service concession stand selling the 49-cent Ramirez stamp.
New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz was the genial master of ceremonies. Charismatic and articulate, and by turns gracious and irreverent, Saltz spoke not only about the artist, but of the fallacy of calling the now mainstream work “outsider art.” Saltz’s wife, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, made a cameo appearance. The chief financial officer of the US Postal Service, an amiable fish out of water in fashionable Chelsea, took on the obligatory official duties of unveiling the new stamps.
Then Brooke Davis Anderson took the podium. Anderson, who is the former Deputy Director of Curatorial Planning at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and current head of Prospect New Orleans, the citywide contemporary art Biennale, was an early and important promoter of the work of Martin Ramírez and other outsider artists. At the event, Anderson led off with a passionate and partisan plea for the value of small museums in America — museums that specialize in the depth of a subject, rather than the breadth of the art world. The International Center for Photography (ICP), the American Folk Art Museum, and the Studio Museum in Harlem were a few of the worthy New York institutions that Anderson cited that “make a difference.”
Anderson then recounted Ramírez’s life, fashioning it into an impassioned political talk about immigration and race in America: “We are honoring someone from the working poor on a US Postal stamp. By honoring Ramírez, we are celebrating the disenfranchised in this society so distracted by the 1%.” She continued, “Martin Ramírez was a man who crossed borders solely to provide for his family. Like so many men and women around the world and on our borders did then and do now. We are honoring immigrant workers on a US postage stamp at a time when this continues to be a hotly debated issue.”
Ambassador Sandra Fuentes-Berain, Counsel General from Mexico continued. She spoke movingly of a Mexican migrant worker who had been shot last week in upstate New York because he did not understand what the police were yelling at him. She cited the 35 million Mexicans who live in the United States who are here seeking a better life, as generations of immigrants have done for centuries. “They are here,” she said, “not to take jobs from Americans but to do the jobs Americans don’t want to do.”
Geo-politics, superb, and important outsider art, the guys from the Post Office, and their groupie stamp collectors — how often do we get to mix with great US art critics and folk art curators and our most committed philatelists? More than 50 years after his death in 1963, Martin Ramírez has left his stamp on the New York art scene.
Martín Ramírez: Forever continues at Ricco Maresca through May 2.
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The first time I saw the proposed stamps, I said, “What? These look like something a child could draw!” Since then, I’ve take a closer look at the delicate colors and truly-intricate designs in the stamps and in other works by Ramirez and learned more about his life and the difficult conditions under which he created his art, and I am totally beguiled. Martin has a new fan; may he rest in peace.
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