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Revering Reverón; Ramming Ramírez

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Armando Reverón, Doll (Muñeca), 1940s
Collection Fundación Museos Nacionales, Caracas
© 2007 Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela

There’s a coincidental and probably accidental synergy enlivening W. 53rd Street right now, thanks to two unusual shows of possibly insane, definitely eccentric Latin American artists, receiving groundbreaking retrospectives at next-door institutions—the American Folk Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art.
Martín Ramírez, an overblown and, to my mind, overpraised retrospective of the drawings of the self-taught, Mexican born California psychiatric patient, opened to ecstatic reviews Jan. 23 at AFAM. Armando Reverón, a selective retrospective of paintings and objects by the schizophrenic Venezuelan hermit who studied art in his native country and in Spain before increasingly retreating into seclusion and personal fantasy, opens this Sunday at MoMA, providing deserved mainstream validation of his spookily ethereal, sometimes creepy, but always haunting oeuvre.
Organizers of both shows try to play down the art-of-the-insane aspect of their subjects, in favor of their artistic merit—a case that easily succeeds for the highly trained but freespirited Venezuelan, but much less so for the untutored but rigidly repetitive Mexican. Roberta Smith and Peter Schjeldahl extol Ramírez as an “irresistible genius draftsman” and an artist of “extravagant giftedness,” respectively. They both liken him to Paul Klee and Saul Steinberg (with Smith throwing in Charles Schulz of “Peanuts” fame, for good measure).
They are the two mainstream media critics whom I most respect, so I’m probably wrong and they’re probably right about his brilliance as a draftsman. But to me, Ramírez’s repetitive marks and themes, doggedly and painstakingly executed, lack the spirit and unfettered inventiveness of the artists who most interest me. His work reminds me not of the artists cited by these critics, but of children who learn from an adult how to draw a few shapes well (i.e., cowboys and trains) and then produce endless iterations of them, proud of the good likenesses but unable to come up with original images. It’s a rigid, restricted aesthetic.
Reverón is another story. His diverse creative outpourings and his wildly eccentric lifestyle (which was an integral part of his art) knew few bounds or limits, although he was fully schooled in artistic, if not social, conventions. In the exhibition (but not the catalogue) curator John Elderfield lowkeys the mental-illness part of the biography as distracting to the deserved appreciation of the work in its own right.
To capture, in the catalogue, the ineffable quality of the Venezuelan’s work, Elderfield uses the evocative phrase: “etherealized disembodiment.” The subtle, almost monochromatic landscapes and figure studies transmit an otherworldly aura, which gets stranger and stranger as the artist increasingly withdraws into his own meticulously constructed reality. He built his own compound, El Castillete, where his stuffed dolls—created for him to talk to and to paint—became more real to him than live models or inquisitive visitors. The dolls, he said, “look at me and listen to me.”
To sense what he was after, it’s best to read the artist’s own description, reproduced in the catalogue from an interview conducted in San Jorge Sanatorium in 1953:
Light dissolves colors and…all colors, after all, become white. This is why I came to live in Macuto in order to know less about nothing and to be left in peace. This is the reason why I have been raising the walls of the rancho, little by little. I don’t want them to call me Macuto’s madman any more.
UPDATE: I guess there are certain words that just naturally occur when you review Reverón: “haunting,” “creepy,” “stranger.” They are in my appraisal, above, posted this afternoon, and they figure in tomorrow’s NY Times review by Holland Cotter, posted this evening on its website. He concludes by saying:
He is an artist I think you will be glad to know.

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