NEW YORK—“A great many, perhaps the majority, of Martín Ramírez’s drawings were just thrown out as ordinary garbage,” said Frank Maresca, owner of the Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York. Many of those that were spared, however, have brought their owners a considerable payday.
The drawings, which range in size from 16 by 20 inches to 3 by 6 feet, are currently selling for $40,000/350,000, according to Maresca. Ricco Maresca, which began representing the Ramírez estate last March, has already sold “just under 40” of these drawings, and its first exhibition of Ramírez’s works is scheduled for Oct. 2–Nov. 28. Twenty pieces will be on display, priced at $50,000/300,000.
Ramírez (1895–1963) was born in Mexico, but came to the United States in 1925 in search of work. He left behind his pregnant wife and three children. Unable to speak English and apparently disoriented, Ramírez was picked up by police in Northern California in 1931, and subsequently diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia and hospitalized, according to Maresca,
Ramírez spent the remainder of his life in psychiatric hospitals. During his last 15 years, when he was housed in the DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, California, he began to create drawings and mixed-media works that initially drew the interest of psychiatrists and, later, the art world.
Early Exhibitions Draw Attention
There was some recognition of Ramírez’s talent during his lifetime. Both Tarmo Pasto, a psychologist who specialized in the use of art to treat the mentally ill, and Max Dunievitz, the medical director at DeWitt State Hospital, were intrigued by the drawings Ramírez produced, and the two took possession of artworks that interested them.
Pasto arranged for some exhibitions of the drawings, at locales such as the E. B. Crocker Art Gallery, Sacramento, California (1951), a women’s student union at the University of California, Berkeley (1952), and the Lowe Art Center, Syracuse University (in the early 1950s). These helped introduce the works to a wider audience.
Wayne Thiebaud was so startled by the work that he visited Ramírez at DeWitt, and a few years after Ramírez’s death, Chicago painter Jim Nutt and Manhattan art dealer Phyllis Kind partnered to purchase 300 drawings, which Kind subsequently exhibited and sold from her gallery.
Eventually, other gallery owners began selling Ramírez’s works, and museums started showing interest. In 1985 the Paley Gallery at Philadelphia’s Moore College of Art and Design staged an exhibition of the artist’s work, and early last year, the American Folk Art Museum, New York, displayed 97 drawings in a show that drew plaudits from art critics.
It was largely assumed that the works Kind and Nutt had bought were the entire extant body of Ramírez’s work, but then other pieces started turning up. In January 2007, Dunievitz’s daughter-in-law, Peggy, a retired middle-school teacher, read about the American Folk Art Museum exhibition and recalled that she had a group of 140 Ramírez drawings stored in flower boxes in her garage in Auburn. She had intended to throw out the pieces years before, but had kept them at her son’s suggestion. After she contacted the exhibition’s curator, Brooke Anderson, the additional works were included in the show at its next venue—the Milwaukee Museum of Art from Sept. 2007 to Jan. 2008. The American Folk Art Museum has scheduled a show of 25 of these later drawings, “Martín Ramírez: The Last Works,” for October 7–April 12, 2009.
Dunievitz contracted with Ricco Maresca to sell the drawings last October. Meanwhile, two of Ramírez’s grandchildren filed a lawsuit claiming ownership of the Dunievitz drawings, which resulted in an agreement to share ownership between the Dunievitz and Ramírez families. Ricco Maresca Gallery was asked to represent the parties’ combined interests.
Heirs Sue to Recoup Work
Early last month, the Ramírez grandchildren brought another lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New York in order to retrieve 17 of the artist’s drawings that a retired art therapist, Maureen Hammond, had received from Pasto and consigned for auction at Sotheby’s. Hammond also brought a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeking legal clarification of the works’ ownership. Sotheby’s withdrew the drawings from its September auction, pending resolution of the dispute. The California case could hinge on whether Ramírez was legally competent under state law to give his artworks as a gift to Pasto.
A half-dozen works by Ramírez have come up at auction, though the last sale was five years ago. The highest public sale price to date is $95,600 for the collage, colored pencil and watercolor Alamentosa, circa 1953, paid at Christie’s in January 2003 (estimate: $55,000/80,000). Maresca says that none of the titles of Ramírez’s work came from the artist, and are merely descriptions given by others, such as Pasto.