NEW YORK – There are artists and then there are top-tier artists. Mexican-born Rufino Tamayo’s paintings consistently are among the most coveted not only in the field of Latin American art, where he is most commonly categorized, but in modern art in general.
While living in New York City off and on from the late 1920s to 1949, Tamayo helped propel Mexican art in new directions and to new heights. During this period there was a shift the cultural scene in which New York, not Europe, became a center of the modern art movement.
Carmen Ramos, deputy chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and curator of Latino art, curated the exhibition “Tamayo: The New York Years,” which was on display November 2017 through March 2018.
Asked what the artist’s greatest legacy is, Ramos said, “I think he encouraged artists to think about Mexican art beyond subject matter. He kind of became a spokesperson for that. In his career, he really emphasizes the formal properties of art and how it was constructed. He was interested in proportion, color—not just subject matter—and how do you define these from a Mexican perspective.”
“I think that’s an important shift in Mexican art, kind of in response to the Mexican mural movement, which he is very much a part of,” she said. “He inspired artists of late 1940s and ’50s, new generations of Mexican artists who wanted work to be more personal, less ideological, which was the stamp of Mexican muralism.”
Tamayo (1899-1991) was an important artist who came of age during the post-Revolutionary Mexican period. Unlike many of his fellow muralists such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco, Tamayo took a different route to representing Mexican art and subjects, favoring more personal themes. He dabbled in abstraction as well, Ramos said, but in his paintings, one can always identify realistic elements. “He represented the next phase of Mexican art after the muralists, even though his timeline coincided with the muralists. He represented the future,” she said.
Tamayo is renowned for being heavily influenced by the pre-Columbian ceramics, especially terra-cotta burial sculptures that he saw in his native country. While a young artist, he worked for the Museo Nacional de Antropología (now known as the National Anthropology Museum), where he studied pre-Columbian art and was particularly taken with small figurines.
“It was a very transformational experience for him, I think that’s where his interest in the formal properties of art came from and he took that with him through his whole career,” Ramos said.
“He was very interested in these objects as representing the essence of the Mexican visual tradition,” she said. “He was inspired by the proportion of these forms, the color of these forms, the color of everyday life in Mexico—the way people painted their homes. He drew a lot of inspiration from these types of subjects and brought them into his art.”
Most desirable—and important—among Tamayo’s artworks are those he created in the 1940s-1950s.
“This is the moment he really comes into his own as an artist. This is after he integrated and absorbed influences from pre-Columbian art and after he had a long tenure in New York City, where he absorbed influences from American and European art that was on display in New York City, where he lived over 15 years,” Ramos said. “I think it’s in the 1940s he really comes into his own and develops his own approaches to art making.”
Auction results over the years have consistently borne out Ramos’ comments that the works Tamayo created in this decade are among his most important and most avidly collected. Tamayo’s 1945 painting Troubadour sold at a Christie’s New York auction for $7.2 million in May 2008, setting a world auction record price for Latin American art and bringing more than double what the most expensive Tamayo work had previously fetched at auction. The painting depicted a musician playing his guitar while two women look on.
This auction record has stood for 10 years—no simple feat—but may, at last, topple May 14 when Sotheby’s New York offers a 1942 masterwork from Tamayo’s most desirable period and his highly coveted Animal series, said to be the last major work from this celebrated series that is still in a private collection, where it has been for 25 years.
Perro Aullando a la Luna (Dog Howling at the Moon), pictured at the top of this article, is estimated to sell for $5 million to $7 million at the Sotheby’s Evening Sale of Impressionist and Modern Art in New York.
In a press release publicizing the auction, Sotheby’s described the painting as a “masterpiece of Mexican modernism that captures the existential angst following the onset of World War II,” and noted that the war served as a key influence in Tamayo’s work in the early 1940s.
In Perro Aullando the influences of Picasso’s Guernica can also be seen and Tamayo, who was a regular visitor to art galleries and museums in New York City, had undoubtedly seen that painting. Tamayo and other rising American artists struggled with wartime anxieties, which they interpreted on canvas. Sotheby’s said of the Animal series, “While primarily based in New York during this time, he created a series of unsettling pictures in which animals, and dogs, in particular, serve as explicit symbols of unrest.”