Artist's Biography - Rufino Tamayo
Tamayo was born in Oaxaca, in 1899 of Zapotec Indian parentage. After the death of his parents in 1911, he went to live in Mexico City with an aunt who had a small fruit shop in the market place. This influenced Tamayo as an artist, if only in his choice of subject matter. With his friend and mentor, Roberto Montenegro, he had already explored folk arts and, at the age of 21 while still in school, he was put in charge of the Department of Ethnographic Drawing with offices in the National Museum of Anthropology. There his lifelong interest in pre-Columbian objects was formulated.
The only living Mexican artist to gain international stature, Tamayo was long neglected in the country of his birth. He did not get along well with the Big Three, whose political and aesthetic views he could not share. Turning his back on Mexico, Tamayo lived first in New York, where he saw for the first time originals by Picasso, Braque and other Parisians artists who were interested in primitive arts. He began to think his own Mexican art might become part of this international scene.
In 1936, he married Olga Flores Rivas, and they lived on $100 a month from the WPA Project so he could paint and she could study music. In 1938, he was offered a teaching position at the Dalton School. The Tamayos lived the next 18 years in New York.
He was out of step in the Mexico of the thirties. It was the heyday of the muralists whose propaganda narratives were exciting national pride and winning fame for the painters. His interest was towards formal easel painting, personal and lyrical. His subjects were the tropical fruits, musicians, placid nudes and statuesque women modeled on pre-Columbian sculpture.
He turned on the freedom of twentieth century art. His sense of color was already unique, but it became more shocking as his imagination was freed. His interest in composition led him to search for new forms of plastic expression. He became interested in space; in Picasso's stylization, fragmentation of figures; and in the imaginative qualities of Klee and Miro. Tamayo's work is living proof that it is possible to create a thoroughly Mexican art without closing one's eyes to the formal inventions of modernism. As a colorist and as a poet who cold draw upon folklore and the pre-Columbian past with imagination, he knows no peer.
Of all the international artist of this century who were inspired by primitive art forms, he alone has worked from his own heritage. In Europe, he is counted among the most gifted of the modern masters. A fifty-year major retrospective show was held by Friends of Mexican Art and the Phoenix Art Museum in March 1968 with Maestro and Mrs. Tamayo attending, and then in May of 1974 Two Figures in Red was presented to the Phoenix Art Museum by Friends of Mexican Art.
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