Of the same generation as the more overtly political Mexican muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, Rufino Tamayo remains less well known than those compatriots. As curator of Rufino Tamayo: A Solitary Mexican Modernist, Marisol Argüelles makes clear, the Zapotec painter was not a Communist party conformist, so he remained somewhat outside the group, though he believed in social and cultural interstices as providing a “glue” for art in Mexico.

Tamayo sought to advance the Mexican art scene in a less didactic way. Colour resonance became an emotional cue that had its cultural associations. Like Matisse, Tamayo believed that by reducing colours, he expanded the possibilities of painting. His art was less about statement and more about the impermanence and strength of beauty for and of itself. We see this in the large-scale oil on canvas Watermelons (1968) on loan from the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Internacional Rufino Tamayo.

Abstract with an emotional sensuality in all its simplicity this is Tamayo at his best. When in Paris with his second wife Olga, Tamayo drew on a broad range of European influences that included the less obvious Renaissance Italian art. A painting from the Paris period, Olga and Rufino resonates with raw textural simplicity. We see Olga her face cast downwards staring at a clock on a table. A silhouette of Rufino hovers in the air beside. This dual portrait captures something modernist, yet it is pervaded with a Mexican spirit.

The Great Galaxy (1978) is one of a series of paintings that addressed Tamayo’s fascination with astronomy, space exploration and humanity’s unique place in the universe. The standing figure to the left of the painting, is a presence but equally enthralled at what he sees, as his ancestors and future people will likewise be. The starry galaxy-ridden heavens extend, a pure and infinite universe, expanding and with deep colours that resonate all Tamayo’s vision of humanity’s amazement and incredulity of what we discover as time goes on.

Included in the show is a series of twelve prints by Tamayo, that reflect the artist’s great contribution to popular medium of printmaking. Indeed, Tamayo invented the relief printing style called “Mixografia”, innovating and integrating past and contemporary motifs simultaneously in a single graphic work. 

Tamayo A Solitary Mexican Modernist
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
June 25 – October 10, 2016