Printmakers You Should Know: Rufino Tamayo

As Curator at the Roswell Museum, I'm really grateful for the generosity of our donors. The majority of our collection consists of donations, and its scope and quality testifies to the importance of the arts to this area. Just last month, we received several prints from a retired physician, including two works by Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991). To celebrate these new acquisitions, let's take a closer look at this important artist.
Rufino Tamayo, image courtesy of
Tamayo was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1899, but moved to Mexico City to live with his aunt after the death of his parents. In 1917, his aunt enrolled him at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plastica at San Carlos, but after a year or so at the school, he left his formal studies, and primarily became self-taught. He became the chief designer of the department of ethnographic drawings in the National Museum of Archeology in Mexico City in 1921, an experience that would shape his artistic career significantly. Working regularly with pre-Columbian objects, the motifs and symbols Tamayo encountered would become a recurrent theme throughout his work.  From 1937 to 1949 he was based New York, where he interacted with some of the leading artists of the day, including Stuart Davis, Marcel Duchamp, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi. In the 1950s, he lived in Paris, but eventually returned permanently to Mexico. Throughout his career, Tamayo maintained a strong interest in his Mexican heritage, which influenced his interpretation of modernism.

Rufino Tamayo, Heavenly Bodies, 1946. Oil with sand on canvas, 34 x 41 3/8 inches (86.3 x 105 cm)
Heavenly Bodies, 1946, oil with sand on canvas. Image courtesy of
Rufino Tamayo, Woman in Grey, 1959. Oil on canvas, 76 3/4 x 51 inches (195 x 129.5 cm)
Woman in Grey, 1959, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of
Along with Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco, and David Siqueiros, Tamayo is considered one of the most influential Mexican artists of the twentieth century, but unlike his contemporaries, he wasn't especially interested in political content for his art, and his differing views often led to contentious relationships with his artistic colleagues. What Tamayo sought to do was reinterpret traditional Mexican imagery and motifs through a modernist lens, resulting in a body of work that is both worldly and regional.

Tamayo was a prolific artist who worked in a variety of media, including murals, canvas painting, sculpture, and printmaking. I first became familiar with his work at the DMA, where his large-scale painting El Hombre hangs. The Dallas Art Association had commissioned Tamayo to paint this mural as a means of strengthening the cultural ties shared between Mexico and Texas, and true to form, he emphasized the universality of human aspiration to promote a sense of unity, Reaching into the sky, the human figure is connected to both the stars and the earth, with his legs echoing the solidity of tree trunks. I always loved passing by this work whenever I walked through the galleries.

El Hombre (Man), 1953, vinyl with pigment on panel. Image courtesy of

As a printmaker, Tamayo experimented with lithography and other techniques to create his distinctly-textured works. During the 1960s, he completed several editions at Tamarind Institute, back when it was still based in Los Angeles. His prints often possess a vivid sense of color and texture, appearing simultaneously primeval and modern.
Mask (Máscara), 1964, color lithograph printed by Michael Knigin. Image courtesy of
Moon Face (Cara de Luna), 1964, printed by Kenneth Tyler. Image courtesy of
Profile of a Man (Profile de un Hombre), 1964, Printed by Joe Zirker. Image courtesy of
 The Roswell Museum Center itself is also home to few of Tamayo's prints. Most recently, we received these two works from a retired physician in town:

Through his work, Tamayo synthesized the modern and the ancient to both celebrate his own heritage while situating it within the larger legacy of human existence, underscoring the universality of our basic needs, desires, and aspirations. He is definitely a printmaker you should know.

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