Rufino Tamayo was a busy man during Saturday's dedication of the Modern Museum of Art in Santa Ana, where his paintings make up the inaugural exhibit. There were hands to shake, photos to pose for, ribbons to cut. There was a videotaped interview for the museum, a short press conference and, finally, a private opening party, where admirers tugged on his sleeve in hopes of a few words with the 88-year-old master.
Gamely, he met the demands of celebrity. With his international reputation, Tamayo often is asked to leave his Mexico City home to attend exhibit openings. But he admitted that he accepts such invitations reluctantly. Clearly, the studio--where he still spends eight hours every day--is where his heart is.
Tamayo has been working for 70 years now, a milestone that will be marked with exhibitions in two Mexico City museums come December. The planned tributes are a testament to the extent to which the artist's once-stormy relationship with his homeland has healed.
In 1936, at the height of Mexico's acclaimed mural movement, Tamayo left the country to live abroad; he did not return permanently until 1962. He had rejected the socially conscious realist style championed by muralists Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros, rebelling against the government-dictated themes and the emphasis of ideology over content. "They were not free," Tamayo said of the muralists. "They were tied to the government . . . so they had to paint the revolution, and nothing but that. And that's not having freedom."
Because he left Mexico, Tamayo has been criticized for not being truly "Mexican." He rejects the argument. "My idea is: art is international," he said. But that international aspect, which he said derives from shared human experience, must go hand in hand with an artist's connection to his home culture: "We must have the seeds of both at the same time."
His work has retained the "Mexican accent," Tamayo said, and even while living abroad, he never felt removed from his roots. "That is because it is in my blood. I've lived for a long time outside Mexico, and that has affected me some different ways, but . . . I remain 100% Mexican."
Born in 1899 to Zapotec Indians, Tamayo began his art studies in 1917 but was unhappy with his instruction and soon left the school. In 1921 he took a position with the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, a job that acquainted him with the rich history of pre-Columbian art in the region. "That is where I got confronted with our tradition, and that became the roots of my work," he said.
Elements derived from that tradition remain in Tamayo's work--in his use of color (earth tones and vivid primaries), and in his use of shapes and proportion. While usually retaining figurative elements, his works also show the influence of European abstractionists.
Tamayo's early emphasis of color, shape and texture over subject matter remains. "The subjects are unimportant," he said. "The most important thing in art, I think, is to give a message to your senses, not your intellect. It's as clear as that."
"I must tell you that I am never satisfied with what I have done," he added. "I can do better still. So when they ask me which painting I like the best, I say, 'The next one.' "