Lot 6
  • 6

Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991)

1,500,000 - 2,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Rufino Tamayo
  • Watermelon Slices

  • signed and dated 0-50 lower left

  • oil on canvas

  • 39 3/8 by 31 3/4 in.
  • 100 by 80.6 cm


Knoedler Gallery, New York
Mr. and Mrs. Sam A. Lewisohn, New York (February 1951)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Sam A. Lewisohn (1953)


New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Lewisohn Collection, November 2-December 2, 1951
Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne; Stockholm, Moderna Museet; London, Tate Gallery, 20 Centuries of Mexican Art, May 9, 1952-May 3, 1953
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Recent Acquistions, June 23-October 4, 1953
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, XXVth Anniversary Exhibition, October 19, 1954-January 2, 1955
U.S. Government Art Projects: Some Distinguished Alumni, February 1963-February 1964
Phoenix Art Museum, Tamayo Retrospective, March 4-March 31, 1968
Louisville, The Frame House Gallery, Latin American Festival, April 8-May 16, 1969
Akron Art Institute, 20th Century Mexican Painting, November 5-December 4, 1972
New York, United Nations, 1974-2010


New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Lewisohn Collection, New York, 1951, p. 82, illustrated
Paul Westheim, Tamayo: Una Investigación Estética, Mexico, 1957, Artes de México, illustrated
Octavio Paz, Tamayo, Mexico City, 1959, pl. 74, illustrated
Phoenix Art Museum, Tamayo, Phoenix, 1968, p. 105, no. 51

Catalogue Note

Watermelon Slices (1950) exemplifies not only the genre but also the formalist aesthetic and thematic motif that occupied Tamayo throughout his long, international career.  Painted the year he participated in the 1950 Venice Biennale, Watermelon Slices is an iconic still-life by the Mexican artist that typifies the ways in which he infused the international modernist aesthetics of Cubism with local subject matter and symbolism. Not only are watermelons native to Mexico and a commonly consumed fruit but also their inherent colors—green, red, and white—bring to mind the Mexican flag, making them symbols of national identity.  Watermelons are also a personal symbol for Tamayo who, as a young man, helped his aunt sell tropical fruits at one of Mexico City's largest markets.  The fruits depicted in his paintings, therefore, also reflect the experiences of everyday Mexican life.

In Venice, Tamayo had captured the attention of European and U.S. critics alike.  A spate of articles in the U.S. popular press at mid-century reiterated the generous and enthusiastic responses of these critics; for these writers who witnessed and took part in the shift of art world power from Paris to New York, Tamayo ideally combined School of Paris modernist aesthetics and uniquely "American" subject matter. In 1950 André Breton wrote about the national/international paradoxical impulse of Tamayo's work when he stated that it both "reopen[s]  the lines of communication which painting, as a universal language, should be providing between the continents," and "extract[s] the essence of eternal Mexico." [1]

Tamayo was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, to parents of Zapotec Indian heritage, and therefore it is often assumed that he had a deep understanding of Indian and Mexican culture. Mexican-based artist Jean Charlot explained, "Tamayo is one of the few who can validly claim as his the picturesque subject matter of tropical Mexico."[2] In other words, Tamayo's ethnicity has often served to legitimize his native vision. Art historian Mary Coffey has revealed, however, the ways in which Tamayo condemned the paintings of indigenous subjects on some of Mexico City's walls, whereby the post-Revolutionary elite had reconstituted the Indian as timeless and pure, as politically disingenuous and as part of a broader project of paternalistic nationalism. [3] For his part, Tamayo never marshaled his ethnicity for the sake of a political program, but instead sought to tap a so-called "authentic," indigenous point of view or spirit that would enable him to explore pure plastic elements of painting. Distinct from the Mexican School's portrayal of indigenous life, Tamayo's evocation of native sources came through at the level of formal manipulation and affinity based on folk and pre-Columbian art. Tamayo and his supporters used his ethnicity then, to distinguish him from most fellow Mexican artists; it also granted him special status in the international avant-garde, where currents of primitivism held sway. He adapted his style to accommodate modernist concerns and pictorial values, while still keeping his "Mexicanness" intact. [4]  Although after the 1930s his works rarely illustrate specific indigenous or native content, they continued to reveal his deep commitment to the abstracted figure based on the fusion of pre-Columbian and modernist forms. Watermelon Slices is a product of this ongoing investigation.

From the early 1920s, Tamayo's avid insistence on the importance of still-life set him apart from the Mexican muralists.  With this genre—historically associated with interior or domestic spaces, and also the space of the artist's studio, Tamayo consciously countered the monumentality and heroic virility of public muralism that became the so-called "official" art of Mexico.  By delving into the more private realms of the studio, Tamayo rejected the political focus of muralism and what he perceived as its concomitant didacticism. Instead he sought out the lyrical in art and a form of painting based on "essential formal values" and "the true problems of plasticism." [5]  Watermelon Slices embodies this pursuit in its simple two-dimensionality, spareness, and geometrization of form. Perhaps appropriating and "Mexicanizing" the aggressive melon slices in the foreground of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Tamayo creates a study of contrasts between soft curves and sharp right angles.  Simultaneously playful and assertive, the painting's deep, rich palette also contrasts an almost ancient glow or warmth with a modern fiery expressiveness characteristic of Tamayo's contribution to international modernism. 


Anna Indych-López, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Art History

The City College of New York and The Graduate Center, The City University of New York


[1] Breton, "Rufino Tamayo (1950)," in Surrealism and Painting (New York, 1972), 233.

[2] Jean Charlot, "Rufino Tamayo," in An Artist on Art: Collected Essays of Jean Charlot, 2 vols. (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1972), 2:357.

[3] Mary Coffey, "`I'm not the Fourth Great One': Tamayo and Mexican Muralism in Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, exh. cat., ed. Diana C. du Pont (California: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2007), 250.

[4] For an extended discussion of these ideas see Anna Indych-López, "`None of Those Little Donkeys for Me': Tamayo, Cultural Prestige, and Perceptions of Modern Mexican Art in the United States," in Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted.

[5] Dawn Ades, Art in Latin America: The Modern Era, 1820-1980 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), 218.