In regard to the enigmatic quality of Tamayo’s paintings of objects, specifically fruits, scholar Karen Cordero Reiman states that, “the fruit does not appeal to our imagination of taste or smell…the configuration seems fixed, frozen, deliberate…like a theatrical tableau, and the objects acquire an eerie, power as things” (K. Cordero in op. cit., p. 52). Although initially influenced by De Chirico, Matisse and Picasso in his elaboration of still lifes that juxtaposed multiple objects including various fruits such as pineapples, oranges and bananas, the atypical watermelon slice(s) soon became a favored thematic motif and persisted for decades as one of his most celebrated iconographies.
Many scholars have associated Tamayo’s preoccupation with fruit and watermelons with both personal histories and a Mexican imaginary. When his family left his native Oaxaca and moved to the national capital, he worked selling fruit in the city’s main distribution market, La Merced. Notably, Tamayo’s depictions of watermelons are far removed from the specificities of this autobiographical detail. He never depicts the fruit in stalls nor does he depict the fruit whole (although cut wedges would have been on display as well). Almost always he features the fruit as slices, isolated on aesthetic display, usually on tables as in cubist still lifes (see figs. 1 & 2). And although figures are never seen eating the fruit, Tamayo sometimes conjures correspondences between his still lifes and figural compositions by depicting figures with wide toothed smiles echoing the half circle shapes of those watermelons, illustrating the centrality of this motif throughout his oeuvre in his ongoing exploration of form. Others suggest the importance of watermelons in Tamayo’s formulation of a universal style of painting, which nonetheless distilled the essence of lo mexicano through formal values of the objects of daily life rather than through historical or folkloric themes. Some authors have suggested that the watermelon is an emblem of the tropics and of a Mexican symbolism, specifically the red, white and green that recall the colors of the nation’s flag. But the watermelon is not native to Mexico; with its origins in Africa and its arrival in the Americas with the slave trade and the Spanish conquest, watermelons perhaps serve as a critique in Tamayo’s work of the post-revolutionary state’s hypocritical nationalism based on an exaltation of the rural, agricultural and the indigenous.
Sandías shows the ways in which Tamayo continued well until the end of his life to use the motif of watermelons to innovate and experiment with modernist painting. Unlike in many other depictions where Tamayo concentrates on the volumetric presence of fruit as wedges, here depth is forsaken and the eight slices become flattened abstract shapes. Perfect geometricized half circles that appear to be floating at the center of the composition, they seem suspended within the picture plane. Upon closer inspection, however, an enigmatic shadow hovers behind them, revealing itself as a table, visualizing Tamayo’s continued effort to “place in doubt the physical relationships between the objects” (ibid., p. 49). The shadows or stains seem to spill over or beyond the contours of the table. Isolated and placed in a stacking perspective to further emphasize the flat picture plane, the watermelon slices are divided into two groups that create a rhythmic composition. Four on the right balance the three on the left while a single slice anchors the composition at the bottom forefront. The compositional play between objects and the table, which tilts up toward the picture plane, reinforces overall spatial ambiguities.
Notably, here Tamayo depicts the fruit sans its characteristic black seeds, concentrating instead on its red, pink and white flesh. Even the green rind of the fruit is reduced to a minimum so that Tamayo can focus on an efflorescence of different hues of red, which are set against a background that swells with a proliferation of mauves, deep purples, hot pinks and dusty rose. Discussing his restricted palette as an opportunity to explore the subtleties of color, Tamayo remarked that “as we use an ever smaller number of colors, the wealth of possibilities grows. Pictorially speaking it is more valuable to exhaust the possibilities of a single color than to use a limitless variety of pigments" (R. Tamayo, reproduced in O. Paz, Rufino Tamayo: Myth and Magic (exhibition catalogue), The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1979, p. 12). Tamayo marshals these swirling colors to become active elements in the painting, scratching into the canvas with the handle of his paintbrush and adding sand to his pigments not only to give texture to his painting, but also to materialize color itself an object. The stippled effect animates the surface of the painting evoking a sense of touch as well as a host of tensions characteristic of Tamayo’s work, including the play between flatness and depth and between geometric precision and informal expressivity.
Significantly, Sandías is one of the last paintings of watermelons by the artist as well as among the last works he painted as he stopped production shortly thereafter. As a recent exhibition, The Long Run, at The Museum of Modern Art has made clear, the “continued experimentation of artists long after their breakthrough moments, suggests that invention results from sustained critical thinking, persistent observation, and countless hours in the studio" (The Long Run (exhibition press release), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018, n.p.). Curator Ann Temkin continues, stating that the vibrancy of artworks created by artists with multi-decade careers “refutes the notion that creativity diminishes with age. They champion the reality that great artists never stop exploring and taking risks” (A. Temkin, “Artistic Innovation in the Long Run” in The Museum of Modern Art Online Magazine, New York, October 2018, n.p.). Sandías thus embodies Tamayo’s continued vitality.
2018-2019 Stuart Z. Katz Professor of the Humanities and the Arts
The City College of New York, CUNY
Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Art
PhD Program in Art History, The Graduate Center, CUNY
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