This shift bears close relationship not only to his interchanges with his contemporaries similarly engaged with material, such as Jean Dubuffet, but with his study of pre-Columbian art, in which he admired “the strict geometry of its conception, the solidity of its volumes and its admirable fidelity to its material” (Octavio Paz, Rufino Tamayo, Barcelona, 1995, p. 21). Where Western painting of the mid-twentieth century strove to untangle itself from anthropocentrism, Tamayo found in pre-Columbian traditions a pictorial vocabulary already free of this burden, one in which geometric forms could invoke meaning and emotive power. In much of pre-Columbian sculpture, “The plastic object is a high-frequency transmitter that sends out a plurality of meanings and images. The lesson of pre-Hispanic art is a double one: firstly, it teaches fidelity to the material and the form…then that this sculpted stone is a metaphor of stone—geometry and transfiguration” (ibid., pp. 21-22).
Sandías of 1958 embodies these principles in its remarkable economy of form and color; three tantalizing wedges of ripe, weighty watermelon seem to materialize from an ether of pure color before the viewer. Two hang in impossible relief, collaged against one another; a third drives outward through the fourth wall, suspended just out of our reach. Acidic waves of magenta devour the space around them and seem to coalesce around us. Fractions of tonal difference demarcate the fruit from its rich environment; Tamayo prized these subtle distinctions, having said that “As the number of colors we use decreases, the wealth of possibilities increases. From the pictorial point of view, it is more worthwhile to exhaust the possibilities of a single color than to use an unlimited variety of pigments” (ibid., p. 12). Steeped in layers of resonance, Tamayo’s Sandías invoke his childhood years spent selling fruit in the market, the colors of the Mexican flag, the languorous and intoxicating pleasure of cold, sticky, sweet fruit on a blistering afternoon.
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