The painted Rufino Tamayo has the bearing of a prince. His manners are impeccable, his shoes are softest leather, and yet within his elegance one still can sense the orphan who traveled from Oaxaca to the capital of Mexico nearly 70 years ago.
His past is spread about him. Pictures that he painted in 1925, and others made this year, are included in "Rufino Tamayo: 50 Years of his Painting," the Philips Collection retrospective which goes on view today. They do not clash, either. A peculiar continuity is apparent in his presence as well as in his art.
Tamayo, now 79, is generally regarded as the dean of Mexican modernists, but he has never chased the new. His art has never zigzagged. The most famous painters of his country have dramatically promoted the heroic and half-mythic Mexican Revolution. Tamayo's art, in contrast, conserves and evolves.
"I will not paint the raised fist," he says. "I will not be a demogogue. I was against the political in art from the very beginning. Because of that refusal I had troubles in my country. That is why I first moved to New York in 1926. I do not mix in politics. I have joined none of the art groups that have formed in my country. All of them attempt to build some sort of 'Mexican School.' I don't believe in that. Art is universal. We can only add to art he accent that was given us in the place where we were born. The subject matter of a painting is of small importance."
Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros, the "Big Three" of Mexican wall painting, shared another attitude. They hymned the revolution; their victorious masses and virtueless oppressors soon became the standard themes of Mexico's official art.
"The peasants of my country have triumphed only in the murals," says Tamayo. "Their lot today is just as bad as before the revolution."
"Today in tourist posters my country is presented as a place of gaiety. I deny that. We are an oppressed people. First came the Spaniards, then the French. Now, I am sorry to say, we feel the economic pressure of your nation. The Aztecs seem to me the Nazis of their epoch. But that is for historians. My work is to paint."
In spite of his disclaimers, there is something in his paintings that is palpably Mexican. A horizon line evoking vast and dusty spaces opens many of his works. His figures, even those in movement, seem heavy, earthbound, chiseled. His pigments are not smooth, he mixes them with marble dust. His colors - and Tamayo is a colorist above all else - are the oranges of fire, the greens of tropical plants, burnt umbers and ochres, the colors of the earth.
"I have a theory about color," says Tamayo. "There is no need to work into a single paintings colors of all kinds. One color is sufficient. But one must take out of that color all the possibilities that it may contain."
Tamayo can paint slices of watermelon sitting in a table in the sunlight, and do it all with grays.
He can paint a figure standing on a cliff above the sea, studying the stars, and do it all with blues.
In almost all his pictures one feels the human presence, but his figures are not portraits. They are signs, suggestions, masks. They make his works accessible, they are what the eye sees first, but once they have been read they break up and dissolve into patterns and designs. What remains is earth-rich color, and color, from the first, has been the central subject of Tamayo's art.
"Some painters wait for inspiration. I don't believe in that. I think of painting as a trade just like any other. I believe in work. I paint eight hours every day. That is, I must admit, resented by my wife. She says, 'He makes the paints, I do everything else.' I neglect her in some ways in order to serve art."
Tamayo, a collector of pre-columbian art, has already given a museum housing his 1,000-piece collection to his hometown of Oaxaca. He hopes to give his nation a second art museum, this one of international post-war art. Duncan Phillips bought his first Tamayo in 1930, and Tamayo's retrospective, organized in conjunction with "Mexico Today," both National Endowments, and the Government of Mexico, is the most impressive show the Phillips has mounted in some time. Eleanor Green was the exhibit's curator. It closes Nov. 16.