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Olga and Rufino Tamayo

Oaxaca, 1906–Mexico City, 1994, and Oaxaca, 1899–Mexico City, 1991

Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo and his wife Olga (née Flores-Rivas) assembled two important art collections. The first, containing over one thousand objects, focused on ancient art and artifacts of the Americas. The second was a collection of three hundred objects of modern and contemporary art from Europe and the Americas spanning the 1930s to the 1970s.

Rufino moved to Mexico City as a child after the deaths of both of his parents in 1907. He began his career as a painter while still a teenager, enrolling in art classes at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes Plasticas (National School of Fine Arts) in 1917. In 1921, then Minister of Public Education José Vasconcelos nominated Rufino to lead the Department of Ethnographic Drawing at the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Mexico City. In this role, he began to study the museum’s pre-Columbian collection, an experience that deeply informed his artistic and collecting practices. In 1926 Rufino traveled to New York for the first time, where he was introduced to that city’s bustling international art scene. This initial trip marked the beginning of his long relationship with New York, where he lived intermittently for the next several decades.

Rufino met Olga in 1933, while completing his mural La música y el Canto (Music and Song; 1933) at the Escuela Nacional de Música (National Conservatory of Music) in Mexico City, where Olga was studying piano. The couple got married in Oaxaca in 1934. Although information on Olga’s role as a collector is scarce, research indicates that she managed the couple’s finances and the sale of Rufino’s works, an increasingly important role as he achieved international renown. In 1936 the Tamayos returned to New York to attend the American Artists’ Congress. After reconnecting with some of Rufino’s acquaintances from his first sojourn in New York, the couple decided to extend their stay, and lived between New York and Mexico City until 1949.

During this period, Rufino developed close and productive friendships with international artists, including Berenice Abbott, André Breton, Stuart Davis, Marcel Duchamp, Helen Frankenthaler, Reginald Marsh, Roberto Matta, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi—many of whom would be represented in the Tamayos’ collection. Rufino achieved considerable success in New York, and his works entered several American collections through sales at such galleries as Knoedler, Pierre Matisse, and Valentine. A staunch advocate of personal and artistic freedom, Tamayo did not associate himself with any specific movement but developed a syncretic style, drawing from the forms and tenets of various international avant-garde movements, as well as of pre-Hispanic and indigenous arts.

In 1951 the Tamayos began collecting pre-Hispanic art and artifacts with the objective of assembling enough objects to form the basis of a museum collection, which they planned to dedicate to the people of their hometown of Oaxaca. The couple returned definitively to Mexico in 1964, establishing their primary residence in Mexico City. In 1973 the Tamayos donated their collection, which by now encompassed over one thousand pre-Hispanic objects, to the city of Oaxaca, where it is now housed as part of the collections of the Museo de Arte Prehispánico Rufino Tamayo. Around the same time as they concretized plans for this first donation, the couple began assembling a second collection, focused on international modern art. The Tamayos seemed committed to acquiring works representative of a wide range of aesthetic practices in order to offer Mexicans a comprehensive collection of twentieth-century art. By 1980 their modern art collection included paintings, works on paper, sculptures, and tapestries by more than 168 artists.

In 1981, with financial support from private investors and a land allocation from the Mexican government, the Tamayos’ collection opened to the public in a new building in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park, designed by Abraham Zabludovsky and Teodoro González de León, in close consultation with Rufino. In addition, in 1989 the couple established the Olga and Rufino Tamayo Foundation in order to support the museum and its future growth of the collection. The 1981 donation of their modern art collection included such works as Jean Dubuffet’s Le Grelotteur (The Shiverer; 1959); Max Ernst’s Torpid Town (1943); Wilfredo Lam’s La femme cheval (Horse Woman; 1949); Fernand Léger’s Les plongeurs circulaires (Circular Divers; 1942); Matta’s Les Transesports (Tiro al arco) (The Transesports [Bow and Arrow]; 1977); Joan Miró’s Peinture (Painting; 1927); Pablo Picasso’s Sueño y mentira de Franco (Franco’s Dream and Lie; 1937); Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Plum, Orange, Yellow) (1947); and Joaquín Torrez-García’s Constructivo con campana (Constructive with Bell; 1932) and Barco constructivo (Constructive Boat; 1943).

For more information, see:

Goldwater, Robert. Rufino Tamayo. New York: Quadrangle Press, 1947.

Pellicer, Carlos, et al. Rufino Tamayo: pinturas. Madrid: Ministerio de Cultura, Dir. General de Bellas Artes y Archivos, 1992.

Ramos, Carmen. Tamayo: The New York Years. Exh. cat. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2017.

How to cite this entry:
Castro, Maria, "Olga and Rufino Tamayo," The Modern Art Index Project (August 2018), Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.