Tamayo: The New York Years

November 3, 2017 – March 18, 2018

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)
Oil on canvas of a New York skyline from a terrace.

Rufino Tamayo, New York Seen from the Terrace [Nueva York desde la terraza], 1937, oil on canvas, 20 3/8 x 34 3/8 in. FEMSA Collection. © Tamayo Heirs/Mexico/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo by Roberto Ortiz 

Tamayo: The New York Years is the first exhibition to explore the influences between this major Mexican modernist and the American art world.

Rufino Tamayo’s lushly colored paintings portraying modern Mexican subjects earned him widespread acclaim as an artist who balanced universal themes with a local sensibility. Tamayo (1899–1991) was drawn to New York City in the early twentieth century at a time when unparalleled transatlantic and hemispheric cross-cultural exchange was taking place. Tamayo: The New York Years is the first exhibition to explore the influences between this major Mexican modernist and the American art world. It reveals how a Mexican artist forged a new path in the modern art of the Americas and contributed to New York’s dynamic cultural scene as the city was becoming a center of postwar art.

The exhibition brings together forty-one of Tamayo’s finest artworks, including key loans from public and private collections in Mexico. The exhibition offers a unique opportunity to trace his artistic development—from his urban-themed paintings depicting the modern sights of the city to the dream-like canvases that show an artist eager to propel Mexican art in new directions.

While living in New York, intermittently from the late 1920s to 1949, Tamayo engaged with the new ideas expressed in the modern art that he saw in museums and galleries. He, like many artists during this period, was deeply impressed by the art of Pablo Picasso, whose influence permeates the work of the European avant-garde and that of American modernists who followed. Tamayo’s approach to the figure became more fractured, schematic, and abstract as he internalized the lessons of Picasso’s art.

Tamayo shared common interests with younger American artists including Jackson Pollock and Adolph Gottlieb, who were drawn to indigenous art, mythical themes, and increasingly non-representational imagery. These artists all grappled with the anxieties of World War II as well. Tamayo’s fierce and symbolic animal paintings and artworks evoking celestial themes from the 1940s are a special focus of the exhibition. As Tamayo’s stature rose in the mid-1940s, so did his following among artists and critics who supported a modern art movement centered in New York and the Americas rather than Europe. Tamayo: The New York Years shows Tamayo at the center of this shift in the history of twentieth-century art.

The exhibition is organized by E. Carmen Ramos, SAAM's deputy chief curator and curator of Latino art. Tamayo: The New York Years is the latest in a series of projects at SAAM that situates the art of the United States in a global context.

On the Blog

Eye Level, December 1, 2017, "In Harmony: Artist Rufino Tamayo and Composer Carlos Chávez"
Eye Level, November 3, 2017, "Drawn to the City: Tamayo in New York"

Read curator E. Carmen Ramos’ travel journal on our blog Eye Level as she traveled to Mexico to research Tamayo’s art and life.

Exhibition Catalogue

Tamayo: The New York Years

The richly illustrated catalogue is written by E. Carmen Ramos and published by GILES in association with the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The book is available for purchase in the museum store and in the online bookstore ($59.95).


SAAM hosted “A line that birds cannot see”: Mexican/US Art and Artists Crossing Borders in the 20th Century on November 3, 2017. The all-day symposium explored the meaningful interactions between Mexican and US art and artists during the twentieth century. E. Carmen Ramos presented the opening lecture. Watch the presentations by renowned scholars from the US, Mexico and Spain. 


Tamayo: The New York Years is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. We are especially grateful to His Excellency Gerónimo Gutiérrez-Fernández, the Mexican Ambassador to the United States, for serving as the honorary patron for the exhibition. The Mexican Cultural Institute of Washington, DC, has provided invaluable advice and support. The Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center, provided major support.

Additional generous contributions have been provided by The Honorable Aida Alvarez, Mrs. J. Todd Figi, the Robert S. Firestone Foundation, the Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason Foundation, the William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment Fund, the Sara Roby Foundation, Sam Rose and Julie Walters, and the Smithsonian Scholarly Studies Grant Program.