Born in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1899 to a Zapotec family, Rufino Tamayo is one of the most world-renowned Mexican artists. As a boy in school, he spent most of his time drawing, which caused his aunt to withdraw him from classes and put him to work as a vendor in her fruit business. Tamayo continued to spend time at the National Museum in Mexico City, drawing archaeological treasures, especially the pre-Columbian objects, which influenced his art for the rest of his life.
Tamayo believed in the universality of painting, which put him in direct opposition to the other well-known group of Mexican artists of the time: the muralists Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siquieros. Tamayo’s modern styles made him a object of ridicule for the muralists, who felt that painting should continue to serve revolutionary ideals, even though the Mexican Revolution had occurred in 1910. Siquieros’s cry that "ours is the only path" caused the following retort from Tamayo in 1981 at a talk before the opening of the Rufino Tamayo Museum in Mexico City: "Can you believe that, to say that ours is the only path when the fundamental thing in art is freedom! In art, there are millions of paths—as many paths as there are artists."
Having been made so uncomfortable by the muralists in his own country that he felt pressured to leave, Tamayo eventually left for New York, where he lived for more than ten years, teaching at the Dalton School in Manhattan and painting a huge body of work. He was also a master printmaker, even making his own paper.
The color of Tamayo’s paintings is influenced by the people and art of his native land—earth-reds, dull greens, purple, and chrome yellow predominate. His subject matter is drawn from Mexican and pre-Columbian influences as well, and the influence of European artists and movements are also evident in his work.
Rufino Tamayo is known for his intense and beautiful color sense. His later paintings seem to glow. Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet and Nobel laureate, has said of him, "If I could express with a single word what it is that distinguishes Tamayo from other painters, I would say, without a moment’s hesitation: sun. For the sun is in all his pictures, whether we see it or not: night itself is for Tamayo simply a sun carbonized."
Eventually, Tamayo was recognized as a great painter in his own right, even by Mexicans who had earlier rejected him. In 1981, the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Contemporary Art was opened in Mexico City with a handful of his own paintings and a selection of contemporary works from the collection he had made with his wife, Olga Flores. Included as well are works by artists such as Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Fernand Léger, and Pablo Picasso. This museum joined the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic and Mexican Art, which opened in 1974 in Oaxaca with older works collected by the couple.