Rufino Tamayo, the last of Mexico's great generation of acclaimed muralists, died Monday in a Mexico City hospital. He was 91.
His death marks the end of an art era -- one notable as much for its political activism as for its aesthetic triumphs.
With Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Tamayo was the youngest member of the movement that attempted to create the first truly Mexican art since the Spanish conquest.
The three older mural painters looked back to Mexico's pre-Columbian past for their models, to Mexico's revolutionary history for their themes, and to Marxism for their ideology. Their bold, gigantic works were vivid statements of an eloquent nationalism.
Tamayo's work was less political, celebrating his country's rich artistic tradition when the others emphasized radical politics. He also did the least amount of mural work, concentrating, for most of the 70 years of his career, on easel painting.
Tamayo was born in 1899 in the state of Oaxaca, of a Zapotec Indian family. Orphaned at 12, he was sent to Mexico City, where he helped an aunt sell produce. It was an early experience that stayed with him. The bright colors of the market, which he called "my Mexican colors," and the fruits he helped sell became central to his work.
As a young man, he attended the San Carlos Academy. Tamayo later said he learned to be an artist when, in 1921, he went to work at the National Archaeological Museum and, as chief of ethnographic drawings, and had the opportunity to study the ancient arts of his people.
It was in this early period that he was closest to "the big three muralists."
The awards were many, from home and abroad.
Mexico gave him a major retrospective exhibition in 1948. He was celebrated at prestigious shows from Venice to Sao Paulo, was included in Documenta II, a tribute to the avant garde, and in the blockbuster "Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries" last fall in New York. There were also international honors: the French Legion of Honor, the Guggenheim International Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Tamayo, who had been hospitalized for pneumonia at the National Institute of Nutrition, is survived by Olga, his wife since 1934.