He was born in 1895.
Having migrated to the United States from Tepatitlan, Mexico in 1925, Ramírez was institutionalized in 1931, first at Stockton State Hospital in Stockton, California, then, beginning in 1948, at DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, near Sacramento, where he made the drawings and collages for which he is now known. At DeWitt, a visiting professor of psychology and art, Tarmo Pasto, came across Ramírez's work and began to save the large-scale works Ramírez made using available materials, including brown paper bags, scraps of examining-table paper, and book pages glued together with a paste made of potatoes and saliva. His works display an idiosyncratic iconography that reflect both Mexican folk traditions and twentieth-century modernization: images of Madonnas, horseback riders, and trains entering and exiting tunnels proliferate in the work, along with undulating fields of concentric lines that describe landscapes, tunnels, theatrical prosceniums, and decorative patterns.
He died in 1963.
Since his death in 1963, Ramírez's drawings and collages have become some of the most highly valued examples of outsider art.
In January 2007, the American Folk Art Museum in New York City opened "Martín Ramírez," the first major retrospective of the artist's work in the United States in more than 20 years. The exhibition featured about 100 of the 300 drawings and collages that had then been known to exist. It was accompanied by a catalog that includes a biographical essay, written by sociologists Víctor M. Espinosa and Kristin E. Espinosa, which discusses many previously unpublished details of Ramírez's life. The exhibition subsequently traveled to the San Jose Museum of Art (June–September 2007) and the Milwaukee Art Museum (October 2007–January 2008).
While the 2007 retrospective was on view at the American Folk Art Museum, that museum was contacted by descendants of Dr. Max Dunievitz, who served as medical director of DeWitt State Hospital in the early 1960s. Dunievitz had kept approximately 140 of Ramírez's drawings and collages from the last three years of his life; they were nearly discarded by family members upon the doctor's death in 1988. Dunievitz's grandson Phil, having seen the works during childhood visits to his grandfather's house, took them and brought them to his mother's house in Auburn, where they were stored for nearly 20 years in the garage. The heirs of Martín Ramírez challenged the ownership of this group of works, claiming that as the descendents, they deserved an ownership portion of this body of work.
In mediation, the Dunievitz and Ramírez families reached an amicable agreement in 2008, which includes the representation of this work by the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York City.
In October and November 2008, a portion of these drawings was concurrently exhibited at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery and the American Folk Art Museum. An accompanying full-color catalog was produced by Roger Ricco and Frank Maresca and published by Pomegranate Communications. It includes essays by Brooke Davis Anderson, Richard Rodriguez, and Wayne Thiebaud.
In December 2013, a lost Madonna by Ramírez was unveiled by the Library of Congress.
- Anderson, Brooke Davis. Martín Ramírez. With an introduction by Robert Storr and essays by Víctor M. Espinosa and Kristin E. Espinosa, Daniel Baumann, and Victor Zamudio-Taylor. Seattle: Marquand Books in association with American Folk Art Museum, 2007.
- Anderson, Brooke Davis. Martín Ramírez: The Last Works. With essays by Richard Rodriguez, and Wayne Thiebaud. Petaluma, California: Pomegranate Communications in association with Ricco/Maresca Gallery, 2008.
- Hollander, Stacy C., and Brooke Davis Anderson. American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum. New York: American Folk Art Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001.
- Hall, Michael D. "The Problem of Martin Ramirez: Folk Art Criticism as Cosmologies of Coercion", The Clarion, Winter 1986.
- “Martín Ramírez: The Last Works” at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery
- “Martín Ramírez: The Last Works” at the American Folk Art Museum
- The 2007 retrospective at the American Folk Art Museum
- Stephen Romano private art dealer in self taught artists including Martin Ramirez
- About “Martín Ramírez” (2007 retrospective), by Keith Miller (Spanish)
- The New York Times about “Martín Ramírez”
- Essayist Richard Rodriguez looks at the drawings of an artist who was a Mexican American migrant worker. “Mad Visions.” The Jim Lehrer News Hour.
- Martín Ramírez. Reframing Confinement, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, March 31 – July 12, 2010
- Kennicott, Philip (December 7, 2013). "Work by Martín Ramírez, key ‘outsider artist,’ to be unveiled at Library of Congress". The Washington Post.