Born in 1953 in Penjamo village, a Yaqui settlement in Scottsdale, Arizona, Mario Martinez is an enrolled member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona. He received his BFA from the School of Art, Arizona State University in 1979, and, in 1985, an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute.
A great admirer of the New York School and Abstract Expressionists, Martinez creates expansive canvases with writhing forms that often echo the turbulent surfaces of Gorky or de Kooning.
While he avoids direct references to Yaqui traditions, cryptic allusions permeate his work. “I know people expect figuration from Natives,” the artist says, noting that abstraction itself has “been in Indian and Indigenous cultures forever.” In Yaqui Flashback II (1991), branching forms create a lattice for cascades of color that evoke sunsets, verdant trees, sky, and water. Stick forms are adorned with Indigenous patterns. The painting’s surface integrates lace and glitter as subtle nods to materials used in Yaqui ceremonies. Despite the influence of Spanish Jesuits in the 16th century, Yaqui religion maintained a deep, foundational reverence for nature that is detectable in many of the artist’s works. “Our most ancient spiritual and ceremonial traditions honor the earth and the heavens,” says Martinez.
The monumental painting Brooklyn (2004) is frenetic, governed by density and angularity. A thicket of I-beams form what could be an above-ground MTA platform. Serpentine shapes weave through the composition while a single dark flower hints at the pre-Christian Yaqui concept of sea ania, or the flower world: a beautiful, ever-present parallel reality. The hectic city is framed within the broader context of the cosmos and nature, to which it belongs in the final analysis. “I’m part of a 40,000-year tradition,” Martinez says of his practice, which comfortably integrates the pre- and post-colonial American painting traditions.
Since 1991, Mario Martinez’s work has appeared in over 48 solo and group exhibitions at prestigious venues such as the Denver Art Museum (1995, 1998), the Montclair Art Museum, (2018–2020), and the Eiteljorg Museum (2015–2016, 2017–2018, Indianapolis). In 2005, he was the subject of a major mid-career retrospective at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian (New York). He has received numerous grants and awards, including a Native Arts Research Fellowship, (1998, National Museum of the American Indian); an Artist in Residence Fellowship (2001–2002, National Museum of the American Indian); a Joan Mitchell Foundation CALL Grant (2013–2014); a Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Residency (2014–2015); and the Murray Reich Distinguished Artist Award (2017, New York Foundation for the Arts). Martinez’s work is featured in the collections of numerous museums and institutions across the country, such as the Museum of Contemporary Native American Art (Santa Fe); the Eiteljorg Museum (Indianapolis); the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (Washington, D.C.); the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (Chicago); and the Heard Museum (Phoenix), among others.