Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Mario Martinez

Celestialscape, 2001, Acrylic on Canvas, 72 x 72 inches, Courtesy of the artist

 By Heather Igloliorte

A member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, Mario Martinez’s life and artistic practice are guided by two key concerns. First is the deep respect he has for his Yaqui heritage and its cultural belief systems, fostered from early childhood in the community of New Penjamo, Arizona. The second is his passion for painting, growing from initial youthful experimentations, expanding through Western education, and evolving into a lasting fascination. Martinez’s cultural and artistic aims are satisfied in his career-long interest in abstraction. Painting abstractly allows the artist to visually interpret Yaqui myths and cosmology without revealing images that his community holds sacred; it also permits the thorough and nuanced exploration of color, medium and process that has characterized his long and varied career as a painter. In his youth, Martinez witnessed his elders actively preserving Yaqui language and knowledge through ceremonial practice and the oral tradition. As an adult however, he feels his role is to make visible the “unseeable” in the Yaqui worldview, without betraying that trust. In a recent artist statement, Martinez has said of his work, “I pursued abstraction because I love the great abstract tradition in Modernism. Also, it does not betray or exploit my tribe’s life ways, ceremonial and spiritual traditions.”[1]

The titles of Martinez’s works only hint at the wealth of knowledge his paintings contain: Celestialscape (2001) and Ancestral Realms II (2008), for example, imply a deep connection with Yaqui cosmology, yet it is difficult to fully interpret the deeper meanings of these densely packed, colorful, and multilayered canvases. In his spectacular 2001 work Universe and Flowers, frenzied gestures animate imbricated washes of color and shape, with only the blurry and half-articulated outlines of blossoms, serpents, and spirals to guide our interpretation, yet the spiritual force of the painting resonates powerfully. These “cosmicscapes” shape the greatest part of the artist’s oeuvre and continue to inform and inspire his current practice.

Born in Phoenix, Arizona and raised in New Penjamo (Scottsdale), Martinez was influenced early in his artistic career by major contemporary Native American artists of the southwest in the 1970s such as Luiseno painter Fritz Scholder, active in the 1970’s. After graduating with a B.F.A. from Arizona State University in 1979, he moved to San Francisco, California and spent the 1980s and 1990s developing his practice on the west coast, earning an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1985. Since that time, he has oscillated between teaching, fellowships and artist residencies, experimenting with both large-scale commissioned pieces and a variety of printmaking techniques. In 1999, Martinez was invited to create Sonoran Desert: Yaqui Home (2003 – 2005) as a mural for his home community in Scottsdale/Penjamo. In 2000, Martinez was a visiting professor of art at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and in 2001 he received the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Native Artist in Residence Fellowship.

One of the most significant developments of Martinez’s career was his move to New York City in 2002. Working within the vibrant New York arts scene, Martinez articulates the urban Indian experience through his new daring cityscapes and architecturally articulated urban abstractions. His canvases, however, still reference Yaqui cosmology, such as the restrained and edgy work on paper Next to the East River III



(2004 – 07), and the starless night skyline of Manhattanscape (2008). Whether painting serpents in the forests of the Yaqui cosmos or the twisted metal, concrete and glass of the metropolis, Martinez’s work captures the dynamic interplay of the sacred and the secular that characterizes contemporary Indigenous life and the urban Native experience. Martinez was recognized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in a solo retrospective New Tribe: New York: From Tradition to Transcendence in 2005, and had his work shown at IN/SIGHT 2010 at the Chelsea Art Museum. His works are in the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, the Heard Museum, and the Tucson Museum of Art.

— Heather Igloliorte



[1] Statement from artist portfolio, 2010. 


Additional Resources compiled by students in Contemporary Native American Art History course at the Institute of American Indian Art, Spring 2013 

Web-based Resources 


Martinez, Mario. “Mario Martinez: Contemporary Abstract Painting.” N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Martinez, Mario. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Vineeta. Http:// N.p., n.d. Web. <>.


Selected Bibliography


 Gouma-Peterson, Thalia. “Mario Martinez.” We, The Human Beings/27 Contemporary Native American Artists. Wooster: Collier Printing, 1992. 30. Print.Contents include on page on Mario Martinez. The page contains one image of Mario’s 30″ x 22″ mixed-media on paper, titled, “Yaqui Ceremonial Sword.”

McMaster, Gerald. “Mario Martinez.” New Tribe, New York: The Urban Vision Quest. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, 2005. 22-29. Print. Paintings by Mario Martinez along with his information adorn seven pages of this book. The images include: Celestialscape, 2001. Celestial Home, 2001. Flower Star, 1998. Yaqui World, 1992. Yaqui Flashback II, 1991. Universe and Flowers, 2002. Brooklyn, 2004. Untitled, 1979. The Conversation, 2004.