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Episode 16: Daniel Ramirez and Buzz Spector

Release date: May 30, 2015

Artists Daniel Ramirez and Buzz Spector were studio mates in the M.F.A. program at the University of Chicago in the 1970s, forging a friendship that has lasted ever since.

In this wide-ranging conversation with MOCRA Director Terrence Dempsey, S.J., they trace the evolution of their artistic output over the decades. They touch on the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the music of Olivier Messiaen, divine geometries, book design, and even the finer points of bowing technique.

Scroll down for a Listening Guide to the conversation.

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Related Exhibition

Daniel Ramirez: Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus – An Homage to Olivier Messiaen


Producer: David Brinker
Recording Engineer and Editor: Mike Schrand
Host: Linda Kennedy
Theme and Incidental Music: Stephen James Neale
Listening Guide: David Brinker


Daniel Ramirez

Active as an artist for over 45 years, Daniel Ramirez is Professor Emeritus of Art at the University of Wisconsin. Now residing in Chicago, Ramirez is regarded as an outstanding minimalist artist equally adept at painting, drawing, and print-making. He has been exhibited across the United States and Europe, and his works are included in many public and private collections, including the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Ramirez brings to bear the music of French composer Olivier Messiaen, the lines of Gothic architecture, and the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein on his serenely intellectual paintings and prints. In 2004, MOCRA presented a series of intimate etchings by Ramirez titled Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus: An Homage to Olivier Messiaen. In 2017, Ramirez was the subject of a major retrospective at the Chazen Museum of Art titled Certainty and Doubt: Paintings by Dan Ramirez, 1975–2017.

Visit Daniel Ramirez’ Website

Buzz Spector

Buzz Spector is an artist, writer, and Professor of Art in the College of Art of the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. His art practice makes frequent use of the book, both as subject and object, and is concerned with relationships between public history, individual memory, and perception. He has had numerous exhibits in private and institutional galleries and museums in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, and his solo or two-person museum exhibits include the Art Institute of Chicago; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh, PA; Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA; and the Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, MI. His solo exhibition “Buzz Spector: Alterations” was presented at the Saint Louis Art Museum in 2020–2021.

He is represented in St. Louis by the Bruno David Gallery and in Chicago by Zolla-Lieberman Gallery, which also represents Dan Ramirez. In 2013 Spector received the Distinguished Teaching of Art Award from the College Art Association. Among his other recognitions are a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Fellowship in 1991, and National Endowment for the Arts Individual Artist Fellowships in 1982, 1985, and 1991. Photo by Kristi Foster.

Learn More About Buzz Spector

Listening Guide


The Lorado Taft Midway Studios is home to the University of Chicago's Department of Visual Arts and Creative Writing program, housing classrooms, offices, and studios for students and faculty. The converted and relocated barn was formerly the art studio of sculptor, author and educator Lorado Taft (1860–1936).

Taft designed a number of large-scale public projects, beginning with sculpture for the Horticultural Building (1893) at the World's Columbian Exposition, and including Blackhawk (Oregon, Illinois, 1911), The Columbus Fountain (Washington DC, 1912), The Fountain of Time (Chicago, 1922), and Alma Mater (Urbana, 1929). Taft was also an active member of the Chicago cultural community. In 1907 he opened the Midway Studios as a traditional atelier, training young artists who worked as his student assistants. 


Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) is regarded by many as the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. His father, Karl Wittgenstein, was a leading figure in the Austrian iron and steel industry, and the Wittgenstein home was a center of Viennese cultural life, with regular visits from Sigmund Freud, artists Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka, and composers Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler. Wittgenstein went to England in 1908 to study aeronautics, but by 1911 his developing interest in purely mathematical and logical problems led him to Cambridge to study with Bertrand Russell. Following this, he pondered philosophical problems in an isolated retreat in Norway. In 1913 he returned to Austria and joined the Austrian army at the outbreak of World War I. During a period of captivity in a prison camp he wrote the notes and drafts of his first important work, “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” (1921). 

Following its publication, he gave away his fortune and worked as a gardener, teacher, and architect in and around Vienna. But he returned in 1929 to Cambridge and to philosophy. Over the course of time Wittgenstein revised his philosophical approach significantly, turning from formal logic to ordinary language. This development of his thought would eventually be expressed, posthumously, in “Philosophical Investigations” (1953). Wittgenstein died from cancer in 1951.

For a slightly irreverent but informative introduction to Wittgenstein, check out “Existential Comics”:

A page from the webcomic Existential Comics, featuring the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Existential Comics,” by Corey Mohler


Stephen Toulmin (1922–2009) was a British philosopher, author, and educator. A student of Wittgenstein, Toulmin devoted his works to developing practical arguments which can be used effectively in evaluating the ethics behind moral issues. His most influential work is the Toulmin Model of Argumentation, which employs six interrelated components used for analyzing arguments.

An artwork by Buzz Spector titled Efface Nabokov. A hardcover book lies open. The pages have been ripped out, the first ones completely and then less and less of each subsequent page, so that the surface of the pages is sloped like a ramp and the torn edges create a physical texture as well as a visual texture from the glimpses of printed text.

Buzz Spector, “Efface Nabokov,” 2014. Altered Book (edition of 5). Courtesy of Bruno David Gallery, St. Louis.

Buzz Spector has produced many art works related in some fashion to books, including reconstructions of libraries, found and altered volumes, and works on paper made out of elements from dust jackets. See more images of his work on the Bruno David Gallery website, or watch this short 2009 documentary about an art installation by Spector at Cornell University:


11:00 Ontology is a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature of being—what it means to become and to exist. Learn about ontological arguments for the existence of God in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.   
The title page of the 1509 book De Divine Proportione, printed in black and red letters of varying sizes with a large decorated inital letter D

Title page of “De divina proportione” by Luca Pacioli, published 1509 in Venice by Paganino Paganini. Courtesy of History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries; © The Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma

Written by Luca Pacioli (c.1447–1517) and illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), “De divina proportione (On the Divine Proportion)” was first printed in 1509. It explores mathematical proportions and their applications to geometry, visual art and architecture. Explore the book here.


Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) was a French composer, organist—and ornithologist. Regarded as one of the major composers of the twentieth century, his music is rhythmically complex and harmonically adventuresome. Messiaen’s musical language is derived from a number of varied sources, including Greek metrical rhythms, Hindu musical tradition, serialism, and birdsong. It has also been noted that his whole work and life were deeply influenced by Roman Catholicism.

BBC Music has a rich multimedia site devoted to Messiaen.


Watch a brief history of musical notation:

Also check out this illustrated overview of the development of music notation systems.

Read a discussion of Messiaen’s fascination with symmetries of rhythm and pitch. This video explores Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition:


“Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus,” or “Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus,” is a suite of twenty pieces for solo piano composed by Olivier Messiaen in 1944. The work poses tremendous challenges of technique, interpretation, and stamina to a performer—the work lasts about two hours in its entirety. The piece was written for Messiaen's second wife, Yvonne Loriod, heard here performing the work in a 1956 recording: 

Read the program notes to a Naxos recording of “Twenty Contemplations”. Pianist Cordelia Williams’ project Between Heaven and the Clouds: Messiaen 2015, was “a year-long series of events setting “Vingt Regards” alongside words and images, including specially commissioned poetry and paintings, in order to explore these universal themes and Messiaen’s rich variety of inspiration.” 
An etching by Daniel Ramirez titled No. XVII: Contemplation of Silence. A trapezoidal shape centered on a sheet of white paper is made up of two narrow right triangles blind-embossed at right and left, and a central rectangle with a grandient moving from solid black at bottom to pure white at top. A narrow black line bisects the shape.

Daniel Ramirez, “No. XVII: Contemplation of Silence” (detail), 1980. Etching, aquatint and embossing. Courtesy of the artist.

MOCRA presented Daniel Ramirez’ “Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus: An Homage to Olivier Messiaen”, in Fall 2004. Ramirez says of the series,

“I have chosen the French composer Olivier Messiaen’s piano compositions, ‘Vingt regards sur l' Enfant-Jesus (Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus),’ as the theme for theses prints so that I may pay homage to a man and to an art form that has been a great source of inspiration to me.

“In ‘Vingt regards,’ Messiaen took up the same ideas of Dom Columba Marmion (‘Le Christ dans ses mysteres’) and Maurice Toesca (‘Les Douze regards’) wherein they spoke of the contemplations of the shepherds, of the angels, of the Virgin and of the Celestial Father. ‘Vingt regards,’ according to Messiaen, is an adaptation of these four themes while at the same time an addition of sixteen new contemplations. In speaking about the contemplations, Messiaen has said that ‘. . . More than in all my preceding works, I have looked here for a mystical love, to be varied, powerful and tender, sometimes brutal, responding to multicolored commands.’ I too, in these twenty intaglio prints, have tried to formulate such a language—a language befitting the sublime nature of the subject.

“The first phase of this work began with a small series of pencil drawings and then was extended into the medium of printing. It was in the process of creating these images that an appreciation of the various intaglio techniques (etching, drypoint, electrically-vibrated drypoint, mezzotint, engraving and aquatint) became a dominant factor in the series. This was especially true when I realized that if I ignored certain relationships inherent within the medium, the language I sought would be severely limited. Some of the formal elements, such as line, space, and texture, that were peculiar to intaglio, revealed new possibilities when combined with blind embossing (a depressed element printed without ink). Accepting this interchangeability as a challenge and an opportunity to explore, I found that my visual interpretations often changed dramatically from the earlier drawings.

“It was during this change and while attempting to synthesize idea and emotion with the process that I experienced the fine line which connects form and expression, when personal meaning and the medium function as one. It was a moment in which I was able fully to appreciate and experience a sense of the self, the medium and the unexpected.

“I hope that with these twenty contemplations I have given to Olivier Messiaen the respect and admiration he so richly deserves, and that I have remained respectful of the medium of music which he loves. J.S. Bach labeled one of the canons in his ‘Musical Offering,’ ‘Quaerendo invenietis’ (‘By seeking, you will discover’). Perhaps Messiaen would agree that Bach could have added ‘the unexpected’ as well!”


Constantin Brancuși (1876-1957) was a Romanian-born sculptor, painter, and photographer who is considered a pioneer of modernism and one of the most influential sculptors of the 20th-century. He sculpted numerous variations on a limited number of themes, such as heads, birds, and fish. With their smooth surfaces and an emphasis on pure basic forms, they were simplified almost to the point of abstraction. Learn more about Brancusi and his work on the Museum of Modern Art website.

Haptic perception describes perception based on the sense of touch, especially the active exploration of surfaces and objects by a moving subject. Haptic technology is a major area of innovation.


Ramirez refers to two bowing techniques employed by players of stringed instruments. Arco refers to producing notes by drawing the bow across the strings; pizzicato refers to producing notes by plucking the strings with the finger:

24:45 Reagan Upshaw is a poet and critic who also works as a fine art consultant. His poems have appeared in Atlanta Review, Hanging Loose, the Poetry Project Newsletter, Able Muse, and elsewhere. His articles, interviews, and reviews have appeared in Bloomsbury Review, Boston Review, On the Bus, Poets & Writers, Art in America, and New Art Examiner. Visit his fine art consulting website here. Read samples of his poetry here.
28:30 Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961) was a French phenomenological philosopher associated with the philosophical movement called existentialism. This movement proceeds from an analysis of the concrete experiences, perceptions, and difficulties, of human existence. Merleau-Ponty emphasized primacy of embodiment—the body as the primary site of knowing the world, in contrast to the long philosophical tradition of placing consciousness as the source of knowledge.

Two works from the “Celestial City” series are in the MOCRA collection.

A painting by Daniel Ramirez titled Caelestis Praesepe (Celestial Manger). A large trapezoidal-shaped panting seems to hover off the wall. The abstract imagery includes arcing lines and gentle color gradients in purples and silvers, resulting in a sense of an architectural space like a gothic cathedral.

Daniel Ramirez, “Caelestis Praesepe (Celestial Manger),” 1989–1990. Acrylic on canvas, oak, steel. MOCRA collection. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

An installation view of MOCRA's nave gallery features paintings by James Rosen and Daniel Ramirez, with other works in the background.

Daniel Ramirez, “Caelestis/Spatium/Res (Celestial/Space/Object),” 1988. Acrylic on canvas, aluminum, steel. MOCRA collection. Installed at MOCRA in “MOCRA at 20 - Part Two, The Second Decade” (2014). Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

Olivier Messiaen’s “Couleurs de la Cité Céleste (Colors of the Celestial City)” is a 1963 work scored for solo piano, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. He was inspired to write this work by a passage from the Book of Revelation that describes a wall of many colors in the heavenly city. Typical of Messiaen, the score includes elements of plainchant, Greek rhythms, chorales and birdsong.

A tierceron star is a configuration found in complex rib vaulting, a feature of Gothic architecture. Learn more about Gothic architecture in this article from the Khan Academy.