Serious Eye: Two New Books About Richard Bellamy
If numbers alone indicate success, Robert Miller is probably one of the greatest art dealers who ever lived. But there’s another assay of greatness among art dealers, and it has more to do with having an eye for the outlier, a talent for selecting the unlikely but strangely right work, the ability to simply recognize vision, but above all, to be a Connector. If you happened to monetize these factors, all the better, your gallery’s doors stayed open.
But art history, and art gallery history, is more than a matter of who cashed in. There are those who truly mediate culture — in today’s scene Matthew Higgs and Lia Gangitano come to mind as prime examples — who cudgel creativity and platform things we’ve not seen before. These figures are Connectors, and theirs is a subtle and alchemical art. Swirl together an essence of Barnum, an ounce of Ezra Pound (for this job description a degree of insanity is not a liability), a soupçon of David Ogilvy, and the visionary who-says-we-can’t? style of a Sergey Brin, and you begin to see the skill-set required. One of the hallmarks of these wizards is that they’re almost always impecunious, and seeking backers.
Their gift is having an eye, and an ear, that sees and hears what others don’t. Their contribution rests in being there at key cultural moments, and having whatever combination of spark and grit that is required to reveal something truly new.
Meet Richard “Dick” Bellamy. Director and founder of the Green Gallery, who, in 1960, landed in the eye in a hurricane: the seismic upheavals called Pop and Minimalism. The odds were against Bellamy because unlike most founders of New York art galleries, he had little if any family backing, little if any formal art education, and pretty much zero business acumen. Growing up in the Midwest, he briefly studied at the University of Cincinnati, and later Columbia, but spent more time in Manhattan’s cheap bars than in classroom lectures. Desultory wandering in a Beat fashion, by the late ‘50s he decamped to Mexico and Provincetown, places where a lack of ambition and a talent for bohemian blather were perfectly OK.
Exactly what made him stop spinning his wheels is not exactly known, and it is just one of a long list of undiscoverables that stand out in Judith Stein’s new biography of Bellamy, Eye Of The Sixties, recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. One thing is clear: Bellamy took pains to cover his tracks, stay a shadowy figure, operate on the margins of society. Showing what he accomplished, and the lives he helped, and hurt, is wonderfully documented here. But as a portrait of a man, the book falls short. It is likely that the real Richard Bellamy is and will remain unknowable.
Stein’s biography stunningly fills in several yawning gaps of art history circa the early 1960s. We meet, up close and personal, artists such as Mark di Suvero, Donald Judd, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Morris, James Rosenquist, Yayoi Kusama — artists who would certainly have found an audience eventually, though Mr. Bellamy brought them out into the light. More thrilling still are smell-the-smoke-and-sweat reports of Lee Lozano, James Lee Byars, Jo Baer, Allan Kaprow, Robert Whitman, Ronald Bladen. They may lack the epoch-making stature of Bellamy’s big guns, but there is still a lot to be discovered about each. Stein’s research reveals many avenues for further scholarship, and future writers will follow the trails she blazes here.
Each page contains nuggets of original research that are pure gold. The problem is that there are great artist-biographies, and this book, despite its absolutely fascinating and voluminous cavalcade of facts, is not in that company. Stein allows herself here and there to speculate, which leaves the reader slightly distrusting of the whole. What is to be made of an observation like “Dick must have read Ezra Pound’s translations from the Chinese, poems Lydia (his Chinese mother) would have praised for their delicacy and economy”? What is such a string of assertions based on? in other places, sweeping generalizations needed further edits.
Bellamy’s business practices were a slow motion cliff-dive, and on this subject Stein is at her best. Though he managed to find an angel investor to support the gallery, taxi-magnate Robert Scull, it became apparent in short order that the business aspects of running a gallery bored him — which led to a fast-approaching expiration date. He could often be found rubber-legged drunk in the early afternoon, hiding away in the back office but still open for business. We see him stoned or buzzed, lying full-length on the gallery floor; what affluent Midtown gallery visitors made of this leave little to the imagination. Sometimes he would simply abandon the premises, and head to a bar, leaving the gallery doors wide open.
Bellamy blithely made his own rules and followed his own code of ethics; his record keeping was spotty, he sometimes paid artists haphazardly, and he was known to enrage them, even retitling works as he saw fit. Is it any wonder that Oldenburg jumped over to Sidney Janis after a year?
Simultaneously, Dick Bellamy’s son Miles has put together a personal selection of his father’s letters, which document the dissolution of a life — “bludgeoned by alcoholism” is how he self-describes — while inviting us into a world more exciting than most of us will ever know. And it’s a beautiful, strange, sad and arcane little book. Now in his mid-50s, Miles was his father’s gallery assistant for the final five years of Dick’s life. As a boy, Miles lived mostly with his mother, and knew his father on a weekends and vacations basis. The letters from father to son are some of the most revealing; one winces at a letter written to the eight-year-old Miles, which includes this lovely line, “I love you sweet baby Miles no good louse scum.” Dick should have known that irony and sarcasm as humor are lost on a child. Doubtless he was off on his own chemical planet when he composed that cringe-worthy missive. That Miles struggled with (and overcame) his own substance-abuse issues comes as no surprise; the fallout from drugs and alcohol is a theme that permeates both Bellamys’ life stories.
Like the letters of Jack Kerouac (another victim of the hard-drinking artist’s lifestyle) these documents both shed light on and cast enigmatic shadows over their author. While Miles has provided helpful endnotes, these letters would have benefitted from close annotation. For example, in a letter to a Peter Young, dated 1970, Dick refers to “Dan painting well.” Later in the letter he says “I thought Mike’s show at Marlborough in May-June good. […] Saw Rolf a few weeks ago […] he was visiting Mickey Ruskin.” I happen to know that Mickey Ruskin was the owner of Max’s Kansas City, New York’s iconic artists’ bar in 1960s and ‘70s; who the hell these other folks are I haven’t a clue. This book is keyed to art-world insiders only, those with access to the inside of the inside.
It is, however, worth the price of admission for a 1996 letter to Barbara Rose, the seminal historian of modern art, who was, apparently, a close friend of Dick. It begins “Dear Barbara, Long time no see or hear. I hope you are still fucking. I am unable to. I wish I had been able to do it better when I could.”
Stein, Judith E. Eye Of The Sixties: Richard Bellamy And The Transformation of Modern Art (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). ISBN-13: 978-0374151324. 384 pages, $28
Bellamy, Richard. Serious Bidness: The Letters of Richard Bellamy. Miles Bellamy (ed.) (Brooklyn, NY: Near Fine Press; Printed by Small Editions, Red Hook, 2016). ISBN-13: 978-0-692-51867-0. 72 pages, $40