Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)
Serious Bidness: The Letters of Richard Bellamy
(Near Fine Press, 2016)
The painter Larry Poons once described Dick Bellamy as “the wrong man at the right time.” Best remembered, if remembered at all, as the founding director of the Green Gallery in the early 1960s, Bellamy responded intuitively to the art that flared up after Abstract Expressionism’s moment passed; Mark di Suvero, George Segal, Claes Oldenburg, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and Poons, to list only several artists, were all beneficiaries of the gutsy space he created on Fifty-seventh Street. But this bespectacled beatnik, with an itch for pot and brandy, could be clumsy when it came to earning a buck. Known to drink copiously, to loll on gallery floors reading poems, and to rebuff prospective buyers and collectors, Bellamy was a dreamer, a loafer after Whitman—less of a dealer and more of a chill dude, really, whose rotating stable of artists would decide the future course of art.
As the author and curator Judith E. Stein writes in her infectious biography, Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art, the gallerist remained abnormally indifferent to money, status, or posterity, even as the market for contemporary art ballooned. He “elevated self-neglect to a high art form” and would “sooner quote poetry than prices to prospective buyers.” Bellamy, Stein writes, was “a man who was and was not an art dealer.” Shot through with verve, bearing years of research lightly, Stein’s book is the first to give this rare, inscrutable figure his proper due. Coinciding with its publication is Serious Bidness: The Letters of Richard Bellamy, a slim volume of twenty-two letters selected by the art dealer’s son, Miles. While Stein’s book foregrounds the ’60s and ’70s, the letters offer a glimpse into Bellamy’s life in the ’80s and ’90s. Wildly unpredictable and occasionally emotionally stark, the letters contain very few dissections of art or sophisticated reflections on the virtues or failings of certain art makers. Instead, they reveal Bellamy at his most pointless, funny, and weird.
Friends sometimes pointed to the dealer’s racially mixed background to account for his quirks. Born in Wyoming, Ohio, just outside Cincinnati, Bellamy was the son of a doctor of Kentucky stock and a mother born east of Shanghai in China (“Hillbilly Chinese” is how the dealer once referred to himself). He attended college first at the University of Cincinnati, then at Columbia. But he appears to have received his art education on visits to Provincetown, Massachusetts, listening in on Hans Hofmann’s critiques at his fabled summer school (he would sporadically find work there as a class model) and seeing a group exhibition at Gallery 200 of Motherwell, de Kooning, Pollock, and other abstractionists, organized by the avant-garde lecture series Forum 49.
Stein’s book is principally a study in personality, yet its subject remains stubbornly elusive throughout. Bellamy was “a master craftsman of protective masks.” People characterized the dealer’s manner as calculated and stylized. (Yvonne Rainer would even incorporate one of Bellamy’s mannerisms into a dance.) He was alternately gentle and dark. Rooms seemed to change upon his entering them. His financial situation was slippery: one cold winter, he was forced to use a sculpture Carl Andre had abandoned at his house for firewood. He privately wrote poetry, of which none seems to have survived. Over the years he dabbled in a variety of drugs: mescaline, cocaine, Thai stick, opium, and ecstasy. He ate peanut butter sandwiches with mayonnaise and raw onion.
As Stein’s book makes clear, he was never cut out to be a traditional art dealer. When the cooperative Hansa Gallery asked him to become its director in 1954, the inexperienced Bellamy found the job title comical; he preferred to think of himself as “an observer who just happens to be in a position to give exhibitions to people,” as he later explained. (He would eventually share the Hansa directorship with Ivan Karp, the dealer whose name would become synonymous with Pop.) Homeless when he accepted that first gallery job at Hansa (he’d just separated from his first wife), Bellamy would crash each night on the space’s floor, then rise in bewilderment: “I never knew what it was to run a gallery, or how to sell the work,” he recalled. But important shows emerged, including Allan Kaprow’s early indoor installations—enveloping environments formed from painted cloths and plastic sheets or comprising an antiseptic odor and a spinning drum that triggered assorted sound effects. Although infighting among the artists led to its closure in 1959, Hansa’s shows under Bellamy, like Leo Castelli’s parallel exhibitions on Johns and Rauschenberg further uptown, presaged a fresh chapter in postwar art, one that would be carried through at the Green Gallery.
But while Castelli chose artists with an eye toward influencing history, Bellamy was either unconcerned with or insensitive to the greater implications of the work he championed. His “purview was broad, his eclectic taste a brand in itself. […] [He] thrived on aesthetic disarray and gravitated toward art he didn’t understand,” writes Stein. As a result, the Green Gallery became a jewel of variety. Secretly backed by collectors Robert and Ethel Scull, who were contracted to purchase $18,000 worth of art from it annually, the Green opened in 1960 with di Suvero’s first solo show (for the rest of his life Bellamy would breathlessly advocate for the sculptor). Bellamy brought attention to unknowns like John Chamberlain, James Rosenquist, Tom Wesselmann, and (at Robert Scull’s insistence) Andy Warhol. He covered half the expenses for Oldenburg’s Store, debuted Judd’s earliest sculptures and Flavin’s fluorescent beams, and was the only uptown dealer to give Robert Morris the time of day. Still, artists complained of Bellamy’s lack of business tack, his fumbling with practical matters. They moved on, often at Bellamy’s own encouragement. Unprofitable to the end, the Green Gallery closed in 1965, only five years after opening.
Some of the letters featured in Serious Bidness, which reads best as a companion piece to Stein’s biography, confirm Bellamy’s awkwardness as a schmoozer and businessman. In a 1988 note addressed to Paul Richard at the Washington Post, for example, Bellamy tries to persuade the critic to cover a show of di Suvero’s, conceding, “this pitch will probably remain singular, given my past record with promo campaigns.” Indeed, it is: “My body wants my eyes to look into God’s pure cleansing light while the rest of it goes about digesting this horse meat just served,” Bellamy writes. This is followed by: “Get the goddam collectors and museum folk there, sell the sonofabitch!” He goes on to offer the critic a ten percent cut of sales—leaving the dealer a slim three percent. Serious Bidness is chock-full of similar moments that edge toward the absurd; however, it is also punctuated with affecting words to son Miles, who, like his father, struggled with addiction.
In retrospect, Bellamy was the right man at the right time. Following the Green Gallery’s closure, he found other opportunities to support difficult art. It seems his indifference to financial gain better equipped him to appreciate work that foregrounded ideas and transcended the gallery’s script. It was Bellamy who facilitated Yoko Ono’s first sale, who persuaded Castelli’s gallery to take on Bruce Nauman, and who grasped the significance of earthworks and land art, performing an instrumental role, for example, in securing funding for Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977). He preferred to work from the shadows. And yet, after renting a tiny office for seven years in Noah Goldowsky’s modest gallery on Madison Avenue, Bellamy finally launched a second gallery in 1980, with the ironic name Oil & Steel (he had originally proposed it for the Green), which opened in Tribeca and later moved to the less trendy Queens. There he showed artists like Richard Nonas and Alfred Leslie, and continued to back di Suvero.
Bellamy’s eye for art seemed grounded in an inner delicacy of feeling that could be construed, perhaps, as somehow spiritual. Michael Heizer, another artist who benefited from the dealer’s intuition and generosity, described Bellamy to Stein as “the only person I had ever known who was so spiritual.” In Stein’s telling, he does emerge as a kind of flawed and accidental holy man—a bungling missionary, set against an increasingly money-bloated art culture, who believed deeply in the work artists do. One of the blurbs printed on the back cover comes from critic Dave Hickey, who notes that Bellamy’s story “reminds us why we set out on our journey in the first place.” Many who are involved in the weird world of art, where so much has so little to do with art, will respond to the book with a similar rush of recognition.