Critics Page In Conversation
JUDITH STEIN with Susan Harris
Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art
Susan Harris (Rail): First off, I want to congratulate you and thank you for devoting yourself to the research and writing of this wonderful book, Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art. You’ve done a beautiful job, a great service to us all in bringing to light so much valuable information on this quiet visionary, Dick Bellamy, who, by your account, was unintentionally drawn to, and pinpointed artists who went on to speak to and define a whole generation. It was extraordinary on so many levels. I’ve been a huge fan of Dick Bellamy’s since the 1980s when I was director of Kent Fine Art, so I was personally thrilled and enthralled by your biography. Tell me, where did you find information on this most elusive man?
Judith Stein: Oral history was a big chunk of my research—there was almost nothing written about him when I started work on it nearly twenty years ago.
Rail: Your book is an inspiration on that level alone. As I wrote in the introduction, Recalling the Saints, working with Dick (and Barbara Flynn) on a Myron Stout exhibition and catalogue was a career crossroads for me. I had become disillusioned with the emphasis on money in the art world in the late ’80s, so I was particularly grateful for the opportunity to work beside someone who had such integrity, devotion, and commitment towards the artist(s) he believed in. Dick was a significant role model to me for how one could be in the art world, that is, for how I could be in the art world!
Stein: Many people have told me that Dick was a role model for them. When he believed in an artist, it was for life. You mention the year 1990 as the year new waves of money changed things, but there were several tsunamis in the course of post-war art, and perhaps the first occurred during the five extraordinary years—1960 to ’65—that Dick ran the Green Gallery on 57th Street. The Green opened with Mark di Suvero’s début and closed with a valedictory to David Smith, who had just died. De Kooning, Pollock, and Johns notwithstanding, in 1960, uptown galleries were not particularly interested in contemporary American art. When all that began to change in 1962, Dick was showing the artists he believed in, as Larry Poons called him, “the wrong man at the right time.” Irving Sandler regarded Dick as the “eye of the ’60s,” and he truly was. He had an extraordinary eye for artists who became the iconic figures of his era. Pop art excited the enthusiasm of people who hadn’t previously thought of themselves as collectors, but now began to buy art. This revved-up market made Dick extremely uncomfortable. Philosophically, he was reluctant to raise prices; he wanted to soft-pedal the increases. But other galleries had no such hesitancy, and it didn’t take long before some of the Green’s artists moved on to other dealers.
Rail: I’m interested in the notion of Dick as a “talent-spotter” or his “knack” in finding artists who went on to define the ’60s. You quote Dick, himself, as explaining: “Being unpracticed, I was registering things very clearly with an innocent eye. I had an intensity of perception, where things just got interiorized immediately.” Henry Geldzahler accounted for Dick’s prescience by pointing to his uncommon openness—never defining his position and always ready to adjust it. Frank Stella credited Dick’s skill to ESP about the artist, downplaying the issue of taste; and David Whitney ascribed his track record to his “uncanny knack for detecting high ambition.”
Stein: All likely true! Another factor, ironically, was his lack of education—in the late ’40s he had a few wobbly semesters at the University of Cincinnati, and one at Columbia. He really was a self-educated man. When he first saw Rosenquist’s paintings in 1961, he was “in the moment,” and responded to them directly. But the well-educated Leo Castelli, who’d been so prescient when he took on Jasper Johns, saw Rosenquist in relationship to European surrealism, a passé style in the early ’60s. So Castelli initially declined to represent Rosenquist. It took a little while before Castelli came around.
Rail: Speaking of being in the moment, you’ve talked about Dick’s karmic propensity to be in the right place at the right time. Starting with being in Provincetown in 1949 when he all of a sudden found himself in a hotbed of Abstract Expressionism…
Stein: I think Provincetown is key to understanding Dick. When he got there in 1948, age twenty, he fell into the circle around Hans Hofmann, and I think he must have said to himself, “These are my people!” But he arrived with a rare openness and interest in art in general. When he was growing up in the Midwest, the only child of a couple who had met in medical school, his Chinese mother introduced him to art through her collection of jade carvings. Before ever leaving Cincinnati, he saw the work of Brancusi and Moore, and was impressed by the de Kooning paintings he saw in the Partisan Review. He came prepared! Of course his life could’ve gone in any number of directions—he ostensibly left home to become a merchant marine. [Laughter.] In the late ’40s, it was a not uncommon, romantic pursuit for guys who hadn’t yet found themselves. Dick was comfortable in the bohemian milieu of Provincetown and the Lower East Side, and for the rest of his life, this was his community. He was a poetry-carrying member of the Beat Generation, and part of his later attitude toward money, when I think about it, continued the counter-cultural values of the ’50s.
Rail: I was struck by your description of his father as a doctor who treated everybody equally regardless of who they were and their ability to pay, and that he didn’t care about money. It seems uncannily like Dick.
Stein: I think it’s a nuanced situation. His father had a generosity of spirit, which Dick surely made his own. Yes, Doc Bellamy had a clinic, and if people couldn’t pay, he treated them anyway. But he also parlayed whatever money he had into real estate deals, and the family got through the Depression in comfort.
Rail: You describe Dick’s growing up as a biracial child in suburban Cincinnati in the ’30s and ’40s—his father was Caucasian and his mother was Chinese. I wonder if he was conscious of this and how he thought of it back then.
Stein: He had to have been. Apart from his mother, Dick was the only one with Asian features. On the one hand he was charismatic, extremely popular, and much admired by friends. Yet he was also the butt of jokes and teasing. I don’t think it was an easy childhood.
Rail: You go into wonderful detail about his mother’s family history and the cultural impact she had on him. I love your description of their reading poetry and listening to music together after school. Then, there was your description of how his mother advised him to “never speak with a loud voice, for people will try to get away from you; so speak with a soft voice, and they’ll strain their ears to hear what you have to say.” Which of course connects with so many of the artists’ stories of Dick’s inimitable “silent” studio visits! But I wonder how Dick considered his being half Chinese? Personally I never thought about it. He didn’t look any different—
Stein: You’re not alone. There were many people in the art world who weren’t aware of his Chinese heritage. It wasn’t obvious. And as far as I know, it was nothing he talked about, except to his closest friends.
Rail: Having said that, it seems now that his being Chinese surely must have played into who he was.
Stein: I think it helped shape his aesthetic sense, his visual acuity, and it was from his mother that he learned that the visual matters. It sounds so simple, but we all know people who are unaware of their world on a visual level.
Rail: Right. So about Provincetown and Hans Hofmann, you include a wonderful passage from Dick about him: “When Hofmann used to talk about color to his students he would use this word ‘interval’ to describe what happens when two colors meet and a light flash is created. This never made any sense to me until I had a revelation while looking at one particular painting of his at the Metropolitan Museum in New York I actually saw color in a different way.”
Stein: When my editor saw that he asked me, “Do you know which painting that was?”
[Laughter.] Nope, no idea.
Rail: It was just such a potent statement—as was what he said of de Kooning’s black-and-white images that “just went to the back of my skull.”
Stein: That’s the openness people remember. I think he felt the same way when he first saw Motherwell’s paintings in 1952. They just affected him in his gut and he never forgot it. He had an extraordinary memory for the art that he saw. Mary Frank said that the last time she saw him, not long before he died, he was talking about a work of hers that he hadn’t seen since the 1950s, and he remembered its title and exactly what it looked like.
Rail: Wow. While Dick and I were working on the Stout show, he was also occupied with the installation of Mark [di Suvero’s] sculptures throughout the city of Nice. I remember his telling me about Mark’s works in incredible detail. It was quite impressive.
Stein: Dick was part of the team that helped Mark site his works, because, unlike paintings that can be schlepped from one side of the room to the other, Mark’s huge works aren’t easily moved. Dick had, as Mark describes, an uncanny sense of placement.
Rail: There were many painters, of course, that Dick loved and championed, but sculpture seemed to be his particular métier. He really loved and understood sculpture—and its relationship to light and space. We are talking, too, about a period of time when sculpture was beginning to be experienced in a very different way than in the past. Dick helped shape the new ways in which we began to see and consider sculpture.
Stein: Mark di Suvero’s début, the show that opened the Green Gallery in October, 1960, was a game changer for many artists. Richard Artschwager told me how important that show was to his own work, when he saw the unconventional materials Mark was using and the way the sculpture inhabited space. Carl Andre acknowledged the impact of Mark’s work on his own, how he’d been experimenting with monolithic forms and after seeing Mark’s work, it “broke open the scale problem.” Although it wasn’t a commercial success, Mark’s show suggested a new realm of possibilities for sculptors.
Rail: Right. Di Suvero and Chamberlain were using materials from the real world for sculptures that they placed in real space. After that, Dick went on to show Judd and Flavin, and then he championed Earth Art and Walter De Maria and Michael Heizer. Just as people started to get comfortable with one particular new and radical way of thinking of sculpture, Dick was onto the next.
Stein: Dick’s importance to land art was a subject that I only hinted at in my book because, truthfully, I didn’t have much to go on—Dick worked behind the scenes. But both Heizer and De Maria talked to me about Dick’s importance to their art. The challenge in working on a life as rich and full as Dick Bellamy’s, was where to put my focus because I found enough to keep me researching for the rest of my natural life!
Rail: A worthy endeavor, I might add.
Stein: [Laughter.] So I put the emphasis on the Green Gallery because Dick mounted so many amazing shows in a relatively short period during the creative chaos of the early ’60s. I do talk about Dick being the first in New York to show Lee Lozano at the Green, and soon thereafter Richard Serra, Neil Jenney, and Bruce Nauman, but there’s more that can be said about the rippling effect of his taste. Virginia Dwan, for example, now being celebrated at the National Gallery, first saw Flavin, Morris, and Judd at the Green Gallery.
Rail: Right, right, and Dick was showing [these artists] when people were only starting to process Pop art.
Rail: I mean, it is astonishing.
Stein: Even more so when you realize that it was all presented by the same gallery, sometimes in the same show. It’s easy to think about one gallery showing Pop art and another gallery showing Minimalism, and yet another doing Conceptual art, but Dick showed it all. The first time Robert Morris’s minimalist plywood Slab was ever exhibited was in a June 1962 group show that included Andy Warhol’s 200 One Hundred Dollar Bills—his Pop début—and Kusama’s prickly sculpture, on view for the first time.
Rail: I love that these diverse works were shown together. At the time, there weren’t defined categories of art; Dick, in his openness, was presenting works that weren’t all of a kind. The few published images that we have seen of these shows have become iconic and legendary. But to imagine actually being there and seeing these mysterious works directly—no less juxtapositions of, say, Robert Morris and Kusama!
Stein: As far as posterity goes, Dick’s multifaceted taste worked to his detriment because he was reluctant to isolate and compartmentalize certain artists and assign labels; he was not savvy about or interested in art marketing. I think of him as “posterity averse.”
Rail: Well, [art marketing] was a new thing, number one, and he wasn’t temperamentally suited for that, number two. I think the whole idea repulsed his sensibility. What I wonder is, in the five years that the Green Gallery challenged viewers to revise their ideas about what art was and what art wasn’t—
Stein: It was a time when people actually talked about the question, “What is Art?” Abstract Expressionism had shaken everybody up in the ’50s and they had just about settled back down and conceded, Okay, drips and schmears can be art, and then the zeitgeist changed and there were new things that shook people up. Not everyone is comfortable living with uncertainty about what is and what is not, art.
Rail: You document artists’ reactions to these shows as well as those of some collectors and dealers. But who actually was the audience? Dick was doing something really radical, and these artists were changing modern art, but who was the art-viewing audience?
Stein: Great question! Artists, writers, and musicians, and sometimes—if he was lucky—collectors would flood Dick’s openings. In the early ’60s, there were very few collectors interested in the art of their own time, especially American art, so it was a relatively small audience. But as the ’60s unfolded, more of the general public became interested in hearing about what the crazy artists were doing. One of the influential and virtually unknown information disseminators was Rosalind Constable. In her private life she was Betty Parsons’s lover, and professionally, she was a brilliant cultural scout for Time magazine. She covered the early happenings as “offbeat, off-Broadway and off their rockers,” and would let Oldenburg know in advance that “We’re going to write a very nasty review but you’ll love it.” So when you have Life, Time, Fortune, and Playboy covering the contemporary art world as news, they were laying the groundwork for broadening the audience.
Rail: Dick was impoverished—how did he have the money to run a gallery?
Stein: Simple: Robert C. Scull. Dick was not just undercapitalized; he was un-capitalized. In the ’50s, Dick worked at the artists cooperative Hansa Gallery with Ivan Karp. When it closed in 1959, he knew that the one thing in life he wanted was to run his own gallery. It was Ivan who introduced him to the collector and taxi magnate Bob Scull, who had a genuine passion for new, “aggressive” art, as he put it. It was kismet, as far as art history is concerned. Scull agreed to support the gallery if Dick kept the financing secret. And he did. Scull was unusually open to new art. He and his wife Ethel began to collect only in the late ’50s—the Sculls and Emily and Burton Tremaine were two of the primary collectors of that time in New York. Philip Johnson, another major collector, was very attentive to the shows that Dick presented, and so was the young architect Hanford Yang. Dick would advise Yang: “Look at things that bother and agitate you. The things you don’t like are probably the things that challenge your brain.”
Rail: Dick was very open about what he was drawn to and what he didn’t understand. He said he didn’t understand Warhol, for example, even though he was the one who first showed his Pop paintings.
Stein: Right. He eventually did come around to Warhol, especially when he saw how much his artist friends admired Warhol’s work.
Rail: I am struck by the novelty of the exhibition format that I think Dick introduced—the provocative group show.
Stein: It’s interesting that you say that, because Neil Jenney remembers that Dick extolled group shows. He felt that first you attracted somebody in to see the artist they were already interested in, and once through the door, they would be exposed to artists new to them.
Rail: It’s true. And then there was his presentation of Happenings—and his support of Oldenburg’s Store—I mean, how radical were they!? And his sponsorship of Lucas Samaras’s Room Number 1!?
Stein: Yes! When Samaras proposed to Dick that he wanted to take the bedroom that he’d been living and working in since high school and exactly recreate it in the space of the Green Gallery, Dick agreed, because he believed in Samaras as an artist. Dick said, “How much do you need?” and Samaras said “Seven hundred dollars,” and Dick went out and raised it so they could move the contents, and build a room at the Green to the exact dimensions of his bedroom at home. That was really the first time—this is 1964, fall of ’64—that an installation of an artist’s environment was presented to the public as a work of art.
Rail: It is stunning! And then, as we spoke of before, his role, if undocumented, in Land Art, in facilitating De Maria’s Lightning Fields and Michael
Stein: Dick was crucial—so was Bob Scull, for that matter— but I think other scouts will have to follow the bread crumbs to get the full story.
Rail: There’s another artist I love that you mention in relation to Dick, who falls in between a bunch of cracks—James Lee Byars. Talk about two quirky personalities!
Stein: Yes, I think they recognized each other as kindred souls from the get-go, and both were men who performed their lives. Over the years they worked on several projects together, and I was able to describe some little-known examples in Eye of the Sixties.
Rail: Dick operated in the world of the visual arts, yet everyone spoke of his love of language and of poetry and how deeply well-read he was.
Stein: Dick thought of himself as a poet, and likely did write poetry, but he never showed it to anybody.
Rail: Right, isn’t that interesting?
Stein: None of his friends had ever seen his writings. But his letters were his legacy. And that’s why it’s so important that his son, Miles Bellamy, just published Serious Bidness, a selection of Dick’s extraordinary letters. Many have little to do with business and everything to do with Dick’s impish humor and clever word play.
Rail: I can see his mischievous eyes and wry smile as we’re talking. At the New York Public Library program that you and Miles did with Mark di Suvero, Alfred Leslie, and Richard Nonas—I think it was Richard who talked about how it was to be with Dick in a social situation with his clowning and goofiness, and how it was sort of a performance.
Stein: Performance? Oh yes. He once showed up at a Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel opening wearing a long dried fish like a boa—something he had bought in Chinatown. He cross-dressed on occasion, but not with any desire to come off as a woman.
Rail: As you describe the first time he met Barbara Flynn’s mother—
Stein: Yes, quite an outfit, a lime-green housedress and high-top sneakers!
Rail: Right, I think it’s fruitful to think of Dick as an artist, as a poet. And you provide enough substance to consider his life as performance.
Stein: Most of his artist friends regarded him as one of them. No one thought of him as a businessman, even though he was performing in the arena of the art market.
Rail: Right. So after reading this book—and I’ve read it twice—thirsty as I was for personal information as well as a deeper understanding of Dick in the context of the time—I would like to know how you approached the writing this book? Did you see it as a biography? A chronicle of a time with its artists and art movements?
Stein: You raise an interesting question, because biography does not have an esteemed place in the academic practice of art history, even though the first art historian, Giorgio Vasari, wrote his history as a series of lives. Biography has more porous parameters than does traditional at history, which was my own background. But it was clear to me at the onset that I wasn’t writing just for my colleagues. I wanted to reach a broader audience, people who had an interest in art but didn’t necessarily know a great deal about it. And once I got into the writing, I began to shape it as if it were a non-fiction novel. In my first chapter, set on the opening night of the Guggenheim Museum in October 1959, I imagined that I had a camera and was following the people funneling in through the rotating doors. I was lucky enough to talk to several people who had been there that night, who described what it was like to see the Guggenheim for the first time. So it’s that kind of excitement, I hope, that comes into my writing, where it wouldn’t necessarily have a place in formal art history.
Rail: I really felt the sense of what it was like to actually be there in a very tactile way. Your description of the Green years was especially immersive—with artists and friends in the loft life, at the openings. Your treatment of the ’70s and ’80s was a bit different—not as immersive as the ’50s and ’60s, but fascinating.
Stein: Thank you! I saw myself as connecting the dots or taking a peek at some of the art world’s substructure, a place fun to see and rarely
Rail: You are so well-suited for bringing it altogether, opening the curtain onto this idiosyncratic, very human person in a way that’s not too rarified or too academic, yet substantial—like a novel or a movie. It’s a very gratifying read on so many levels. I adored it.
Stein: Wow, thank you.
Rail: There’s a quote you include that I particularly treasure as a mirror of who Dick was. It’s from a poem by Howard Nemerov that you say he loved: “To be a giant and keep quiet about it, / To stay in one’s own place.”
Stein: It’s a wonderful poem, and it does aptly sum up his own feelings about himself.
Rail: Yes, and lastly, when you describe how he died, with his glasses on and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time by his side.
Stein: That’s the kind of poignant story that a biographer can hardly believe is the truth, but of course, it is.
Rail: Well, Judith, thank you. Thank you for this interview, thank you for this wonderful book, and thank you for sharing this inspiring story. It stirred me to think not only of Dick but of others who are as genuine and self-effacing—people who reaffirm for me and others the reasons for being and staying involved in art and with artists.