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When Dealers, Too, Were Romantics

Speculative collecting, artist-poaching and frothy press coverage were as much signs of the times as Bellamy’s thrift-store outfits, afternoon benders and unheated Lower East Side apartments. The Green Gallery would not have been in business without the backing of the taxi magnate Robert Scull and his wife, Ethel, who would scandalize the art world a decade or so later with a high-profile auction of works from their contemporary art collection that looked like greedy profit-taking to the artists they had supported. (“Deadeye Dick” nods to the Sculls in a set of mischievously Warholesque portraits by Michael Heizer.)

Organized by Judith Stein, whose evocative biography of Bellamy, “Eye of the Sixties,” was published last year along with a collection of the his correspondence edited by his son Miles, the show is a vivid affirmation of Bellamy’s “eye.” If the book, which delves into his drinking and his troubled relationships, can make him seem like a tragically contrarian figure — “the wrong man at the right time,” as the painter Larry Poons put it — the exhibition lets us judge him on the merits of his discoveries.

Photo

“Giant Blue Men’s Pants” (1962) by Claes Oldenburg.

Credit
via Peter Freeman Gallery, New York

They include Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Claes Oldenburg, who all made their New York solo debuts at the Green. They’re represented at Freeman by audacious early works like Mr. Oldenburg’s “Giant Blue Men’s Pants” from his 1962 outing,a pair of enormous painted-canvas slacks casually draped over a hanger; and Mr. Flavin’s 1964 light piece “a primary picture,” made of red, yellow and blue fluorescent bulbs arranged to resemble an empty frame. “Deadeye Dick” almost makes you feel like you’re encountering these pieces for the first time — a rare feat, given the current blue-chip status of these artists and their hushed presentation in big museums and mega-galleries.

Other, less familiar names are given equal billing, which is heartening because it would have been all too easy to convene a winners-only exhibition. A 1956 wood, gravel and metal relief painting by Jean Follet (one of few women on the Green roster) makes an earthy, Jean Dubuffet-like impact. And the painter and critic Sidney Tillim pays tribute to his fellow art writer Clement Greenberg in his mysterious allegory “Who Among Us Really Knows? Or Greenberg’s Doubt,” from 1969.

Portraits of Bellamy are here too, attesting to his intensity and charisma. He sat for Alex Katz in a kind of attentive slouch, head cocked just slightly and shoulders askew. Not here, alas, is Roy Lichtenstein’s painting of a military officer musing in a speech bubble: “I am supposed to report to a Mr. Bellamy. I wonder what he’s like.”

Photo

Installation view of “The Richard Bellamy Piece” (1968) by Neil Jenney.

Credit
via Peter Freeman Gallery, New York

How might we characterize Bellamy’s taste, on the basis of “Deadeye Dick”? Early works by Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman and Mark di Suvero (the subject of the Green’s first solo, and the only artist Bellamy represented at the time of his death) evince an intuitive response to sculpture. His painting sensibilities are harder to define, with bracingly austere abstract works by Mary Corse, Myron Stout and Jo Baer offset at Freeman by the helter-skelter figuration of Jan Müller’s “Temptation of Saint Anthony” (1957).

A selection of ephemera confirms that Bellamy was way out front in fostering participatory and performative projects like Oldenburg’s pop-up “Store” on the Lower East Side (1961) and the duo of Tehching Hsieh and Linda Montano’s “Art/Life One Year Performance” (1983-4), conducted partly in Bellamy’s final gallery venture, the TriBeCa-based Oil & Steel.

When it came to closing deals, however, Bellamy lagged behind contemporaries like Sidney Janis and Castelli. “There was no real thinking about the business aspect, or what a stable of artists means, or what a dealer does to promote them apart from sitting there and trying to sell a painting every time someone asks the price of it,” Bellamy later acknowledged. Often in the Green Gallery years, Ms. Stein writes, he wasn’t even “sitting there”; he was napping in the back room, or out at a bar, having taken the gallery’s phones off the hook.

How would this reluctant salesman have fared in today’s hyper-professionalized art world, our society, per Mr. Freymond-Guth, of “power, finance, and exclusion”? Would Bellamy have scouted studios in Mexico City and Berlin, opened a branch in Los Angeles and another in Brussels? Would he have done all the fairs, monitored the contemporary auctions, wooed new collectors on Instagram, hired a public relations team?

I think we know the answer.

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