An Unsung Hero of the New York Art Scene
Reviewed by Marjorie Heins
Richard Bellamy was that strangest of New York City art dealers: he was totally uninterested in money. He was, however, in love with the challenging and avant-garde, and had an expert eye for the next big thing. In the late 1950s and early '60s, he discovered and championed such subsequent stars of pop art, minimalism, and large-scale sculptural abstraction as Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Donald Judd, and Lee Bontecou, generously referring them to more commercially savvy dealers when he knew that he couldn't represent them profitably. The art historian Judith Stein has given us a biography of this iconoclastic hero with, as its background, a panorama of the New York art scene in those critical years when new trends, including a return to figuration, displaced the Abstract Expressionist canon that had ruled the realm up through the mid-1950s.
It's a biography with the subject's eccentricities and warts in full view. Bellamy, the son of a Chinese mother and Caucasian dad, was plagued from childhood by societal racism; he was a rebel who never finished college; he was slovenly, irresponsible, and a lifelong alcoholic, and seemed to lack any direction or ambition until he fell in with the artistic and literary crowd in Provincetown in 1949, at the age of twenty-one. He loved modernist literature (Ezra Pound's obscurantist poems, Marcel Proust's seemingly endless novel, In Search of Lost Time, and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita were among his favorites), and he had an intuitive, untutored appreciation for the immediacy and impact of visual art. The critic Irving Sandler dubbed him "the eye of the sixties."
Bellamy stumbled into his career as art dealer: in the late '50s, downtown artists, frustrated by the exclusivity and for-profit ethic of uptown galleries and by the dominance of the "Ab Ex" style, created a number of independent downtown co-op galleries; Bellamy was asked to be the director, after a fashion, of one such space, the Hansa. The job fit his nonchalant, anti-commercial persona, since Hansa operated "less as a thriving business and more as a clubhouse" (in the words of NYU's Grey Art Gallery, which mounted an excellent exhibit about the late-'50s downtown galleries earlier this year).
None of the downtown galleries had a long shelf life, but they did provide support and visibility for burgeoning movements such as happenings and performance art; they also were more welcoming to female artists than was the uptown establishment. (The theme of sex discrimination in the art world runs through Stein's book.) In 1960, our impecunious and disorganized hero was able to realize his dream of a gallery uptown for avant-garde art when the collectors Robert and Ethel Scull agreed to finance the Green Gallery on West 57 Street. Bellamy ran it, in his inspired but slipshod fashion, for five years.
His opposition to the increasingly high-stakes, profit-oriented art world amounted to a veritable allergy to money. As Stein explains: "In Dick's thinking, money sullied what mattered about art and spurred people to collect for 'the wrong reasons.'" He was disgusted by a 1955 Fortune magazine article that touted Ab Ex macho artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning as "growth stocks."
One of Bellamy's first discoveries was the sculptor Mark di Suvero, whose massive, junk-filled constructions were the subject of Bellamy's first show at the Green. Bellamy championed Claes Oldenburg's often erotically charged soft sculptures and James Rosenquist's huge billboard-like transmutations of imagery from popular culture; he promoted the minimalist pioneers Donald Judd and Dan Flavin -- each in turn being scorned and dismissed by established critics before catching on. (The New York Times critic John Canaday described Judd's brightly-painted boxes as "'avant-garde' nonart that tries to achieve meaning by a pretentious lack of meaning.")
The Green Gallery managed only one more season after the Sculls pulled out their money in mid-1964, but Bellamy continued as a free-lance art dealer and promoter for the next thirty years, until his body succumbed, in 1998 at the age of seventy, to the ravages of tobacco, alcohol, and a generally appalling lifestyle. He called his last exhibit space, initially in a still-ungentrified Tribeca, and later in Queens, the Oil & Steel Gallery. He organized major retrospectives for di Suvero and was one of the first to promote the equally challenging, even more abstract gigantic sculptures of Richard Serra. He was constantly disorganized, disheveled, broke, and drunk, but at the same time a high-spirited practitioner of pranks like showing up at an opening with a huge salted fish draped over his shoulders. Most important, he was passionately inspired by the most subtle and esoteric art, which he often contemplated for hours while lying on a gallery or studio floor.
At the end of the day (and of Stein's impressive book), one still does not know Dick Bellamy very well. His inner self, his intimate life, remain elusive. What he thought about his various relationships with women, and with his son, we do not know. He wrote letters and poems, from which Stein quotes excerpts, but he apparently did not write any thorough-going account of his philosophy of life or art. On the latter subject, Stein mostly quotes from an interview in the 1984 book The Art Dealers (edited by Laura de Coppet and Alan Jones). There is also a book of twenty-two of his letters, edited by his son Miles.
Stein conducted extensive interviews with people who knew and worked with Bellamy. Her research is exacting; I noticed only two errors. One, in setting the political scene circa 1955, the year Bellamy started at the Hansa Gallery, refers to folk singer Pete Seeger's testimony before "Senator Joe McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee": a moment's thought would lead to the realization that senators do not sit on House committees. (McCarthy in fact chaired the Senate Government Operations Committee.)
The other error is more central to the subject of the book. Stein reports that Jackson Pollock, poster boy of the Abstract Expressionists, was initially represented by the dealer Betty Parsons. In fact, the entrepreneurial heiress Peggy Guggenheim, proprietor of the Art of This Century gallery during World War II, first represented Pollock; she even put him on retainer in 1943, enabling him to quit his job as handyman at what was to become her uncle Solomon's Guggenheim Museum. When Peggy Guggenheim decided to return to Europe after the war, she persuaded a reluctant Betty Parsons to take over representation of the difficult and not-yet-famous Pollock.
But these are quibbles about what is on the whole an enlightening, thought-provoking, deeply researched, and engagingly written book. Stein has an instinct for the perfect anecdote or turn of phrase, as when she quotes Claes Oldenburg on happenings and on uses of junk, edibles, and cast-offs from the social world: "I'm for art that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum" -- or in her own description of architect Frank Lloyd Wright's brilliantly iconoclastic Guggenheim Museum as sitting on its Fifth Avenue lot "like an imperious turbaned pasha." She gives us a splendid chronicle of the personalities, the styles, and the internal contradictions of the New York art world at a moment in its history when, alas, money began to rule as never before.
Marjorie Heins is the author of Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge (NYU Press, 2013). Her article, "The Notorious "31 Women" Art Show of 1943," describes Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery. Her paper, "Abstract Expressionism, Machismo, and the Cultural Cold War," is also available at Academia.edu.