Still Here

  Dick Bellamy, Provincetown, 1957, photo by Ivan Karp

 Dick Bellamy, Provincetown, 1957, photo by Ivan Karp

Since Eye of the Sixties came out, I have been thinking about the village of support I had when writing my book . Some of the artists, art world players and assorted loved ones, relatives, colleagues and peers of Richard Bellamy I interviewed in the last two decades have passed away, but happily, many more are still very much here. On September 14, I was on stage at the New York Public Library with four such people who were key to my work as a biographer. Many thanks to Clocktower Gallery for creating this podcast of the event.

Mark di Suvero made his debut as a sculptor in 1960 as the first show Dick Bellamy mounted at his Green Gallery. Dick became Mark’s first, and for many years, his only dealer. I remember talking about Dick with Carl Soloway, the late Cincinnati art dealer who dedicated himself to the career of Nam June Paik, the founder of video art. Soloway laughed when he described both himself and Dickas “monogamous dealers,” referring to his lifelong support of Mark’s art. When thinking out loud about Dick as part of the library panel, Mark’s heartfelt emotions were moving to many in the audience (including me).

Dick liked to refer to himself as “a gentleman of the old school,” which meant in part that when he believed in an artist, he stayed loyal for life. He first saw Alfred Leslie’s work in the fifties when the painter was an internationally-recognized abstract expressionist, although he himself started showing Alfred’s work in the sixties when he’d moved on to figurative painting. On the panel, Alfred too spoke movingly about Dick, his friend and dealer. Alfred is in his late eighties and continues to be a self-described “octopusarian.” At The Toast is Burning, his current show at Bruce Silverstein (through November 12), he’s exhibiting iconic, large-scale portraits from the 1960s, and new pigment prints. But you have to visit his website to see his graphic novels.

Richard Nonas got to know Dick in the seventies, and his was the first show in Dick’s Oil & Steel Gallery in 1980. He pointed out that Dick was not interested in art as commodity, and saw art as an affirmation of what makes us human.

Another of the speakers was Miles Bellamy, Dick’s son and author of Serious Bidness, a wonderful new collection of Dick’s letters. Miles worked with Dick in the nineties and has become an essential part of New York’s literary scene, with two Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshops in Brooklyn (Serious Bidness available here online or on foot).

Among those in the audience was Jonathan Scull, son of collectors Ethel and Robert Scull — pivotal players in the 60s and 70s art world and secret backers of Dick Bellamy’s Green Gallery — who owns Scull Communications, a PR firm specializing in the electronics industry. Jonathan also was essential to my book, and over the years I interviewed him several times. I caught up with him a few weeks later at a party for Eye of the Sixties. It wasn’t easy growing up with Bob and Ethel as parents, he revealed, yet he’s finding, to his surprise, that much of what has made him successful in business he learned from his father.

I will continue providing updates on the large web of connections to Dick Bellamy that reverberate around the world. If you would like to contribute your own, this Facebook site dedicated to Dick is an ideal place to share them. I welcome them, too.

On the Road

 Chuck Ginnever

Chuck Ginnever

 Emily Mason, Wolf Kahn

Emily Mason, Wolf Kahn

I’m back at home base now after several weeks away traveling through New England giving talks and readings from Eye of the Sixties. At the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center I discovered the audience included artists who’d known Dick in New York in the fifties and sixties, and whom I’d interviewed when researching the book. It was pleasure to catch Chuck Ginnever, Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason smiling as they heard me read passages based on information they had shared with me.

 Dick would have known how to do these painted designs!

Dick would have known how to do these painted designs!

For my reading at the AMP Gallery I returned to Provincetown, Dick’s favorite place in the world. There I read a section about his first visit to town in 1948, when he’d worked as an apprentice to the decorator Peter Hunt. “Did you know that Hunt’s atelier was adjacent to where we are now?” someone piped up from the audience. No, I didn’t! After the reading friends and I walked down that narrow court, the location of Ciro & Sal's Italian restaurant, where one summer Dick waited tables. We celebrated Dick over dinner. Was it only the wind that prompted the candles to flicker?

 Ciro and Sal's today

Ciro and Sal's today

Preface

Richard (Dick) Bellamy was one of the most influential and enigmatic American art dealers of the sixties. The artists he was the first to champion—pop luminaries such as Claes Oldenburg and James Rosenquist, and minimalists such as Dan Flavin and Donald Judd—are  today shown in museums from Paris to Des Moines, Sydney to Düsseldorf. Their names are well known. Dick’s isn’t. I met Dick in 1986, when I was a curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It was hard to believe that this charming, waifish man with frayed cuffs and eyeglasses mended with tape was the legendary art dealer I’d heard about from artists. And I was fuzzy on the details. Most people were. Intrigued, I began to research Dick’s c areer and discovered that there was almost nothing in print about him. I decided to remedy this, though the path forward was hardly clear.

The American art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto was particularly encouraging when I shared my intention to document Dick’s accomplishments. But when Dick heard about it, he asked his friend Alfred Leslie to convey his discomfort at the prospect. Deferentially, I let go of the idea. Five years later, in 1995, Leslie himself urged me to reconsider, Dick’s distress notwithstanding. “Isn’t there anything I can say to make you stop?” Dick said without rancor when he phoned to dissuade me again. This time, I respectfully stood my ground, and he tacitly agreed not to put up roadblocks. By the time he died, in 1998, this biography was under way. As I trekked into Dick’s past, interviewing hundreds of his contemporaries, I learned that there was more to him than met the eye, and it would require guile and resourcefulness to match the subject.

Dick ran the Green Gallery on Fifty-Seventh Street between 1960 and 1965 with the covert support of Robert and Ethel Scull, who became the country’s first celebrity art collectors. The remarkable talent he unearthed was jaw-dropping, but what really sustained my attention for what became a twenty-year journey was Dick’s singular attitude toward money. He simply wasn’t interested in making it, even as the market for contemporary art exploded all around him. A latter-day Bartleby, he preferred not to profit from the opportunity. The best art dealers have a fictional quality, the cartoonist Saul Steinberg once observed. Dick called to mind Sir Gawain, Huckleberry Finn, and Miniver Cheevy. He performed life with tragedy and farce as templates.

The puzzle pieces I gathered didn’t all fit together at first. Some of his friends described his dark side; others thought him a bodhisattva or lay Jesuit. Gradually a picture of this extraordinary, contradictory man emerged, a picture, in Nabokov’s words, “the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen.” In the end, I found Dick to most resemble Coyote, the culture- giving trickster in Native American mythology—eccentric, delightful, and gross, a shadowy figure with a capacity for intense pain and the rare gift of intuition

Nancy, Pati and Diane

 Nancy Christopherson, C. 1950

Nancy Christopherson, C. 1950

 Pati Hill, 1950

Pati Hill, 1950

 Diane Arbus, 1949

Diane Arbus, 1949

Three friends. One famous, two not. In the mid-1940s, when these three eccentric, extraordinary women found each other, Diane Arbus wasn’t yet a world-acclaimed photographer, nor had fashion model Pati Hill written her novels or pioneered photocopy art. And Nancy Christopherson, self-taught painter and future off-Broadway costume designer, was not yet Mrs. Richard Bellamy, the man who would later describe her, with Poundian grammar, as “her who brought me to this calling of art.”

Over the decades there were many women in Dick Bellamy’s life, but he married only one, Nancy Christopherson. She was the wife Dick never got around to divorcing. They met in Provincetown in 1948; married in Ohio in 1952, and by 1955 they were living apart in Manhattan. Most of the friends Dick made later in life knew nothing about her. In the mid-nineties, when I began research for his biography, I learned that Nancy was still alive. She had been friends with James Baldwin, Anais Nin, Maya Deren, and Diane Arbus, and I couldn’t wait to talk with her. I was overjoyed at the prospect of a direct line in to Dick as a young man. But Nancy, a recluse, lived alone and neither answered my letters nor her phone. I briefly fantasized a stake-out on 107th Street, and soon moved on to talk with others.

I was in touch with Jeff Rosenheim, curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum, who was working on a Diane Arbus show. Jeff connected me with Diane and Nancy’s vibrant friend Pati Hill, who was living in Sens, France. I would visit Pati twice, and until her death in 2014 at age 93, we often exchanged e-mails and talked on the phone. Pati, a beguiling, brilliant woman, helped me to form a picture of Nancy, her allure, quirks and complexity. Pati in turn introduced me to Arthur Lubow, a fellow biographer who was interviewing her about Diane. Lubow’s book, Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, has just been published. With the upcoming release of Eye of the Sixties, Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art, readers will have the dual opportunity to read about the dynamic, free-spirited trio of Nancy, Pati and Diane.

Provincetown, 1957, 2011

In the summer of 1957, when Patti Page had us all yearning for the quaint villages, sand dunes and salty air of Cape Cod, lucky Dick Bellamy was in Provincetown, enjoying what he later described as the best and “real-est” summer of his life. Dick was in his element in Provincetown, the place where, after leaving the Midwest nine years earlier, he found himself, literally and figuratively.

In 2011, when I learned that the Norman Mailer Writers Colony offered a week’s biography workshop in Provincetown, I applied and got in. We six participants were housed separately, and met every morning at Mailer’s spacious, bay-front home at the end of Commercial Street. It was largely as it had been at the time of the writer’s death four years earlier. We had a tour of his attic study, crammed with books, filing cabinets and dust bunnies. Our province was the living room, the deck, and the john that had been Mailer’s favorite—it seems he got so much thinking done there that he referred to it as his “second office.”

 Mailer's "first" office

Mailer's "first" office

I wandered around Provincetown in my free time, trying to imagine what it must have been like when Dick first arrived more than sixty years before. Surely the wisteria was as lush, the birds as chattery, and the mosquitoes as pesky back then. I walked up and down Commercial Street to see if I could find places he favored. I kept an eye out for circular blue plaques that alerted visitors to Provincetown history. On one walk I discovered the writer Mary Heaton Vorse’s house. It was in her backyard that Dick met Sheindi Tokayer in 1957. Sheindi and her artist friend Jackie Ferrara were living in Heaton Vorse’s pony barn that summer. But when I walked down the driveway and around to the back, the pony barn was no longer there.

What I did see was a large patch of open ground that must have been where Sheindi and Jackie hosted outdoor pancake breakfasts on Sundays. On one of those days, Dick tagged along with a friend who introduced him to Sheindi, the woman who would share his life for the next seven years. A strange thing happened when I tried to return to the Heaton Vorse house for a return visit—I couldn’t find the place! It was as if, like Shangri-La, the fog had closed around it.

 Pat de Groot

Pat de Groot

One afternoon I visited Dick’s friend Pat de Groot, a painter who still lives in the large, bayside house that she and her late husband Nanno de Groot designed and built in 1962 on a plot of land that cost them $6000. Over the years, Dick and his friends often gathered on her deck. The day I called on Pat, Baltimorean John Waters, her longtime summer tenant, was nowhere in sight.

 Michael Shay’s, now closed

Michael Shay’s, now closed

Another day I had lunch with Chris Busa, the founder and editor of Provincetown Arts. Chris took me to Michael Shay’s, and led me to the table where he and Norman Mailer would sit together to eat oysters. Chris told me that after eating each slippery morsel, Mailer would turn the shell over to see if he could detect a face in the happenstantial patterns of its crevices.

 Donald Baxter MacMillan

Donald Baxter MacMillan

One place I didn’t visit—I didn’t then know that Dick had a history with the place—was the childhood home of the arctic explorer Donald Baxter MacMillan. I would later learn that in 1957, Dick’s friend, painter Jim Bumgardner, was hired to paper a room in the historic house, and Dick volunteered to help him. Neither had experience with the tricky business of unfurling rolls, matching patterns and anchoring strips to the wall with glue. When their employer stopped by to check in on them, the two were dripping with glue and surrounded by mangled lengths of wallpaper. She was so amused that she called a halt to their work, and to their surprise, treated the skinny, would-be workers to dinner.

The late Deborah Martinson taught the biography workshop at the Mailer house. One of Deborah’s memorable assignments was to write a letter to the person we were writing about. By then, Dick had been dead for thirteen years. Here’s a portion of mine. “You were such an eccentric guy, dear Dick. When I started work on your biography, I tried to understand the odder things about you that your friends reported. Now I don’t care as much about explaining you. As if I could ever “explain” your quirky ways! Now I’m puzzling over a bigger mystery—how you came by your disinterest in profiting from the sale of art. It was the most subversive part of you. You handled some of the most lucrative talents of the sixties—you had the art world in the palm of your hand, and then you spread your fingers and it slipped away. You really can’t succeed in business without really trying, and you didn’t seem willing to try. But then, you never saw yourself as involved with commerce. Your Green Gallery was like an alternative space avant la lettre.  There was no one, no one, like you. . .”

Byars and Sellers

“Every dealer starts out selling what he likes and every dealer ends up liking what he sells,” the gallerist George Staempfli was known to say. This description would not have fit Dick Bellamy, who stayed loyal to artists whose art did not sell, even those whose art was never intended to be sold. James Lee Byars was one of the latter ones, a peripatetic performance and installation artist with whom Dick collaborated for decades. One trait the two men held in common was a lifelong commitment to performing their lives. Each had scripted himself as an eccentric, a role that could be improvised but never relinquished.

Over the years, Dick and Byars worked on several non-tangible projects together. In Eye of the Sixties, my biography of Dick Bellamy, I describe a 1963 performance at the Green Gallery that included a dance improvisation by Yvonne Rainer (filmed by Andy Warhol); intermittently, a child appeared to read aloud poems by Dame Edith Sitwell. When the Green Gallery closed in 1965, Dick shifted his base to Noah Goldowsky’s gallery at 81st Street and Madison Avenue. Noah, a sweet, generous man, provided Dick with an office and periodic use of the central gallery space.

 1967 James Lee Byars,  Four in a Dress

1967 James Lee Byars, Four in a Dress

It was there in 1967 that Dick hosted Byars’s Four in a Dress, an event for participants, not onlookers. Artist Peter Young remembered getting a call one evening from Dick, who summoned him and his friend Susan to get themselves over to Noah’s. The couple arrived to find the gallery walls bare and the space empty save for a large black cloth stretching from wall to wall. Several head-sized cutouts punctured the fabric. Peter saw the purple-haired noggin of Warhol superstar Ultra Violet protruding from one opening, the mustachioed head of John Chamberlain from another. Byars invited Peter and Susan to strip naked and duck their heads through the two “vacant” holes in the cloth. But the prospect of getting undressed for art’s sake, and taking part in who knows what, made them uncomfortable. “We were flower children and naive,” Young told me when I trekked out to see him at his home in Bisbee, Arizona. Peter and Susan wanted nothing to do with Four in a Dress. They exchanged glances and made a hasty exit.

Dick again used Noah’s space to host Byars in the summer of 1968, this time the artist’s fictitious Museum of Human Attention, a project that entailed collecting “a million minutes of thoughts.” Byars planned to have a million circles piled up in the corner of the room, each with his handwritten instructions: “Put a minute of attention on this page and send it to the Museum at 1078 Madison,” which was Noah’s address. The years have swallowed up the details of just how this played out.

In the early eighties Byars recruited Dick for a moveable performance, Seven Gold Men Smell Seven Cultural Institutions. The artist, Dick, his sweetheart Barbara Flynn, Thomas McEvilley, Kim Jones, Wendy Dunaway, and Stephen Harvey each were fitted out with a custom-made gold suit. Wendy remembers that the event took place during a hurricane and that she was pressed into service as chauffeur because the rented limo cancelled. The performers all piled into her car and braved the wind and the rain at seven places, including the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, The New York Times, The Frick and possibly the offices of Artforum. If anyone took photos, I haven’t seen them.

Venus Awakening Manhattan to the Importance of Art from Overseas

When people buy art from commercial galleries, we never hear about the price tag unless they themselves tell us. It’s a private matter between the collector and the art dealer. But there are no secrets when art is sold during the public spectacle of an auction. In the history of post-war American art, the Scull auction of 1973 is perhaps the best-known, when the work of living artists went for unprecedented prices. But the auction that most influenced the explosion of the post-war art market, and set everybody talking about art and money, was Parke Bernet’s 1961 sale of Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer—astonishingly, they both realized the nearly identical sum of 2.3 million dollars.

In 1961, Rembrandt went on the block at the Parke-Bernet auction house at 980 Madison Avenue and Seventy-Seventh Street. Today Gagosian Gallery is the building’s best-known tenant. A while back, I was headed there to see a show when I took a moment to look up at the two art deco-ish, colossally-scaled figures attached to the façade. I was sure the quaint-looking duo dated from the twenties. I would soon learn they weren’t. Parke-Bernet commissioned both the building and the sculpture in 1949. Sculptor Wheeler Williams (1897 –1972), was an artist as retardataire in his art as he was conservative in his politics—he was very active in Republican circles at the time of the allegorical sculpture’s debut, and would soon support Senator Joe McCarthy. True, his choice of material—polished aluminum—was modern, but his interest in personifying abstract ideas with figures was old hat. 

Wheeler titled his work Venus Awakening Manhattan to the Importance of Art from Overseas. As envisioned by Wheeler, the buff borough incarnate lounges like a Roman river god, and the scantily-clad goddess of love hovers over him. An invisible breeze eases Venus’s drapery well below the line of modesty, and shifts the flame in her torch sideways. Venus and Manhattan had to wait twelve years for their moment of greatest relevance. On November 15, 1961, Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, a painting from overseas, was sold in the building behind them, and awakened New York’s awareness of art as a marketable commodity. In 2012, the fifty-one-year-old couple didn’t bat an eye when the contemporary art gallery Venus Over Manhattan opened for business at 980 Madison, its name a wry tribute, http://venusovermanhattan.com/.

Dreaming of masks

I’d been working on Dick Bellamy’s biography for six years when he visited me in a dream. I was walking across a stretch of vacant land near the Hudson River with a group of people who all knew him. Suddenly, Dick appeared, about a hundred feet ahead. He stooped down to pick up something from the ground and waved it at us, grinning. It looked like a floppy inner sole. By the time we reached the patch where he’d been standing, he was nowhere in sight. Looking down, I saw several of what I thought were pliable soles, partially buried. But when I pulled one free I discovered it was a half mask. I don’t know how many I gathered before I awoke.

I wondered what might have fueled my dream machine, and raked my mind for possibilities. I’d been told that Dick’s earliest childhood memory was the sight of his tracks in new snow. These footprints became material objects in my dream. How ingenious of my subconscious to pun with their resemblance to half masks. In my waking hours, I was hard at work tracking Dick’s steps through time, trying to unmask a man who lived life as an ongoing performance.

It would be seven more years before Dick paid me another nighttime visit, and this one put me to the test. I was seated on a couch in a well-appointed lounge area—a hotel? —and out of the blue, there was Dick, smiling as he walked into the room. He sat down on my couch, at the opposite corner. He was hale and hearty and in good spirits. As we began to talk, I noticed a growing wet spot on his pants, and I saw urine soaking into the upholstery. I remember thinking to myself: “this must be some kind of a test. Try not to react. He wants to see if I will keep my cool.”

Dick seemed to live a life without rules. He could be thoughtlessly, devilishly rude, and would try the patience of his friends. Alfred Leslie recounted a time when he was checking into a fancy hotel and Dick accompanied him into the lobby. Dick had removed his dentures, and was all smiles as he flashed his toothless gums. To make Alfred even more uncomfortable, Dick had picked up a smelly bag of garbage on the way in, and stood at the desk with it slung over his shoulder. Alfred did his best to ignore the provocation. Dick didn’t believe in handkerchiefs. Artist Tina Spiro long remembered the studio visit when he’d arrived with a bad cold. As he bent over her unframed watercolor, a blob dripped onto the paper. She quickly cleaned it off with a tissue as he effusively apologized. No harm was done—she’d varnished the surface. But still. Dick was a one-of-a-kind in his personal as well as his professional life, and I early on understood that as his biographer I had to integrate into my narrative what his friend David Whitney described as Dick’s “bad side.” 

It was artist Richard Nonas who suggested to me that Dick resembled Coyote, the culture-giving trickster in Native American mythology—eccentric, delightful, and gross, a shadowy figure with a capacity for intense pain, and the rare gifts of intuition. In the course of my decades of research, I heard beguiling and unpleasant stories, and I stuffed as many as I could into my first draft. My editors helped me to find a balance that would not overwhelm my readers. As I worked to slim down the manuscript, some wonderful material fell to my cutting room floor. In the weeks preceding the July publication of Eye of the Sixties, Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art, I’ll be posting some of the fascinating stories about Dick Bellamy and his world that didn’t make it into the book.