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