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.