Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Art I'm Looking At: Mel Ramos Retrospective at the Crocker Museum of Art (July 24,2012)

Mel Ramos is a name I must have heard before. I looked him up in the textbook I used in college in a history of American art class (Hunter and Jacobus, American Art of the 20th Century, Abrams, 1973) and there he was, with penciled-in margin notes nearby. I can't say that I remembered him, though, so I approached the current Ramos retrospective at Sacramento's Crocker Museum of Art with no baggage--either positive or negative ("Mel Ramos: 50 Years of Superheroes, Nudes, and Other Pop Delights," through October 21, 2012).

The work is certainly eye-catching. The canvases are big. They are bright. The compositions are stark--usually a single large figure against a plain background. The superheroes lack the commercial artifacts that accompany most of the nude figures (a typical nude combines a Playboy Playmate-style woman in, on, or next to something like a box of candies, a package of Cracker Jacks, a cigarette pack, or a martini glass), but even the nudes are rather simple compositions, and their backgrounds tend to be garish--flat planes in colors like mauve and apricot.

According to the gallery labels, Ramos became serious about painting while under the spell of the Abstract Impressionists, especially Willem de Kooning. Ramos, we are told, disgusted with his own slavish copying of de Kooning's style, eventually decided to paint what interested him, and that appears to have been comic book characters. The show begins with some of these early superhero paintings. It's a shame that at least a few of the painter's Abstract Impressionist works are not included. I left the exhibition curious to see what Ramos was doing in that earliest phase of his career.

"Wonder Woman No. 1" (1962, oil on canvas, Rochelle Leininger Collection. © Mel Ramos/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY) is among the early superhero paintings. It has a naive simplicity, as do the other comic book heroes in the show. The comic-influenced works look precisely like what you'd expect from a man who enjoyed comic books and had recently decided in a moment of artistic frustration to simply paint what he wanted to without worrying about what others were doing. Having said that, I sense a certain disingenuousness here. Already at this period the Abstract Impressionists were moving away from a purely painterly style and beginning to add bits and pieces of the real world to their canvases; artists were already showing a fascination with the visual clichés--including comic book images--that became central to Pop Art. I suspect Ramos still had his eye squarely on trends among his contemporaries.

Whatever his precise thinking, "Phantom Lady" of 1963 (Oil on canvas, Leta and Mel Ramos Family Collection, © Mel Ramos/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY) appears to have been a turning point--as the wall text in the galleries points out. With "Phantom Lady," Ramos combines the comic book hero with the airbrushed pin-up girl, a step toward the nude work that appears to have occupied him most consistently since this period.

With the nudes, Ramos would seem to have embraced the artistic mainstream again. The nudes show all the typical characteristics of full-blown Pop Art. They are not portraits of real women. They are portraits of photographs of women photographed in a style that already makes them a commodity. The addition of commercial artifacts as props adds a surreal note, but essentially they are a send-up of the American obsession with commercialism and with an artificial, smoothed over, enhanced notion of feminine beauty.

"Five Flavor Frieda: The Lost Painting of 1965 No. 47" of 2005 is a good example of the later nudes (2005, oil on canvas, Collection of Don Sanders, courtesy of McClain Gallery, © Mel Ramos/licensed by VAGA, NewYork, NY). The nudes are rather funny. A couple of the titles made me laugh out loud. I particularly liked "Monterey Jackie," a pin-up girl sitting on a large block of cheese, presumably Monterey jack. There is a light-hearted irreverence in the parody of the party stripper in several images in which the nude is emerging from a package of candy or from inside a banana, but I wonder if Ramos's jokes are funny enough to sustain decades of retelling, decades of variations on a theme. I enjoyed seeing the Ramos show, but most of the work seemed only superficially attractive without much to sustain long interest. The paintings (and one or two sculptures) reminded me of the sort of gaudy woman that is superficially attractive--a head turner--but with no personality, the sort of woman that doesn't sustain interest, the sort of woman that Ramos perches on his packages of candy and drops into his martini glasses like pickled olives.

More about paintings at the Crocker Museum of Art.

Images used by permission, courtesy of the Crocker Museum of Art.  

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