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.
"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.
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.
More about paintings at the Crocker Museum of Art.
Images used by permission, courtesy of the Crocker Museum of Art.