Rediscovering a Cincinnati-born gallerist
Richard Bellamy was an unconventional New York gallerist who helped create the Pop Art explosion of the 1960s.
PHOTO: UGO MULAS/COURTESY OF FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUXArt history, a field always open to changes in emphasis and inclusion, lately has begun to pay increased attention to the role of gallerists — commercial dealers — in shaping the cultural impact of Contemporary art.
You saw one local example with Cincinnati Art Museum’s recently concluded Not in New York: Carl Solway and Cincinnati exhibit, which chronicled Solway’s role in championing new and internationally important artists here for some 50 years.
But another is the recent publication of Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art by Judith E. Stein (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a biography of a most unconventional New York gallerist who helped create the Pop Art explosion of the 1960s. He was born and raised in Cincinnati’s Wyoming suburb, before leaving the University of Cincinnati after a brief mid-1940s enrollment for the East Coast. He died in 1998 at age 70, long out of the public eye.
He reached one enduring peak of influence in the early 1960s, with his short-lived Green Gallery. (It was secretly funded by collector Robert Scull.) In 1961, it became the first gallery to show Andy Warhol’s Pop Art paintings. Bellamy’s gallery also co-sponsored one of the most famous events in 1960s art, Claes Oldenburg’s Store installation, where he sold artworks that (sort of) looked like everyday foodstuffs and consumer items. Bellamy also embraced Happenings, an early form of Performance Art.
“Why should general people care about Bellamy and care about gallerists?” Stein asks rhetorically during a recent interview. “We write art history, or have written it, as the history of artists and movements — and often, collectors get attention. But the people who were intermediaries, who sold the art, represented commerce and that has had a lower place.”
“But in the last five to 10 years, that has begun to change. When you do look back at art through the prism of a dealer, the networks become clearer and you get a different and more dynamic sense of what was going on at any given time in the art world.”
As Stein’s fascinating book makes clear, Bellamy was anything but a conventional commercial art dealer. In fact, he was a counterculturalist whose ideas were shaped by the 1960s Beat movement.
During her work on the book, Stein came to Cincinnati to explore Bellamy’s roots. She found he was something of an outsider during his years in the Wyoming school system, perhaps because of his background. His mother came from a highly cultured Chinese family that sent her to the U.S. for an education. She received an undergraduate degree from Oxford, Ohio’s Western College for Women and then was admitted to the University of Cincinnati’s medical school. There she met Curtis Bellamy, also in training to be a doctor, and they married in 1926. He became a physician; she did not.
“His mother helped enlighten him about culture and arts, and so did Cincinnati as a culturally progressive city in the mid-1940s,” Stein says. “For example, (Bellamy) remembered a 1946 exhibition of (Constantin) Brancusi, (Alexander) Calder, (Jacques) Lipchitz and (Henry) Moore, one of a series of shows the Cincinnati Modern Art Society sponsored at Cincinnati Art Museum.”
But his mother’s early death in 1945 devastated her son, who was not as close with his father. And he soon left. But he did return in the late 1960s to see his father, who was ill for a time before he died in 1969. And during that time, he would visit Solway, who was interested in cutting-edge Contemporary artists. Solway, too, would visit a New York gallery Bellamy shared with Noah Goldowsky from 1965-72. Solway even owns the painting “Bellamy” by John Wesley.
Among those Bellamy introduced him to, Solway recalls, were Peter Young, a painter of colorful and restrained abstracts who today is undergoing renewed interest; the Kentucky-born eccentric painter John Tweddle; and Mary Corse, a Minimalism-influenced painter who has become a major name in California Contemporary art.
Bellamy would constantly tout up-and-coming artists to Solway. “I had respect for his tastes,” Solway says. “And the book is right that he was not commercially motivated. I don’t think I ever paid money to Dick, nor did he ever want a commission.”
CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: firstname.lastname@example.org