PRINT Summer 1998


Richard Bellamy

HE NEVER SEEMED TO AGE; they would continue to call him boyish right up to his death, at seventy, this March. Richard Bellamy’s youthfulness was as much spiritual as physical: he remained filled with wonder to the end of his days. He was an anomaly, the loose round peg in the tight square grid that the art world became. He was called an art dealer because he ran galleries, but that was hardly his vocation: he was the artist’s confidant who, when it was absolutely necessary, could negotiate the real world on behalf of those even more alienated than he. In truth, he was a terrible salesman, so disastrous in fact that he was still losing money when he decided to close the legendary Green Gallery in 1965. Losing money wasn’t easy to do, since at the time Green represented, among others, Mark di Suvero, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, John Chamberlain, Lucas Samaras, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, James Rosenquist, and Richard Smith. But worldly failure for Bellamy was a badge, proof of the principled disinterestedness he pursued as relentlessly as had Alfred Stieglitz, the “art dealer” he most resembled.

Born in 1927, Richard Hu Bellamy came of age as America emerged victorious from the war in Europe. His parents were doctors, though his mother, who was Chinese, never practiced. Bellamy never made much about the Chinese thing, but it must have sensitized him to the marginality that connected artists and jazz musicians in relation to postwar white-bread, apple-pie America. In the late ’40s and ’50s, the jazz scene represented the outer edge of the art world. To live the “life” was to trade in bourgeois comfort for forbidden pleasure. Bellamy felt comfortable in its mysterious smoky depths, a world inhabited by, as his friend Allen Ginsberg described them, “angelheaded hipsters.” Inevitably drawn to New York, like every other misfit in America in the ’50s, Bellamy spent a summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Hans Hofmann had a summer school. In New York, he met others, who convinced him and Ivan Karp to represent them in a cooperative gallery. Somehow it was fitting that the artists selected Bellamy, not vice versa: it was a destiny imposed on him rather than a chosen course of action.

The Hansa Gallery—I always thought the name had something to do with Hans Hofmann—occupied the second floor of a ramshackle townhouse at 210 Central Park South, a building that no longer stands. My college roommate, Terry deAntonio, a beautiful poet who died young, had a walk-up on the floor above; after I moved in with her, I spent part of every day at the Hansa. With incredible patience, Dick Bellamy would clarify the finer points of George Segal’s and Jan Muller’s expressionist paintings and the found-object environments of Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow, and Robert Whitman, who were also the pioneers of Happenings. Kaprow and Whitman, as well as Lucas Samaras—whose specialty was plastered rag-doll sculptures performing the Kama Sutra and pastels that would have sent Jesse Helms up in smoke—were also students of Meyer Schapiro. The great Columbia scholar took a particular interest in the Hansa artists, who also included the figurative expressionist Robert Beauchamp and the Swiss landscape painter Jacques Beckwith.

Rauschenberg used to say that John Cage “gave you permission.” Dick gave you permission to get excited about fresh-from-the-studio experimental art. When one thinks about it, he only liked his art raw, before it had been cooked and served. It was hard to know what anyone was living on at the time (as I recall, unemployment was popular), but whatever you had you shared with the others you knew, and he shared his excitement about the artists he was showing with anyone who would listen.

After the Hansa closed in 1959 for lack of sales, Dick spent some time relaxing and pondering the future, in his habitual prone position, under our coffee table upstairs. One day he came by to discuss the name of a new gallery. Should they call it the Jolly Roger because of its backer (taxi baron Robert Scull) or should it be the Green Gallery, because green was the color of money?

The gallery opened on Fifty-seventh Street in the fall of 1960. Dick’s first show of Mark di Suvero’s environmental wood-and-steel assemblages drew a lot of attention and generally favorable reviews. Selling the sprawling sculptures, which took up the entire gallery, was another matter, but if you walked in, Dick would have collared you and explained every subtlety of the structure and insisted you sit or preferably lie on one of di Suvero’s infamous swinging beds. After that, di Suvero never had another dealer. Dick even tried to keep up the American interest in his art when di Suvero exiled himself to Europe in protest of the Vietnam War. Dick would get over to see him as often as possible, but there was not much money for jaunts.

One day the phone rang and it was Dick. “It has to do with Mark,” he breathed into the phone softly but urgently. “He can’t work and he’s really in bad shape because there aren’t any factories in Venice and you’ve got to uh. . .uh. . .uh . . .”his lengthy pauses were legendary—“you’ve got to leave for Venice right away.” So I did; I had that kind of blind faith in Dick.

With luck, I put Mark in touch with Marcel Evrard in Chalon-sur-Saône, and the rest is history. To celebrate di Suvero’s return to sculpture, Dick arrived in Venice with his longtime companion, choreographer Sally Gross. Mark had an ancient rowboat that he used to get around the lagoon—he always had to be on the water. That night was the Feast of the Redentore. Mark joked that it was the one time of the year that they let the lunatics out of the asylum. I was sure that was true when I found myself with Dick, Sally, Mark, and Maria Teresa, Mark’s Venetian girlfriend, in the middle of the Grand Canal, all crammed into a leaking rowboat. Dick had accidently set the boat’s festive streamers on fire, and a monster traghetto was heading right for us. Our boat was burning and sinking at the same time, and it was on a collision course, but the sky was lit with stars and firecrackers and it was a celebration. That is how, I suppose, I’ll always remember Dick Bellamy.

From time to time I would run into Dick in Central Park, and while his son Miles and my daughter Rachel rode the merry-go-round, we would talk. In a few rushed, run-on, barely audible sentences, he could convey a sense of the truth and thrill of art. If one were to characterize his taste, given the totally eclectic nature of what he showed, one would have to say it was for originality, for the unique vision, whether the work that resulted was two- or three-dimensional, abstract or representational, made by a man or a woman. One artist who respected Dick said that his forte was not his eye but his knowledge of people, his ability to pick out the authentic maverick from the herd. Certainly he never had a line or a doctrine; he was, if anything, the anti-Greenberg, even though he exhibited a number of the painters Greenberg championed, like Dan Christensen and Larry Poons. Nor was he polemical; indeed, I often thought the mumbling and the pauses were a deliberate effort not to be too clear, not to pin down a fragile ambiguity with a too rigid definition.

Dick was a true believer both in our individual capacity to care for one another and in art as an experience in itself, not a thing to be traded for something else. After he closed Oil and Steel, his last gallery in Manhattan, and more or less moved in with di Suvero in Long Island City, he championed sculptors like Richard Serra, Michael Heizer, and David Rabinowitch. At the same time, he never gave up arguing the importance of painters like Myron Stout and Jo Baer, and especially Alfred Leslie, whose studio was part of the baffling commune complex on the East River.

The last time I talked to Dick, which wasn’t so long ago, he was calling to tell me once again that we had to do something, save somebody. This time it was Milet Andrejevic, the Yugoslav painter whose career trailed off once he abandoned abstraction for representational work. Bellamy never had a preference for any single style or an idee fixe of what art should be. He just recognized it when he saw it and made things possible for artists he believed in. When Oldenburg decided he had to make car-size sculpture instead of reliefs—he had seen an auto showroom and thought sculpture shows should be at least as important as car displays—Bellamy made sure the space was big enough to accommodate the work. When Robert Morris made the art world uncomfortable by pursuing different styles, Dick was not perturbed. Playfulness may not have much value in a bottom-line culture, but it was worth a lot in that charmed moment when the art world was still small enough to be a dysfunctional family, with Dick Bellamy as its bashful black sheep.

Dick never wore saffron robes or chanted mantras, but he had a philosophy of life. He wanted no legend, created no myth around his role in birthing the best and most challenging American art. His life was a gorgeous, blazing Happening, an inspired home movie, a fragile poetic encounter without any specific goal or strategy. Anyone lucky enough to share some part of that life will never forget him or his joy in art.