Mel Ramos, The Four Seasons, Autumn, 1982, oil on canvas,  42 1/8 x 92 3/8". From the series “The Four Seasons,” 1982–84.

Mel Ramos, The Four Seasons, Autumn, 1982, oil on canvas, 42 1/8 x 92 3/8". From the series “The Four Seasons,” 1982–84.

Mel Ramos

Mel Ramos, The Four Seasons, Autumn, 1982, oil on canvas,  42 1/8 x 92 3/8". From the series “The Four Seasons,” 1982–84.

Everybody knows Mel Ramos as the tits and ass man. But the disdain behind the association was recently repudiated by a retrospective, his largest to date, in honor of his seventy-fifth birthday. Of course his exhibition, titled “Girls, Candies and Comics,” featured buxom women on ketchup bottles and in martini glasses. It is the series “The Lost Paintings of 1965,” 1993–, “Hav-a-Havana,” 1996–, and “Animal Paintings,” 1964–71—all of which one might certainly consider somewhat perverse, with their locker-door goddesses lasciviously draping themselves on spark plugs, Havana cigars, or hippopotamuses—that have earned Melvin John Ramos, son of a race-car driver, the sexist reputation that has been such a liability for him. But today it may be easier to acknowledge the humor of these images about images, the absurdity of the compositions, and even, at times, their profundity.

Ramos studied with Wayne Thiebaud, the master of the cake-display case and cheerleader of the Bay Area Figurative School, and then began to draw superheroes from the world of comic books. He transformed these printed figures into masterful, pastose paintings: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle were all painted between 1962 and 1964, and all appear as seen through the eyes of a true fan and admirer. At the same time, Ramos, unlike Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, and Wesselmann—the New York colleagues alongside whom he was being exhibited from 1963 onward—remained true to the scriptlike subjectivity of the brushstroke, giving his allegories of triumph a naturalistic timbre.

In his heart of hearts an old-fashioned painter, a flawless technician, and a meticulous craftsman, Ramos, in addition to the pinups for which he is best known, also created works that speak a quite different language in terms of both content and aesthetics. Take, for example, the cycle “The Four Seasons,” 1982–84: In Cinemascope formats and Technicolor hues, palm fronds poke from the pictures’ edges, guiding the viewer’s gaze to the emptiness at their centers, the monochrome skies that convey the course of the Californian seasons in artificial colors. Ramos’s “Fashion Paintings,” 1965–66, are stylistically and technically sophisticated variants on his usual nudes. In the spirit of Austrian fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, who was quite hip at the time, Ramos painted naked women on his canvases but then “clothed” them with generous garments, such as a little bosom-revealing blue coat made of pressboard. In the drawing series “A Salute to Art History,” 1972–77, Ramos applies his own finishing touches to all those artworks in history that impressed him in the course of his career. These art-historical paraphrases refer not only to moderns like de Kooning and Modigliani, but also further back to Manet’s Olympia or Jacques-Louis David’s Amor et Psyche. (Rhymed titles like I Still Get a Thrill When I See Bill, 1977, or You Get More Salami with Modigliani, 1976, may elicit a few groans, however.) With the series “The Drawing Lesson,” 1987–2007, Ramos finally thematizes his favorite obsession: nude drawing. With devotion and academic assiduousness he studies the construction of the female body and sheds light (if only a muted one) on a genre that not long ago languished forgotten in the Albertina’s Graphic Arts collection.

Ramos’s shameless trivialization of canonized art might, moreover, be viewed as a commentary on the marketing concepts employed by museums constantly worried about their bottom line. This may be where the show issues its biggest challenge today.

Brigitte Huck

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.