Art Books in Review
Breaking Through: Richard Bellamy and the Green Gallery, 1960 – 1965 / Twenty-Three Interviews
(Midmarch Arts Press, 2010)
The Green Gallery was in operation from 1960 to 1965 on West 57th Street in a Manhattan art world that, unimaginably, consisted of three or four galleries. While the origin of the Green Gallery’s name is little known (it is said to be associated with money or natural greenery), it is definitely unrelated to its founder, Richard Bellamy (1927 – 1998). In the recent book, Breaking Through: Richard Bellamy and the Green Gallery, 1960 – 1965, author Erik La Prade garners 23 interviews with Bellamy’s peers from this period. La Prade synthesizes a rich and sometimes superfluous account, often seeking consensus among the recollections. In doing so, he provides a more expanded view of this brief period between Abstract Expressionism and the Pop and Minimalism movements than can be found in most accounts, while discarding the historical terminology and revisionism that has since occurred in canonical texts.
Bellamy is characterized as a discoverer of talent, giving debut solo shows to James Rosenquist, Robert Morris, Larry Poons, and Donald Judd. The trajectory of Bellamy’s support grew from artists associated with Pop (James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenberg, Tom Wesselmann) to those aligned with Minimalism (Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, George Segal, Mark di Suvero, and Robert Morris). As the art world moved on from the dominant paradigm of Abstract Expressionism, Bellamy gave exposure to new sensibilities, as Oldenberg said, bringing “the ethos of downtown to uptown.”
La Prade’s interviews employ focused, sometimes repetitive questions, crafting these topics less as a narrative than as a multifaceted portrait composed through constellations of anecdotes. Many characterize Bellamy’s eccentric mannerisms and terse social behavior as that of a poet; however, the term poet seems more applicable if equated with an ambivalence over the commercial success that he never achieved. In this era, “bohemian” was considered the opposite of “bourgeois,” which he was not. Bellamy, to some, exemplified the amateur dealer, one who promoted art for the love of it, not to make sales or advance artists’ careers. While not independently wealthy (as is the case with some dealers even now), Bellamy had no immediate financial pressures or incentives: the gallery was backed by the collector Robert Scull, who conveniently purchased work from shows for his own private collection. Lucas Samaras summarized that Bellamy “was able to sell you poetically about something but it didn’t translate into money for the artist.” Ultimately, this lack of “professionalism,” along with Bellamy’s alcoholism (his handwritten invitations to openings announced, “Hip Flasks Permitted”), hastened the gallery’s demise. Scull eventually withdrew his support, forcing Bellamy to close.
From the interviewees’ perspective, at least, these years seemed anti-commercial across the board. However, in Bellamy’s case, ambitious artists would leave his gallery when they achieved a certain amount of success and desired a more profitable gallery. Even so, artist Wolf Kahn states that fame and money were separate. His peers were upfront about their desire for fame, but they professed not to care about money. He attributed some of the personal turmoil faced by the first generation Abstract Expressionists as that of left-wingers who suddenly became millionaires. “To sell is to sell out,” Wolf Kahn claims, oddly recalling a sentiment I’ve heard recently by Lower East Side gallerists.
One of the intriguing subtexts is the lack of art historical terminology on Bellamy’s part while in the midst of these defining moments. As Pat Passlof maintains, such movements weren’t often perceived as significant or pervasive in their own times. Deflating Abstract Expressionism, Passlof declares, “Who is promoting to say there was this huge wave of Abstract Expressionism when there wasn’t even a puddle?” Many interviewees stressed their disinterest in historical terminology, which was considered more a convenient marketing tool. Artist Tadaaki Kuwayama dismisses labels as “like a stamp,” while gallerist Paula Cooper admitted that artwork had become “neatly packaged.” Lucas Samaras discusses how, before 1962, Pop Art was referred to as simply “new art” or “Neo-Dada” (which Michael Fried scorned): “I think everybody knew or was vaguely aware of those labels but I don’t think any of us wanted to call it that. We wanted a new terminology.”
Out of these discussions also arises an impression of the scene’s diversity that belies the hierarchical editing and condensing that occurs in art history texts. Mimi Gross contrasts real time and historical time, aptly noting, “When Warhol showed the soup cans, it retrospectively signaled a new era, but it was also just another show…In the subtlety of being alive, you feel the nuances of a generation. If you read art history, that subtly doesn’t show up as much.” Similarly, the exhibition Abstract Expressionist New York, currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art, expands its coverage of the period, if temporarily, from two or three rooms of their permanent collection to an entire floor, offering a more comprehensive cross-section of the movement.
Breaking Through presents an earnest depiction of this decisive post-Abstract Expressionist era. La Prade neither glorifies nor derides Richard Bellamy (even though Frank Stella’s cranky interview comes close to the latter). He presents the voices of his witnesses democratically, maintaining an informal tone that distills the complexities of Bellamy’s bohemian demeanor and career. With the hurried character of a weblog, he records immediate impressions rather than recreating and revising recollections in hindsight.
With hundreds of galleries currently jostling for attention in the Greater New York area, I am curious how histories of the current scene will be related 50 years from now. Hopefully, it will be perceived as fostering a more diverse and democratic climate, one that is more like our current technological media (blogs, YouTube, Facebook), and more open to discussion and dissent.