Richard Bellamy is one of the very few art dealers around whose name the word “legendary” floats like an aura. But how to convey what was so special about him is a nice problem for a biographer. Yes, between 1960 and 1965 his Green Gallery showed important artists when it must have been far from obvious just how good they really are — popsters like Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Tom Wesselman; Minimalists like Robert Morris, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd (whom he came to hate); less classifiable figures like Mark di Suvero, Larry Poons, Lucas Samaras — but can something as elusive as an “eye” be conveyed in factual prose? What enabled Bellamy to discern the quality of such disparate practitioners is, in retrospect, impossible to tell. It must have been more than mere receptivity, rather an active quality of inquiry that, like the artists’ own effort, was at least in part impossible to verbalize — especially so perhaps in Bellamy’s case, since he seems to have been a listener more than a talker. “When Dick stepped into a room,” Oldenburg recalled, “the room immediately changed.” If only we could in retrospect take the temperature of that change! Judith E. Stein has done her best to evoke the man in his milieu, but there are limits to what she’s been able to accomplish. She quotes the German dealer Rolfe Ricke’s astonishment at the revelatory quality of how Bellamy installed works, so that “your dialogue with art became so simple,” but the remaining evidence doesn’t allow us to reconstruct just how this happened. Though he could make art simple, Bellamy was a complicated man with a complicated love life, not always happy in his personal relations — his addiction to alcohol didn’t help. What this meant for his understanding of art remains moot. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his personality emerges — at least for those who have prepared themselves by way of the biography — in the small selection of Bellamy’s letters edited by his son, Miles. Particularly striking is the last one, written to Yayoi Kusama just weeks before Bellamy’s death in 1998. It reads in part: “I did not understand you hardly entirely then & I desired and was in awe of you. And afraid. Now I just love & not afraid, rather also admire & respect & still a little afraid.” Not the usual congratulatory note on a big exhibition, which is what it ostensibly is. Bellamy never was very good at following the conventions.
Judith E. Stein’s Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art (2016) is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
Serious Bidness: The Letters of Richard Bellamy, ed. by Miles Bellamy (2016) is published by Near Fine Press.