That perpetually penniless savant: on Richard Bellamy and Eye of the Sixties

A biography of the art dealer is an exemplary work of journalism and research

by Mostafa Heddaya  |  2 September 2016
That perpetually penniless savant: on Richard Bellamy and Eye of the Sixties
Richard Bellamy (right, in glasses) with Dan Flavin (centre) and Sol Lewitt (left, with arm raised) during the installation of Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum in New York, 1966.
“I am supposed to report to a Mr. Bellamy,” says a military man with a one-star epaulette and a thousand-yard stare in a 1961 painting by Roy Lichtenstein. The thought-bubble continues: “I wonder what he’s like.”

Those wondering about the late Richard “Dick” Bellamy—New York art dealer, bohemian and veritable midwife for Minimal and Pop art—will find some of their curiosities sated by Judith Stein’s deeply-researched new biography, Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art.

In the book’s opening pages, we learn that Bellamy—the perpetually penniless savant whose sideways career arc seemed to thwart cause and effect—rebuffed Stein with characteristic modesty when she first approached him about a biography in 1990. Her patience, bolstered by the encouragement of Arthur Danto, eventually brought the reluctant subject around to the idea a few years later. The result is a book assembled with care over two decades, an even-keeled insider biography that manages to capture some of the elusive personality of its protagonist and the intricacies of his milieu.

Charting Bellamy’s extraction from Ohio, where he was born to an American father and Chinese mother in 1927, to Provincetown, where he fell in with an art crowd precipitated around the painter Hans Hofmann’s school, and thence on to a succession of posts in New York, where he died in 1998, the book picks up with the mercurial man’s most consequential collaboration: his association with Robert “Bob” Scull, the taxi-fleet owner who bankrolled the dealer’s greatest act, the Green Gallery. That greatness is almost entirely retrospective. The gallery, which debuted with an exhibition of work by Mark di Suvero (and which went on to show such latter-day luminaries as Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Claes Oldenburg, Yoko Ono, Robert Morris, Lee Lozano and Yayoi Kusama) barely made it through half the decade.

The Green Gallery lasted five seasons, enough to have a seismic impact on the New York scene but not enough to sustain solvency. Scull, the behind-the-scenes capitalist, would eventually more than recoup his investment when he placed his own collection—assembled in large part by Bellamy’s graces—on the auction block at Sotheby's in 1973. The landmark auction might as well have inaugurated contemporary art’s present big-bucks bravado. “[B]ought for a song and sold to the tune of $2.2 million,” is how Barbara Rose put it at the time in New York magazine. Rose quotes an auction apparatchik saying that night in October: “Look, there’s Dick Bellamy, the man who made all this possible." He would continue to work as a dealer through the 1990s, eventually striking out on his own again with the Tribeca gallery Oil & Steel, but never with as much visibility as he had at the Green. (His son, Miles Bellamy, joined him at Oil & Steel in 1993. He recently published Serious Bidness, a collection of his father’s letters, and is a founder of the beloved Brooklyn bookstore Spoonbill and Sugartown.)

Stein’s attentive approach successfully bridges art’s journalistic and scholarly cultures, itself an important accomplishment when much art publishing cleaves to one or the other tribe. (One of Bellamy’s few mentions in the annals of scholarship has him describing Lucas Samaras, with typical adjectival élan, as “autotelic and self-engendered” in a 1990 issue of The Burlington Magazine, where he is credited as the artist’s first dealer.) While Bellamy’s work at the Green was subject to institutional attention in both the immediate aftermath of that golden decade and again in more recent years, Stein’s deep sourcing variously shores up, corrects and surpasses the extant record. In her hands, Bellamy’s history becomes dimensional, and Stein doesn’t stint on his failures, addictions and infidelities.

By sheer force of research and reporting, the book is sure to be a resource for future art-historical work on the decade, but as an intellectual history or critical reckoning with Bellamy and the artists he championed, it falls short. Despite numerous accounts of the literary-minded dealer’s idiosyncratic studio-visit manner (he would sometimes simply lie down on the floor), and the many glimpses into his jaunty and digressive style as a conversationalist and correspondent, we never quite get a sense of what he thinks about the art he promoted. Bellamy may have made it difficult. “I was always kind of listening, and wasn’t really a participant in any real discussions on issues,” Stein quotes Bellamy as recalling of his time at Hofmann’s school in Provincetown.

Given the anti-aesthetic nature of much of the art with which he is associated, praising Bellamy’s titular “eye” seems a misdiagnosis. The closest we get to understanding him is via a remark attributed to Frank Stella: “Bellamy knows absolutely nothing about art, but he knows everything about people.”

The book arrives at a time when the study of dealers and collectors is proliferating, supported by such efforts as the Center for the History of Collecting at the Frick, established in 2007. And it also coincides with a moment when the seeds of the 1960s are coming to canonical fruition. In late September, the National Gallery in Washington is opening Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery, 1959–1971, a major exhibition centering on the career of the collector and dealer Virginia Dwan, who, like Bellamy, was a key American conduit to European tastemakers. But our inherited archive of the 1960s, like any such historical record, is not without occlusions and biases, as the art historian Krista Thompson has demonstrated in her vital work on the black Minimalist Tom Lloyd, a contemporary of Dan Flavin’s who also worked with light and enjoyed a significant role in the New York art world of that decade, yet whose ghostly absence in the archive frustrates traditional attempts at historicisation—to cite just one example.

This concern speaks to broader shortcomings in the field of art and its stock narratives. By all conventional measures, Eye of the Sixties is an exemplary work of biographical journalism and research. Driven as it is by the correlation of its subject with familiar personalities and periodisations, however, Stein’s study consists less in telling a new story than in fitting a new (if hardly obscure) character into an old one.

Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art
Judith E. Stein
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384pp, $28

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