Bookforum talks with Judith E. Stein

Judith E. Stein

Judith E. Stein's book Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art examines the life of the art dealer who founded the fabled Green Gallery and was an early champion of artists including Mark di Suvero, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, and Donald Judd. Stein's investigation—built on interviews with Bellamy's friends, family, colleagues, and lovers—spans from Bellamy's Cincinnati childhood as the son of an American father and a Chinese mother, to his time in Provincetown with members of the beat generation, to his later interactions with collectors (and Green Gallery backers) Robert and Ethel Scull.

A longtime contributor to Art in America, Stein has also been a reviewer for NPR's Fresh Air and Morning Edition. Bookforum recently spoke with Stein about her biography of the "posterity averse" Bellamy and the world he lived in.

What motivated you to write this book now?

The 1960s were a period of flux and uncertainty in the art world, yet now, fifty years later, everything looks tidy—it's been divvied up and compartmentalized. I think it is the nature of art history to tidy up the past and I was energized by the thought of wading into the original mess, before historical inevitability set in. What was so exciting for me, as I spoke with people who knew Richard Bellamy and had lived through those years, was the sense that I was looking past the divisions and discovering what Richard Artschwager called the "creative chaos" of those years. In the late '50s and early '60s, it wasn't at all clear what would follow Abstract Expressionism, and there were many concurrent options.

Can you talk specifically about what was going on in the gallery scene at that time? What were some of the inchoate trends that seem clearer now?

We tend to assume that the collectors and dealers who were excited by Pop art, Minimalism or Conceptual art would not feel similarly about the other modes. But Bellamy did. To study him is to position yourself at ground zero, and be an eye-witness to the explosion of interest in contemporary American art, an explosion that would leave him shell-shocked. In Eye of the Sixties I concentrate on the Green Gallery years. Bellamy launched an extraordinary number of artists during the five years it was open, including Mark di Suvero, Lucas Samaras, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Tom Wesselmann, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris, George Segal, and Larry Poons. He was the first to show Yayoi Kusama's sculpture and Lee Lozano's paintings; to exhibit Robert Whitman; and to give New York debuts to Daniel Spoerri, Richard Smith, and Tadaaki Kuwayama. It's an extraordinary record. But there's more. In the later '60s, he was the first in New York to show Richard Serra. He launched Neil Jenney, Keith Sonnier, and Peter Young; and without a nameable role, facilitated projects by Walter de Maria and Michael Heizer.

Soon after Leo Castelli opened his gallery in 1957 he famously introduced Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, but very few other dealers were showing the work of young artists in 1960, which is when Bellamy opened the Green Gallery. What was innovative and new was rarely seen in the uptown art market, but rather in the seat-of-the-pants art spaces and cooperative galleries that had popped up downtown in the '50s—and Bellamy was of that world. He lived downtown, he saw shows downtown. That's where he first saw John Chamberlain's work. In my research, I found fascinating backstories, like, for example, speaking of Chamberlain, how Bellamy and Ivan Karp worked together, pre-Green, like volleyball teammates to get Chamberlain into the Martha Jackson Gallery.

I discovered that Bellamy played a major—and uncharted—role in Bruce Nauman's career. In the post–Green Gallery '60s, when Bellamy was working out of a closet at Noah Goldowsky's gallery, he saw Nauman's eccentric, difficult work and was convinced of its enduring importance. He knew that he himself was not set up to do the best by Nauman, and decided that Leo Castelli was the appropriate dealer for the artist on the East Coast. And so he and David Whitney, who was then working for Castelli and who had assisted Bellamy at the Green, informally conspired to make this happen. Bellamy introduced Nauman to New York in From Arp to Artschwager at the Noah Goldowsky Gallery in 1966, and Whitney bought work from this group show. When Castelli gave Nauman a solo show two years later, the general reaction was horror. It took time before the public valued what Nauman was doing, and Castelli stayed loyal.

You talk about how Bellamy worked behind the scenes to get Nauman recognized. That is so striking in contrast to the stories you hear now of artists being dropped by their galleries if they don't sell out their first show.

It was a unique moment: When the Green opened with di Suvero's debut show in October 1960, money was not a big presence in the world of contemporary art. Of course, every gallery needs backing to operate, and Robert Scull was the Green's secret supporter. Scull was a fascinating, complex character whom I grew to appreciate—warts and all— because he was passionate about aggressively new art. He was the one who leaned on Bellamy to show Andy Warhol, and the Green became the first gallery anywhere to show Warhol's Pop paintings, in June of 1962. But despite the gallery's extraordinary history, two years later the Sculls pulled out. The Green tottered on for a year more and then folded.

You say money wasn't the central player the way it is now, and along those lines, there's that anecdote in your book where you talk about how Bellamy had to burn a Carl Andre piece in his Lower East Side apartment to stay warm in the winter.

Yes, a winceable moment. That first year the Green opened, an impoverished Bellamy and his family lived on East Broadway, in a large, drafty place formerly used by Andre as a studio. He'd left several stacked wood sculptures there and ignored pleas to remove them. When the kids shivered in their beds that winter, over time, Bellamy—in desperation—burned them in the fireplace made by Jackie Ferrara, another earlier tenant.

Bellamy was a beatnik. He'd been an outsider in high school—a much beloved outsider, yet ridiculed because of his Chinese features. And he never felt comfortable with bourgeois values. When he got to Provincetown in the late '40s and found the community of artists around Hans Hofmann, I imagine he must have said to himself, "These are my people!" They became his friends for life. And when he moved from the Cape to the Lower East Side in 1950, artists constituted his community. Earning money by selling art never interested him. At the Green, his artists loved him, but when their careers caught fire, Bellamy wanted to soft-pedal price increases. And slowly, one by one, they left for other galleries. Except for di Suvero and Alfred Leslie, Bellamy did not nurture careers across the years—what moved him was identifying and launching art he judged important. He didn't have the personality—or the inclination—to help shape a career. He was extraordinarily loyal, and the only artist he broke with was Judd, but that's another story. Carl Solway, the dealer who almost exclusively represented Nam June Paik, joked to me that both he and Bellamy were monogamous dealers, given Bellamy's allegiance to di Suvero.

Do you recall how Bellamy first came on your radar?

In the late '80s, when I was a curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he, di Suvero, and Leslie came to see a Franz Kline show I'd installed and asked to meet me. Bellamy was a humble guy whose eyeglasses were scotch taped together at the center, with frayed cuffs at his wrists and ankles. I'd been aware of his name, usually preceded by the adjective legendary, but I really didn't know why. I was intrigued. Later, I tried to find out about him, and discovered that with the exception of a wonderful piece by Amy Goldin in 1966, there was nothing written about him. His name was like seasoning sprinkled in a few art-history books, as in: "The Great Green Gallery"; "The Legendary Bellamy." And I decided to see if I could add to the information about him. By the early '90s I was ready to get started, but Bellamy was posterity-averse, and when I learned that he was uninterested in having anyone write about him, I desisted A few years later, Alfred Leslie got in touch and said, "I really think you should write something about Dick," and so in 1996 I began to do a few interviews. That's when I interviewed Castelli, who told me that there was no one like Bellamy, and though Bellamy was younger, he—Castelli—considered himself his pupil.

When Bellamy heard I was back on the case, he called me to insist he wasn't important enough, and wasn't interested in the attention. But this time I held my ground and decided to continue my interviews. It was really after he died in 1998 that I began the full work in earnest. And I kept working on it for a very long time. It wasn't the only thing I was doing, but I never stopped doing it.

About this interesting phrase you have, "posterity-averse": Do you think that was part of the reason we're taught relatively little about him?

Absolutely. He never named a gallery after himself, he was so self-effacing in that regard. He had the Green; that closed in 1965. Then he was working out of Goldowsky's gallery. He didn't have his own gallery again until 1980 when he opened the Oil & Steel Gallery, and those are some of the reasons—but by no means all—that he has escaped the scrutiny of art historians.

This is such an interesting moment to think about identity, and the ways that having a different heritage shapes how people see themselves and how they grow and what they're passionate about. I feel like you really work to connect the dots on this topic in your book in terms of Bellamy and his partner Sheindi. How did the themes of identity and heritage emerge as you did your research for this book?

His story is really a New York story, and many of his friends and lovers were Jewish. He grew up in the Midwest, as an outsider, because the only person who looked like him was his mother, who was born in China. It was his mother's Chinese artifacts, his friend Aggie Gund remembered, that were his first exposure to art. His dad was a doctor, and beloved because he was so generous to the neighborhood kids, but some of their parents thought less of him because he was a little "too country." I imagine that's how Bellamy became suspicious of bourgeois values, and uncomfortable with people whose judgements were based on surface appearances.

Because of all this, he seems like a very complex character, but you really manage to capture all these layers. How did you understand a man who had so many sides and was mysterious to people in a lot of ways?

You know that early Lichtenstein painting, the one with the thought balloon that reads, "I have to report to a Mr. Bellamy. I wonder what he's like?" Most artists understood this as a gentle joke about Dick Bellamy. Yes, Bellamy was complex and contradictory. He was an alcoholic and a womanizer. He could be generous, and thoughtless. Richard Nonas liken him to Coyote, the Native American culture-giver, a creature of contrasts, a trickster who was charming, crude and eccentric—that was Dick Bellamy. Can that be explained? I don't think so—not fully. I think biographers should be wary when they put their subjects on a couch. Bellamy saw himself as a poet, but never showed anyone his poems. We're lucky that his dazzlingly eccentric letters survive—in fact his son Miles Bellamy just published Serious Bidness, a selection of Dick's letters.

You have a long career of working as an essayist and critic. What was your experience switching to biography and telling stories?

Thinking back, I realize that my interest in art history revolves around telling stories. My master's thesis was on the thirteenth-century Italian painter who did a huge work with multiple scenes of the life of St. Francis in the Bardi chapel in Florence's Santa Croce. I loved stepping into Francis's life and legend through these images. And my doctoral dissertation was on the iconography of the poet Sappho in the eighteenth andnineteenth centuries. Part of the work there was to discover the stories people told themselves about Sappho's life and art, and how the visual arts reflected these tales—classicists concern themselves with what actually happened; as a neoclassicist, I was interested in what people thought happened! I used Sappho's images as a refracting lens to look at a variety of moments in the past. Bellamy interacted with so many people who are central to the story of late-twentieth-century American art, that to tell his story is to tell their story and better understand the networks connecting an era. We have a lot of art writing about artists, collectors and the art market, but until recently not much on specific dealers. Annie Cohen-Solal's biography of Castelli appeared in 2010, and more recently, James Meyer's show at the National Gallery focused on Virginia Dwan as a dealer and collector. I believe that we'll be reading more about the art world and taking its measure by looking at individual dealers and seeing things through their eyes.

What do you think there is to be gained from seeing these eco-systems of art through the eyes of a dealer as opposed to an artist or collector?

When Robert Morris went around to galleries with photos of his minimal, sculptural props in 1962, Bellamy was the only dealer to visit his studio, and after napping on Slab, said he wanted to show the work. Today, we know that showing up with a portfolio is the least likely way of getting into a gallery. There are friendship networks, one's track record with collectors and curators, et cetera. It's fascinating to know about a time before these systems were in place, when an "art posse" of dealers, curators, and collectors might make studio visits together—which happens to be how Bellamy found Rosenquist in 1961. Gathering together the disparate art that excited Bellamy's eyes reveals just how much one individual can shape a generation.

There's a topic that I'm chewing on and have not fully digested, which is the full issue of biography and art history. Historians in general have reservations about biography but I think it's a completely valid way of understanding the art of the past.

Dawn Chan is a writer based in New York and an associate editor at