Artist Spotlight: Mel Ramos
Mel Ramos’ Lessons in Art History
Figurative painter Mel Ramos (1935–2018) made a name for himself as a leading figure of the first generation of American Pop artists. Alongside Ed Ruscha and Wayne Thiebaud (his former teacher), Ramos was featured in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 1963 Pop art show, “Six More,” curated by critic Lawrence Alloway. While Ramos first began his practice emulating Abstract Expressionists such as Willem De Kooning, he quickly took to reimagining the comic book icons of his childhood. Working within this genre, Ramos found himself gravitating towards the voluptuous forms of Wonder Woman and other female superheroes. The commercial nature of these images eventually led the artist to his signature renderings of hyper-realistic nudes entwined with popular products such as Heinz ketchup bottles and Snickers candy bars, entangling notions of sex and consumption. While some evaluate these works as “satirical” and self-aware, others find no credible distinction between Ramos’ visual discussion of misogynistic representation and the male-gaze that he employs in its depiction. Ramos certainly invites the viewer to consider the social ramifications of his rhetoric, but he does nothing to discourage them from accepting his voyeuristic invitation.
After several institutions and galleries refused to exhibit his mature images, in the early 1970s Ramos began working on his Salute to Art History series, which appropriated famous nudes by Velázquez, Manet, Duchamp, and others. In addition to asserting the parity of his skill with that of the masters, Ramos’ tributes brought a critical lens to the relational nature of nude painting. These portraits called into question why the eroticism of their forerunners had been absolved by virtue of their idealism, while Ramos’ female forms had been dismissed as tawdry. By applying the high-gloss fashioning of familiar commercial iconography to the masters’ templates, Ramos seemed to argue that it was the viewer’s automatic correlation of the visual character of American advertising and media with sexual enticement that ostracized his work from the respected nude tradition.
In much the same way, Ramos aligns Unfinished Painting #1 (1990) and The Drawing Lesson #5 (1990) with established art historical themes. Unfinished Painting #1 (1990) features a female nude gently figured by a classical S-curve. While the subject’s face and upper torso are rendered in hyper-saturation and with dramatic modelling, her legs and feet remain a light grayscale sketch. This deliberate abandonment of the image plays on the lore of “the unfinished masterpiece,” the likes of which include Michelangelo’s David and a countless number of Da Vinci’s works. The Drawing Lesson #5 (1990) reflects the time-honored subject of the artist’s studio, as captured by works such as Matisse’s The Red Studio (1911) and Vermeer’s The Art of Painting (1666-1668). Here, however, Ramos offers a twist on the motif. The seated nude model is executed in Ramos’ slick style. In contrast, however, the lesson’s student has articulated the model in a gestural form that, when compared to her actual physicality, seems cruel and grotesque. Perhaps Ramos’ lesson has not been offered to an imagined artist but rather to the viewer. Though many critics rebuked Ramos’ hypersexualization of his female subjects, the artist revealed that high-art trends may be just as guilty of forsaking natural beauty.
Greenberger, Alex. “Mel Ramos, Painter of Sexually Suggestive Pop Pictures, Dies at 83,” ARTnews, 17 Oct. 2018, www.artnews.com/2018/10/16/mel-ramos-painter-sexually-suggestive-pop-pictures-dies-83/.
“Mel Ramos.” Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2018, art.famsf.org/mel-ramos
Unfinished Painting #1
Watercolor on paper
Signed and dated in graphite lower right; retains artist’s label and Louis K. Meisel Gallery label frame verso
Sheet (vis): 28″ x 22″; Frame: 40.5″ x 34″; (Sheet: 71 x 56 cm)
Provenance: Private Collection, New York, New York (acquired directly from the artist, 1991)
Exhibited: “Mel Ramos: Aquarelle und Grafiken,” Maximilian Krips Galerie, Cologne, June 13-July 31, 1992; “Our Own Directions: Works from the Louis K. and Susan P. Meisel Collection,” Eileen S. Kaminsky Foundation in collaboration with the Mana Art Center, Jersey City, September 18, 2011-January 12, 2012
Illustrated: Mel Ramos Pop Art Fantasies: The Complete Paintings. D. Kuspit. 2004. 223.
The Drawing Lesson #5
Pencil on paper
Signed and dated in graphite lower right; retains Levy, Louis K. Meisel Gallery, and Galleria d’Arte Maggiore labels frame verso
Composition: 20.5″ x 20.5″; Sheet (vis.): 22.25″ x 22.375″; Frame: 33.125″ x 32.875″; (Composition: 52 x 52 cm)
Provenance: Galleria d’Arte Maggiore, Bologna, Italy; Private Collection, New York, New York (acquired directly from the above)
Exhibited: “Mel Ramos- Retrospective,” traveling exhibition, Kunstverein Lingen, Lingen, November 12-December 19, 1994; Mannheimer Kunstverein, Mannheim, January 15-March 5, 1995; Kunsthalle zu Kiel, Kiel, April 6-May 6, 1995; “Mel Ramos: Pop Art Images,” Hochschule Für Angewandte Kunst, Vienna, July 21-August 26, 1995; “Mel Ramos,” Palazzo dei Sette, Orvieto, July 1-August 31, 2001; “Mel Ramos- Neue Bilder,” traveling exhibition, Galerie Ernst Hilger, Vienna, April 25-May 29, 2001; Galleria d’Arte Maggiore, Bologna, 2001