In a lightbulb moment, various 60s artists stimultaneously turned to comic-strip imagery for inspiration – but only one is still alive. Adrian Dannatt assesses Mel Ramos, the Grand Old Man of Pop Art
BLAM! BIFF! WHAMM and why not WHOOSH to boot – the classic American comic strips were as loathsome to the cultural elite of the era as they proved exhilarating and addictive to their vast readership. And a key part of Pop Art's immediate appeal was its surprising, if not scandalous, use of these images. For if our Superheroes and ultra-villains now seem to be symbols of a vintage Americana, at the time, they were reviled by everyone from government officials to educators and lawmakers, not to mention literary or artistic critics – for whom they represented an absolute nadir. The widespread moral war against these comic strips, as chief corrupter of teenage youth, is forgotten today. Yet it is essential to understand just how lowly such material was regarded in order to grasp the truly radical shock of the 'Pop' art revolution. Indeed, it is largely thanks to the Pop aesthetic that there is now such an appreciation of the art of illustration.
The brilliance of Pop Art was to understand that there was a fundamental appeal, an irresistible lure of these images. And that this could be taken, isolated, and transformed into 'high' art for the eventual delectation of the very elite who so scorned the original medium.
Moreover, thanks to that strange human synchronicity whereby light bulbs, telephones and art movements seem to be born simultaneously, part of the power of Pop was that a widely disparate group of artists arrived at exactly the same notion at precisely the same moment. Thus it was that in Sacramento, California, a young artist called Mel Ramos had the idea of creating traditional oil paintings on canvas using images of his favourite comic book characters, while on the other side of the country, in New York, various other artists had arrived independently at the very same idea. Most famously, Andy Warhol came to visit the Leo Castelli gallery and was mortified to be shown fresh canvases by Roy Lichtenstein depicting Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, the same images he had been working on in secret himself. It was an aesthetic breakthrough whose time had clearly come.
The annus mirabilis of Pop Art is 1962. This is the year that every collector, museum or institution wants to own work from, the year when suddenly, spontaneously, the whole movement came together and changed the reigning taste of the art world overnight, knocking-out Abstract Expressionism with a single, swift KPOW!
As befitting a movement based on mass-communication, media and advertising, within a year there were Pop artists and exhibitions everywhere, a style, an ideal that spread like wildfire throughout America and then the globe.
But, of course, back in 1962 – when Ramos painted The Trickster – he was only barely aware that there were other artists working with similar subject matter, let alone that he was in the avant-garde of what was about to become America's most successful cultural export.
Mel Ramos was born to a Portuguese-American family in 1935 in the aforementioned Sacramento, and he has remained a loyal Californian – even though he now spends part of the year working on commissioned portraits in Horta de San Juan, the same Spanish town where Picasso once lived and worked. He married Leta, one of his models when barely out of his teens.
Ramos was thus considerably younger than many of the other Pop artists, barely 27 by comparison with Lichtenstein, who had already turned 40, or Warhol, who was almost eight years older. Being a genuinely young artist, in a genre that put a premium on freshness above all, has served Ramos well, not least leaving him practically the last original Pop artist still standing.
All the Pop artists were genuine fans of the comic strips they expropriated, but Ramos was far closer to this material than his elder peers. For him, there was even less ironic distance or knowing slyness because he was part of the original demographic of such work. As he put it quite straightforwardly, "I wanted to paint my childhood heroes."
Ramos also clearly had a very different approach to paint, an already identifiably unique technique that ensured that his work was immediately recognisable as his own and certainly could never be confused with the cartoon-figures of Warhol or Lichtenstein. As a Californian, Ramos would stand better comparison with a fellow master-technician such as his teacher, Wayne Thiebaud. Indeed the painterly tonal effects of Trickster, especially the thick bar of shadow at the base, have some of the lush range, the optic flaring, of Thiebaud at his best.
There is also a curious link to another Californian, the relatively obscure 'Jess', who not only created one of the very first art works entirely derived from an American comic strip – rearranging a Dick Tracy episode in 1959 to form a new character called 'Tricky Cad' – but who also used a thick impasto paint and bold black outlines for his figures. In The Trickster, one can almost imagine that Ramos channelled the 'Tricky' figure devised by Jess, along with that artist's strident colouration and textured palette.
Ramos is best-known today for his work that outrageously juxtaposes buxom, naked females in all their youthful loveliness personifying sex – and the most iconic American commercial products in all the crass glory of their packaging. This oeuvre has long been considered almost too Pop for even the most hardened lover of popular culture – and curiously seems to be only coming into its own amongst younger contemporary artists today. Ramos has thus found his signature work reverently 'quoted' and 'remixed' by artists from an entirely different milieu, perhaps most notably the French conceptualist Bazille, who took over the ground floor of the Pompidou Centre, with live naked girls modelling Ramos compositions.
Mel Ramos is hardly an "artist's artist" – indeed he has been popular and successful throughout his long career. But the fact that a new group of highly sophisticated younger artists appreciate the sheer subversive boldness of Ramos's project suggests that his full importance has yet to be realised. Thus the prime-Pop paintings of Ramos, his galaxy of Superheroes, will, without doubt, eventually fly as fast, soar as high, as those of their exact contemporaries,
of Warhol and Lichtenstein.
Adrian Dannatt is a freelance art critic.