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Ramos Fizz: A Modernist at 80 

Wednesday, Dec 2 2015
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Walk into Mel Ramos' art exhibit at Modernism gallery, and you enter a 1960s time warp of straight-male adolescence. Ramos came of artistic age in the decade's early years, when Playboy magazine had a leading role in the cultural revolution that flooded the commercial marketplace with images of scantily clad women. Sex sold things, and cleavage was everywhere: magazines, advertising, cinema, and in Ramos' mind, where it hasn't let go for more than half a century.

Ramos is now 80. While Playboy — claiming it can't compete with the internet's free offerings — recently announced it will no longer show fully naked women in the magazine's pages, Ramos is still painting exposed breasts and pubic hair in his signature style, and still selling truckloads of art to satisfy a global demand that shows no signs of abating.

In his long career, Ramos — a contemporary of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein — has been called everything from "one of the most significant figures of Pop Art" to "sexist" and "misogynist." Like Warhol, he adopted the vernacular of advertising into his art, but whereas Warhol situated soup cans by themselves, Ramos puts naked women on them.

At Modernism, one of his lithographs, Starkist Stacey (Gold), has a blonde, bare-breasted woman in her 20s sitting, yoga-style, on a can of tuna fish. Jujyfruits Judy has another bare-breasted woman atop a candy box that advertises itself as "Chewy." Although it may sound merely exploitative, Ramos is both satirizing the culture and glorifying the female form, incorporating symbols of products that act as a double entendre for old-fashioned notions of sex and women.

Earlier in Ramos' career, feminists were outraged by his depictions. The artist Judy Chicago once complained to a museum that showcased Ramos' paintings. Guerrilla Girls, which derides art-world practices that it says discriminate against female artists, has protested Ramos' art. (In 1989, the group famously campaigned against New York's Metropolitan Museum with a poster that said, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5 percent of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female.") In 2012, when Sacramento's Crocker Art Museum held a Ramos exhibit, residents complained about the museum's downtown ads that featured a Ramos work of a nude woman in a martini glass. "It's too provocative," one woman said at the time. "It's showing too much."

Ramos shrugs off his critics, saying his art is tame compared to, say, the nude art photography of Helmut Newton and Robert Mapplethorpe.

"The early feminists complained that I exploited women, but that's ridiculous," he tells SF Weekly. "Why would I spend my entire life painting women if I didn't like them? I love women. There's even a book out about my work called I Love Women."

There's also Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture, a book by art scholar Maria Elena Buszek that lauds Ramos for subverting old advertising conventions that used women as background props to sell products. Ramos reverses the roles with scenes that are, Buszek writes, "jarring for their interest in putting the pin-up (literally and figuratively) before the product, effectively reminding the viewer which of the two is the true source of power drawn upon to make the sale."

Ramos began doing his nudes around 1963, after a brief period of painting comic-book superheroes such as Batman, the Flash, and Captain Midnight. Ramos' earliest figurative paintings, from the late 1950s, are minimalistic, semi-abstract, muted in color, and unrecognizable as Ramos canvasses. The Sacramento native created them when he was in his early 20s, after graduating from Sacramento State College (now Cal State University Sacramento) and at a time when he was experimenting with different techniques, including the impasto approach of employing thick, visible brush strokes. Painter Wayne Thiebaud, who instructed Ramos at Sacramento State College and is now a close friend, counts as an influence. Like Thiebaud and others who were grouped under the "Pop Art" umbrella, Ramos began incorporating bright colors that cheerily corral the viewer to gaze ahead.

Ramos still paints superheroes, and his older works — like his nude art pieces — have increased dramatically in value. In October, a New York auction house sold a small 1962 Batman painting for $173,000. Soon after Ramos completed that work, which is about the size of a laptop computer screen, he traded it to a young comic book collector.

"He gave me a box full of vintage comic books," Ramos remembers, "and he finally put it up for auction. $173,000 is a lot of money for such a small painting."

In May, a larger painting of the Green Lantern from 1962 sold at a New York auction for $725,000.

"I've gone over $1 million a couple of times," Ramos says. "What can I say? People like my work and I'm delighted. Everything I've done in the past 10 years has sold."

Ramos is beloved in Europe, especially Germany, where he's had numerous big exhibits, including one that extended into 2014 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Leipzig. The Beauty and the Beast attracted controversy, partly because it featured the work of Richard Müller, an artist associated with the Nazi era, and partly because of Ramos' art. The museum showcased a Ramos painting of a naked woman reclining against a giant panda.

"On the opening night," Ramos says, "there were 200 to 300 people in the auditorium while we gave speeches, and all of a sudden, we heard this racket in the background, this screaming. They finally had to get security people to kick a guy out. He [and others] were complaining because there was a huge banner on the side of the museum, of this painting I did called The Giant Panda. I'd done a series of girls with animals. I went to Africa in the '70s, and I became enamored of all these great animals, so I came back and did a whole series of animal paintings. This is one with a girl nestled into the lap of a panda bear. What they were complaining about was animal rights. I couldn't believe it. They rejected the fact that I painted a girl with an animal."

That's Mel Ramos. He can't imagine why people would object to that, or even why people might sneer at his using word "girl" to mean "woman." But Ramos says his art is "family-friendly," and that he would never do pornographic work — at least not for public consumption. With artists such as Robert Arneson, he's traded X-rated art.

"It's just for a laugh," he says. "I don't embrace it. I'm not interested in that. I did Marilyn Monroe finger-fucking herself, but I don't consider myself a champion of pornography. My works are family-friendly."

And women are eager to work with him — to be photographed and then have Ramos work his artistic magic. A few years ago, actress (and former Playboy centerfold) Pamela Anderson visited Ramos at his Oakland studio.

"I got 200 to 300 slides of her," he says, "and I found three of them I could use or I'd be happy to make a painting of. So I sent it to her. And then I used her body for other images. She had a great figure for me. I did one painting for her and another that was sold at an auction in Korea. I did other paintings that used her body but not necessarily her face."

In defending his work, Ramos says he's part of an artistic tradition that goes back centuries, and includes artists like Titian and Botticelli, who also lavished attention on female flesh. Once, while gazing at the work of Botticelli and others at the Louvre, Ramos had an epiphany.

"I walked into this big room," he says, "and there were these 30 or 40 nude paintings. I couldn't believe it. I felt vindicated. That's basically what I do. I'm a painter of the nude figure. There's a lot of us in the history of art. I just have my little niche."

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Jonathan Curiel

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