Eye of the Sixties is indispensable reading for lovers of art from an era that changed everything.
Richard Bellamy was a highly influential force in the art world of the 1960s. A biracial child who struggled to find his place of belonging, he was present at the most critical moments of the New York City art scene in that decade. His careful taste and ability to cultivate relationships with the most important figures placed him in a position of power and prestige that would seem (even to the man himself) like a Faustian pact.
Judith E. Stein tells Bellamy’s tale in intricate detail, building the portrait of a man whom the reader comes to hold in deep regard despite his multiple failings. Born in 1929, Bellamy had a Chinese mother and Caucasian father at a time when suspicion of the Chinese loomed large in American culture. Still, the young Bellamy found ways to endear himself to his peers, leaving his classes to sneak out for cigarettes or to walk to a bar. He possessed a playfulness not uncommon to people who desperately feel the need to be loved and a tendency toward believing that his humor and charms would outweigh anything others might have catalogued as flaws.
His mother’s death at a young age and his father’s marriage to a woman that Dick (as most people in his adult life knew him) didn’t like drove a wedge between them. The younger Bellamy found escape in alcohol and the art world in which he became deeply ensconced. He drifted, finding that New York only accentuated his loneliness. By the end of the 1940s he found himself in Provincetown, a place that served as a haven to a variety of artists. Bellamy found their company to his liking and stayed there for a time, developing relationships with several figures who would loom large in his history.
He was especially attracted to the Modernists, who were driving their own wedge into the art world, distinguishing themselves from the more traditional artists that favored scenes and realism. The visceral nature of the former painters was in keeping with the zeitgeist and its possibilities buoyed Bellamy to New York in the early 1950s, a booming scene that set the world on its ear.
His time there brings about a catalogue of the major players of the era, including Norman Mailer, Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning, whose beliefs and thoughts on art had an immeasurable impact on Bellamy. He soon became director of the Hansa Gallery, where he came to know the likes of Allan Kaprow, Alfred Leslie, George Segal, Jan Müller. His success at the gallery and the wild life of New York brought its own worries; always fond of drinking, Bellamy’s excesses increased and his marriage fell into trouble.
He found money to be a corrupting influence in the art world, and he was troubled by the idea of art as a commodity rather than something that could bring great aesthetic joy. Still, he continued on his path with Hansa, though the gallery would eventually close. His second act was perhaps an even greater victory. Opened in 1960, the Green Gallery came to life with money from collector Robert Scull.
Over the next five years, Green would experience a meteoric rise. Abstract Expressionism was falling from favor as Pop Art and Minimalism would find purchase in the consciousness of the New York scene. Bellamy’s drinking became increasingly problematic during this time as he would leave the gallery unattended or become too inebriated to tend to important matters at hand.
Stein’s ability to capture the changes in this world, and the cast of characters who brought them about, is remarkable. John Cage, Warhol and Yoko Ono all pass through the pages long enough to provide just enough detail to indicate how powerful and important Bellamy had become and how radical their work was at that moment. His knack for picking critical pieces was almost inexplicable, as such things often are, and the gossip and legend that swarmed around his gift for curation seemed only to accentuate his increasingly strange ways. Add to this that the fortunes of dead painters increased while the fortunes of living gallery directors stayed largely the same and we begin to sense his frustrations and the inevitable closing of Green.
The Hansa and Green eras are given perhaps the most play in this narrative, and they are undoubtedly some of the most vivid examples of Stein’s ability to marry history and biography. If there is a fault to be found in these pages, it is perhaps that the post-Green years are dealt with somewhat hastily as the narrative races.
Still, Bellamy the man and Bellamy the art world figure both remain fascinating. He would continue to work in the world he’d come to love and know so well. He later organized exhibitions of Richard Artschwager, Peter Young, and Richard Serra and became an advisor to museums, collectors and others. In the 1980s he opened one of the first galleries in Tribeca and championed many artists who would have otherwise been overlooked.
As she writes about each of these epochs, Stein never loses sight of Bellamy’s tremendous wit, generosity, talent and humor even as the once vibrant man becomes less so. His later years brought about some isolation and even a growing sense that he might want to leave the city that had meant so much to him. He died in 1998, a volume of Proust on his chest.
If the measure of a great biography is how well it illuminates the triumphs and failures of its subject, then Eye of the Sixties succeeds on that account. If a further measure is how well its author places the reader directly in the action described in the book’s pages, then there is great success there too. The book features a wealth of illuminating images and detailed notes for each of its captivating chapters. In the end, Eye of the Sixties is indispensable reading for lovers of art from an era that changed everything.