Devotees of modern and contemporary art will find this an inscrutable yet irresistible 72-page book.
Serious Bidness: The Letters of Richard Bellamy, edited with an introduction by Miles Bellamy, Near Fine Press, 72 pages, $40.
By Tim Francis Barry
If David Mamet had only written the play Glengarry Glen Ross his place in the pantheon of American theater would be assured. In the spectrum of art gallery owners, if Richard Bellamy had only discovered Claes Oldenburg, his role in the development of 1960s avant-garde art would inevitably be chiselled in stone.
But Mamet’s written, what, 30 or 40 incendiary plays; likewise, Dick Bellamy fostered the rise of Donald Judd, George Segal, Myron Stout, Robert Morris, James Rosenquist, Mark di Suvero, Yayoi Kusama, Oldenburg, and many others — artists who laid the template for a significant chunk of the cutting-edge art of today.
Bellamy, though, is an elusive figure. And a seriously sad figure. A recently published biography by Judith Stein, entitled The Eye Of The Sixties: Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), lays out in considerable detail Bellamy’s epic rise and long, slow crash. It goes quite a distance in rectifying the neglect of the man’s career and influence. All of the significant data is spelled out: if you’re at all interested in contemporary art, especially its volatile salad-days (1958-1968) this book is well worth your time. Still, it comes off as rather a standard ‘scene report’ that will mostly interest art-world insiders.
Bellamy’s son’s new book, however, Serious Bidness, is an animal of another stripe. Miles Bellamy, now in his fifties, saw fit to edit, and have printed, a carefully culled edition of his dad’s letters. This handsomely bound document is nothing less than a fascinating study in pathology. For one thing, Bellamy fils only selected letters (from the archive held at the Museum of Modern Art) that showed his father in his waning, dishabille years, from 1970 on, when the spotlight had turned away from him, when the big-name artists he brought out into the light had left him for saner, more solvent venues, and when drugs, alcohol consumption on a Jackson Pollock-scale, and plain whacked-out weirdness became his default mode.
The selection shows Bellamy the dealer to be a vague, mostly half-interested businessman. His letters are playful, almost surreally strange. He begins a 1996 missive to a museum director — “I am half Chinese and half Kentuckian, and in a confused state unlike my forbears….” He continues on in an approximation of telegraph-notation: “Hillbillies dynamite. No more muskies. Ivan too last of breed. Ivan muskallonge.” Got that?
Devotees of modern and contemporary art will find this an inscrutable yet irresistible 72-page book. While there are end-notes, the book is peppered with references that resist — if not defy — recognition. Clearly, this volume is aimed at high echelon types among museum and gallery circles.
One letter fits under the heading of How Not To Curry Favor With Journalists. In a 1988 missive to Paul Richard art critic at the Washington Post, he piles up snarling invective in what amounts to a drug and/or drink addled ugly screed. Some lines: “….OK, let me wrap this up, I am not a whiner….Has your cheap newspaper sent you to Stuttgart to see the Giacometti show? Will the cheap bastards send you to Venice….? That bitch slut Paris dealer….” Etc etc.
Through it all, the sadness of the man comes through. The toxic fallout on his family is also evident. The letters from Bellamy to his son, and now editor, Miles, are a textbook example of the “those-who-say ‘I love you’-compulsively-actually-don’t” syndrome. Witness this bizarre line to his son, who was 8 years-old: “I love you. Sweet baby Miles no good louse scum.” Yes, he was being sarcastic-funny. Does a young boy understand the nuances of caustic wit?
So, is this book about retribution for neglect? It certainly paints Bellamy in the worse possible light. A 1996 letter to his friend, the art critic Barbara Rose, begins this way: “Dear Barbara, Long time no see or hear. I hope you are still fucking.” It then goes on to ask “I wish you would introduce me to someone nice and 20ish I could see on the sly. Sally and I are still engaged to be married.”
The litmus test for insanity is this: if you can earn money, pay your bills, provide a roof over your head, and stay out of jail, you’re probably not insane. However, there are degrees of mental health, and Bellamy’s chronic alcoholism coupled with his sneering disregard for society’s mores and accepted practices, places him somewhere in the realm of the willfully not-sane.
Serious Bidness appears to be a son’s way of beating his fists against his dead father’s corpse and exclaiming “I love you, but why were you such an asshole?” The ‘why’ is not explored. Bellamy ends one letter to a client saying “Anyway, if you get a chance, I would love to see you (in my padded cell).”
Note: Judith Stein will be reading from her book The Eye of the Sixties and Miles Bellamy will be reading from Serious Bidnessat AMP Gallery, Provincetown, MA on Saturday, July 30.
Tim Barry studied English literature at Framingham State College and art history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He has written for Take-It Magazine, The New Musical Express, The Noise, and The Boston Globe. He owns Tim’s Used Books, Hyannis, and Provincetown, and TB Projects, a contemporary art space, in Provincetown.