“A Constant Witness”: Richard Serra on Richard Bellamy
Poet and cultural journalist Erik La Prade conducted this insightful dialogue with Richard Serra too late for inclusion in La Prade’s important publication, Breaking Through: Richard Bellamy and the Green Gallery 1960–1965, Twenty-Three Interviews (Midmarch Arts Press, 2010). With the publication this summer of Judith E. Stein’s long-awaited biography, Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art, from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, reviewed in these pages by Timothy Barry with a collection of Bellamy’s letters, artcritical is proud to post the Serra-La Prade dialogue.
RICHARD SERRA: I wasn’t in New York when the Green gallery was going on. I was at Yale then. I only saw one show at the gallery.
ERIK LA PRADE: You mentioned in another interview that you saw Oldenburg’s 1962 show there.
I don’t know if it was a show. He had one big hamburger and I’m not sure if anyone else was in the show. I was really taken with the Oldenburg and the whole environment. But I was a Yale student and I really didn’t know what the New York scene was about. This seemed as foreign to me as anything I could have possibly conceived. But I was very curious about it.
Did you find Oldenburg’s use of material and space unusual?
I thought it was unusual and the scale was absurd. I thought it was coming out of a tradition that didn’t have anything to do with Dali’s soft watch, yet it was three dimensional and it was displaying spaces of volume and thumbing its nose at traditional sculpture. It was good as art and empowering because it gave you permission in a good way. I never thought that anybody, up until Oldenburg, used gravity as a force to build anything with. People may have taken the iconography of Oldenburg and thought you had to build bigger, Toys “R” Us. But I saw Oldenburg as a reason to deal with gravity as a builder and what that meant and what that implied.
You also said Dick Bellamy was “the most radical dealer on the scene,” extending limits.
I think Dick’s great gift was that he wasn’t into merchandising. He was into helping artists, trying to anticipate where they could possibility go and encourage their best moves, just by being a witness and a messenger; mainly a witness and a constant witness. If Dick decided he was interested in you, he stayed interested and he followed the work in a rather shy, vulnerable manner, but, unbelievably supportive.
He wanted to facilitate the work but not encumber it. Or, he gave you the space and you did what you wanted to do.
When I first started, he also, was more receptive to some of my experiments than others and let me know that. He thought that some ways of proceeding were better than others, just by a casual statement like, “Why don’t you do more of that and less of that.” He would always say something like that after hanging out for an hour and getting stoned, and looking out the window, whatever. Did you know Dick?
I met him once in January 1998 for an interview. I was planning on writing an article on Larry Poons. I went to the Oil & Steel gallery and we hung out for three hours. He was decisive talking about Poons’s work and what he thought happened then with his work and his career and how the best artists make the most radical moves. I attempted to meet with him again in late February, but I think he died March first. That was the extent of my meeting Bellamy. Bellamy was called the “poet,” or the “inscrutable Dick Bellamy,” but from what Alfred Leslie told me, Bellamy had a very extensive reading background.
Very literary. Dick was very, very well read.
So I wonder if his reading and training in literature and apparently just reading everyone, like Elliot and Pound, might have been the best training for him to develop a radical sense. Do you think there was a cross over from his reading in literature to his style as an art dealer?
I don’t think Dick was a dealer in art. I think Dick liked to encourage people to make things and he liked the activity that surrounded the showing of things. He liked bringing people together and the kind of underground, sociological mix of the artists, poets and dancers. He liked getting high. But, the idea of Dick being a businessman or a dealer was just…
Yes. Dick wasn’t that. If he knew how to negotiate he would have been a great dealer but he didn’t know how to do that either. I remember once, I was living with Joan Jonas and Dick hired her as secretary and she couldn’t type. It was just ridiculous.
I guess Bellamy had help in his attempts to sell work.
He may have had a few people supporting him like the Skulls or the Tremaines or List, but I wasn’t privy to that. I think Dick was one of these people who was beloved; he was exceedingly vulnerable. So it was hard to make a very, very close contact with him, unless he was really stoned. Then you could. Other than that, he maintained a kind of disquiet.
His guard was up?
He was just a vulnerable, fragile guy.
After the Green gallery closed, he curated a show at Noah Goldowsky for you, Mark di Suvero and Michael Heizer.
No, it was Walter de Maria.
How did you find he looked at the work when he installed it?
That was for me, a break through. I was new in New York and to be in that show with those people; I thought I was in with these older figures already on the scene and it was my first step into the scene. It was like bringing somebody up from a double A club and putting him on the third base of the Yankees.
It was a big step?
For me! For Dick it may have just been doing another installation: “take those older guys and put this younger guy in with them.” But for me it was a big step.
Do you remember what year that was?
You got your training at Yale but after you graduated, did your education develop on another level?
I was a painter at Yale and before that I majored in English literature at University of California, Santa Barbara. I got a grant because I sent Yale twelve drawings, but they said we want you to get an undergraduate degree in art history, so I did that. I got my graduate MA, then my MFA, so I stayed there three years. Then I got a Yale Traveling and I went to France for a year, then I got a Fulbright and went to Italy for a year, and when I was in Italy that second year, I met Dick. I went to the Venice Biennial. I had had a show of live and stuffed animals and Dick heard about that show, and said to me, “When you’re in New York, look me up.” So, New York for me was a traffic accident. I didn’t know anybody. I was driving a truck, moving furniture with guys in the neighborhood: myself, Michael Snow, Philip Glass, Chuck Close and Steve Reich. We started a little furniture company. We would move furniture three days a week and the people, who weren’t moving furniture, would have the remaining four or three or five days a week off, however it turned out that the truck was booked to work. So, we had a kind of bedrock notion of time and process and matter. None of us wanted to claim that we were a filmmaker or composer, sculptor or painter at the time. We were just all involved with making something and tying to make a living. We were all pretty much involved with the dancers down here, either as lovers or as inspirations. So, it was small collective.
When you went to the Green gallery that day, did you also go to some of the other galleries?
No. I may have gone over to Tenth Street and looked at those galleries, but I hardly remember them. Pop art had just started to come in. I think there was some notion that Morris and Judd were doing things that seemed to involve circular saws and plywood. But, Mark di Suvero was always a very big figure for me. I’d grown up near to him, so I knew about of him.
Did you find Bellamy was consistent throughout his life, in his relationship to people’s work?
Bellamy was a continuous support for me. I didn’t even ask. He would show up at every show. I suspect he did that with other people. His relationship with Mark di Suvero was very, very close but I suspect he had that relationship with a lot of artists he cared about. He made it his responsibility to follow their work.
Certainly, that’s true of Myron Stout and Alfred Leslie’s work.
Di Suvero told me when he was involved with the Park Place gallery, the first one and the second one, Bellamy would almost never go down there and didn’t like the idea.
When I first came to New York, Mark asked me if I wanted to join the Park Place gallery and I said “no.” I didn’t like the idea either.
What was it you didn’t like?
It was one idea about sculpture, “ra, ra.” It was too clubby. It reminded me of a fraternity for something. A boy’s club. I didn’t like it.
The idea was based on the Bauhaus group.
I understood it was a collective and people threw in their money for dues. There were people in it I thought were interesting but I just couldn’t see myself as part of that situation. It seemed like Mark’s scene.
As I’ve been told, Bellamy felt it wasn’t a commercial venue.
That was probably a good thing about it. Maybe, Bellamy didn’t want to get involved with some of the artists that were involved with it. I think, he wanted to handle Mark’s work, but he certainly didn’t want to deal with that group in total. Dick had a very broad range.
From 1960 to 1962, there is no particular language, art-critical language to describe this work. Except it was called neo dada, fracturalist, commonists. When I asked Rosenquest what it was called, he said “it wasn’t called anything.”
I don’t think it was called anything.
Then in 1962, when Janis had his New Realists show, other shows began to spring up and the terms began to be applied. Charlotte Bellamy said to me, “When you label something like that, it’s easy to dismiss it.”
It’s also easy to exclude other people.
But, Bellamy was consistent in his perception and choice of whom he showed and who became standard in those categories.
I think Bellamy contributed more to the cultural evolution of art in the second half of the century than anybody else. He sent all those people to either Janis or Castelli. And without Bellamy, there would not have been what happened with Janis or Castelli. He was the pipeline to them.
They then created a mainstream highway for the work.
They knew how to merchandise it, how to turn it into a movement, how to take it to Europe and put it on the map. Dick never could have done that. Nor, do I think it was Dick’s intention to do that. I don’t think he was capable of doing that and it wasn’t his interest.
It seems the scenario was, Bellamy would work with an artist for two or three years, then encourage them to move on, even though it might have been detrimental to his interests.
Detrimental to his financial interests. Nor did he ask for a percentage if you sold something when you went to another dealer. There were some pieces I had made while I was with Dick. So, if I went on to Leo and showed some pieces, or some people reserved some early pieces, I would always give Dick a cut. But at the time we were selling the pieces for nothing. I sold five pieces to the Museum Ludwick, for less than a thousand dollars and I was happy to get it.
It was a lot of money then.
Also, it meant a museum was interested in my work.
Di Suvero told me that one piece from his first show sold, one small piece was brought by Skull for one-hundred twenty-five dollars. However, Skull was the so-called official backer of the gallery, giving stipends to artists and perhaps paying the rent, I don’t know. But, he seems to be vilified now.
Because he bought a lot of good or great art and then eventually sold it off and made a mint.
That’s the nature of the beast.
It outraged a number of people, one of them being Rauschenberg.
I can understand that. If that outraged Rauschenberg at the time, then he should have taken steps to insure that he had first right of return if pieces were sold. There are things you can do.
Did you read any of the art-critical literature at the time the Green gallery was operating?
No, just the journals. I hadn’t read Greenberg or any of that.
One person told me he believed Bellamy came out of an abstract expressionist sensibility. But perhaps that’s a little bit limiting.
If you look at the diversity of what he liked, that seems unlikely. I remember a guy who showed at Goldowsky; he was a very interesting painter. He painted realistic-Surrealist paintings.
Was it Milet Andreyevich?
Yes. So, it went from him to Oldenburg, to Rosenquest, to Segal, to Morris, to Judd. It’s hard to pin that down to Abstract Expressionism.
Again, it’s a way of pigeonholing Bellamy’s sensibilities, which may be impossible.
Bellamy was a kind of poet who found his extension in other people’s visual expressions.
Yet, he never wrote criticism. But apparently, he wrote great letters to collectors and people. His criticism was to show the work.
I don’t know that Bellamy saw himself as an intellectual or as a writer. He might have wanted to be a writer but he never expressed that. Did you have any sense of Dick at all?
Once he began to relax when I was there, he would take long pauses to answer a question. I would just sit there, patiently. Or, he might throw up his hands at a question I asked, but he’d just sit there.
I think Dick had an uneasiness and he wanted to let things settle and let them be, and wait for the moment that things could come together. If they didn’t, they didn’t, if they did, fine. He’d come to see me and he wouldn’t say much, just lie on the floor. “Have a joint, Dick,” and we’d go from there.
He went to the School of Radio and Television in Connecticut. He was a DJ for a year. Apparently, he got fired for reading T.S. Elliot on a radio station at two a.m. in the morning when he should have been playing jazz music. He worked in the post office for two years and he painted houses. One day, he got a call from an artist named Miles Forst, inviting him to be the director of the Hansa gallery.
I didn’t know any of that.
He didn’t think it was important or interesting to talk about. Bellamy’s mother was Chinese and he grew up during the Second World War. The idea is you’re alien in America and their fighting the country that you came from.
The Japanese were interred and he could’ve just as well been seen as a Japanese person.
The idea that you didn’t say anything or very little maybe had a certain impact on him for the rest of his life.
I never thought about that but that probably true.
The mid-West. Bellamy must have had a sense of “don’t say the wrong thing”.
Better to say nothing. He would recede unless he got drunk or stoned, then he liked to have a good time.
All out socializing?
No. It was more like it was Halloween for him. It was an occasion for him to be somebody other than who he was. He could participate in the masquerade of self, but you knew it wasn’t him. For Bellamy, getting drunk or getting stoned, it was a way of escaping his own repression. Also, not worrying about his other self when he was in that state and then he could easily crawl back into his hibernation the next day.
I think towards the end of his life, he was probably having a heavier coke problem, which wasn’t doing him to much good.
There is the fact that the art world consisted of various social scenes and the Green gallery was one of the scenes.
I think the Green gallery was for a while the electric scene. If everybody wanted to plug in, that’s where you would go. I always thought of Dick as someone who went on people, but I might be wrong. In my relationship with him, I thought he sized up the person and if he liked the person and was interested in how the person thought and how the person conjured up thoughts or what the person’s poetic language was or what he could glean from the person’s intention or poetic imagination, I think Dick went on that. But I’m not sure if it was Bellamy’s eyes or if it was his assessment of the person.
Claire Wesselmann said everyone back then had “eager eyes.” Who knows how many studio visits he made.
I think a lot.
What was your experience with a dealer like Castelli or Janis?
I just went from Dick to Leo. How did I see Janis? He was a high-powered businessman and you might as well be going into a fancy shoe store. Florsheim’s.
Castelli wasn’t like that. Castelli was like a mom and pop store. He was a very elegant, Italian gentleman who wanted to create a scene of young people around him, who had an interchange with each other. And he created a situation where all the artists would come to each other’s shows. So, it was kind of an extension of Leo’s family and he tried to keep it together like a mom-and-pop store. Everybody had a relationship and he would have parties where everyone would come together; the artists, friends of the artists. He made a collective around that. So, most galleries divide up between the artists and their immediate friends and the other artists have their friends. These galleries become race-horsing stalls against other galleries that have their eight or ten horses. Castelli’s gallery was really run like a stable where everybody paraded together and supported each other.
He wanted these people to be in one particular universe.
A constellation. A team.
It certainly worked. How did you view his relationship with Bellamy?
I didn’t know what their relationship was like. I thought Leo really liked Bellamy. Leo was an equally terrible businessman. So, I don’t know what their business relationship was. Leo was a jobber who didn’t sell things; he sold things to other dealers. He certainly liked to sell things for a lot of money, or sashay about with museum directors, but the idea of cutting the deal, like the dealers are now, that wasn’t what Leo primarily did. He’d sell to other dealers then take the cut from other dealers. Dealers would say to Leo, “Send me five Judds” in L.A., or “send me three Oldenburgs to the Kansas City Art Institute”, or whatever. Leo would accommodate them but I don’t think he invoiced a lot, himself. That was my take on it.
Both Rosenquest and Billy Kluver, at different times, told me they thought, Bellamy and Illena Sonnabend had the eyes, but not Castelli.
That may be true.
But I’m sure Castelli had a sense of the work.
Leo had a sense of how to put together a scene. If he was going to show Morris, he would back it with Judd. If he was going to show Warhol, he would back it with Rosenquist. He had an idea of how to put artists together to create different genres of activity that would branch out into different ways of thinking about the diversity of movements. And he did that continuously. Then finally, he did that with the three Italians: Chia, Clemente, and Cucchi. When I came up he did it with me, Nauman and Sonnier. That’s how Leo put a scene together. So, he had a sense of the coherence and cohesion of various languages. But, whether or not he could put the best work out of anyone of those three people, I don’t know. If Leo didn’t have the eye, he had good radar and he kept his ear to the ground, and he had enough people feeding him information, so he knew what was going on.
On the other hand, Bellamy never showed Robert Indiana. If Bellamy didn’t like the work, he’d call it “Bonwit Teller art.”
Maybe he thought it was too designee or too fashion oriented. I don’t know. I can understand that maybe he didn’t like the graphic quality of early Warhol or Indiana, if that’s true.
Indiana I don’t know. But I have been told he didn’t like Warhol’s work.
Maybe the early Warhol compared to early Raushenberg or Johns, seemed a little, window-shopping interior. Maybe he didn’t like it for Warhol’s commercial aspect. You have to think, Warhol, during his lifetime, never had a show at the Modern. Warhol was taken seriously after he died; very, very seriously. And then, I think, Gagosian really made the market for Warhol.
There must have been hesitancy about giving Warhol credit?
Photography never really became understood as a full-blown-important subtext of what was going on until way after Warhol had been into silk screening photographs. So, then people go, “What’s really going on here is photography and it’s speeding a lot of new painting. Not only Warhol but a lot of other people.” It would be difficult to think of any post-modernist art that doesn’t begin with photography.
Seeing that Bellamy was interested in the most radical work, do you think it also had to do with the materials that were radical?
I don’t know. A lot of people were using non-industrial material, art-off-the street, whatever. It probably started as early as Raushenberg and di Suvero dragging in timbers, or whatever, and that may have appealed to Dick.
I don’t know what his idea of Surrealism or Dada was but I suspect it is interpreted that he had a dada sensibility.
That sounds a little sophisticated. Bellamy wasn’t the kind of guy to thumb through a book on surrealism or dada and then go out in the neighborhood and find an artist who fit that pigeonhole. I doubt that.
He seemed to like the coincidence of the moment.
Yes. I think he showed Flavin pretty early, also.
Now, you can say that comes from Neo-Dada, but I don’t think so. It comes from a department store.
What you’re saying about Bellamy’s taste is certainly true. But in this day and age, everybody wants a direct answer for these phenomena.
To try to apply something in a rearview mirror about different concepts and a different time and postulate a narrative that makes sense is really hard to do.