The Naked Eye
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Pamela Anderson dropped her robe for him, Paul McCartney bought one of his pieces, and Claudia Schiffer tried to have his nude painting of her lounging on a hot dog destroyed. Oh, and one of America’s greatest artists says he’s better than Andy Warhol.
With an unlikely career built on painting superheroes and bare naked ladies, Sacramento native Mel Ramos finally has a hometown one-man show—with lots and lots of women.
WWhen it came to the question of whether or not Pamela Anderson should don a tiny bikini bottom for the session, the discussion was decidedly brief. She asked without showing much preference one way or the other, and the artist’s answer was just as direct. “No, I don’t need it,” he said simply. Problem solved.
It was 2008 when Anderson arrived at his home in a stretch limousine and soon unveiled for him and his camera her formidable wares, all in service of what would eventually become a pair of painted portraits.
The “him” in this equation is the celebrated Sacramento painter Mel Ramos. Known primarily for his nudes, which reside in institutions such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian and the Whitney Museum of American Art, Ramos was commissioned for the endeavor by Anderson herself. Flattered, the artist would break two of his rules for the blonde bombshell. Ramos prefers not to paint women with implants, and he always asks 50 percent payment in advance. In this case, exceptions were made on both fronts.
He is a man known for his grand genuflections to monuments of female beauty, and the Anderson anecdote is as telling for what it isn’t as for what it is. When he describes Anderson emerging in her small robe and then removing it, he is in no way lascivious or ungracious in the recounting. If anything, it’s a story about professionalism: hers, as well as his.
Of course, while Ramos is serious about his art, he’s also a deadpan-funny man who always seems to have either a paintbrush or a cigar on hand, and often both. And it’s clear that he appreciates the irony of a career that includes his works sharing space on museum walls with Klimt, Cézanne and Picasso, but also finds a naked Pamela Anderson in his home studio.
After all, the bulk of his work is nothing if not a study in unexpected juxtapositions (nude women emerging from banana peels or candy bar wrappers, for example), and the Crocker’s first major retrospective of these works brings the 76-year-old artist back to his hometown after a half-century of artistic adventures.
On June 2, the Crocker Art Museum unveils its first solo show of his work, “Mel Ramos: 50 Years of Superheroes, Nudes, and Other Pop Delights,” which will span the abstract expressionism and valiant superhero figures of his Sacramento years, through the voluptuous model-and-object creations with which he has become synonymous worldwide. It’s a version of the exhibit that showed last year at the famed Albertina museum in Vienna, which also recently mounted exhibits celebrating artists no less substantial than Warhol, Picasso, Lichtenstein and Michelangelo.
Five Flavor Frieda (Image courtesy of the Crocker Art Museum)
If you’re surprised that someone of this stature has never had a one-man museum show in his hometown, you aren’t alone. Crocker curator Scott A. Shields says the museum has wanted to do a Ramos exhibit for quite a while. “The conversation has been going on for a long time,” he explains. “My director, Lial Jones, and I both have liked his work, and Lial has long said we should do a show of him.” When they heard about the Albertina show, the timing clicked.
“For any living artist, that is an enormous accomplishment,” says Shields. “But for an artist from Sacramento that’s never had a show at the Crocker—it really seemed like, ‘Boy, we gotta get on this bandwagon.’ ”