The Naked Eye

(page 4 of 7)

Ramos married Leta in 1955 and, like Thiebaud, he eventually settled on a job in education as a means to support himself, his painting habit and his young family, who were living in Sacramento. “I taught high school, starting at Elk Grove,” he says. “That was a long drive in the morning. I had to drive along country farm roads. There was no freeway yet.”

In his off hours, he painted continuously, and tells stories of completing some canvases in a single weekend. He says, “I had to teach myself about 95 percent of the time. I was flying blind, just trying to do it, just trying to make it work.” After Elk Grove, he spent a half-dozen years teaching at Mira Loma High School—“longing,” he says, “to have a college job.”

When it came to painting, Ramos spent many years exploring abstract expressionism, in particular the chaotic and colorful maneuvers of Willem de Kooning. He also cites the stark planes of Nathan Oliveira as an influence. By Ramos’ own telling, de Kooning was such a strong force on his own vision that he felt he simply could not

1962’s "Superman" hangs near the entrance  of the de Young Museum in San Francisco. (Image courtesy of Mel Ramos)

Superman hangs near the entrance of the de Young Museum in San Francisco. (Image courtesy of Mel Ramos)

move past it. “I realized I was scraping the bottom of the bucket with my abstract paintings that were just copies of de Kooning,” he says.

Having decided to stop copying de Kooning, he did something entirely different: “I painted Superman,” he says, speaking of the piece he did in 1962 at age 27. Then he corrects himself: “No, Batman was the first one. I decided to just go, ‘The hell with it. I’m going to be an artist. I’ll paint whatever the hell I want.’ I started paying attention to the comics I had—the guys who drew those comics were really incredible. I did a celebration of comic book heroes, in a heraldic way, the way Gainsborough would do a portrait,” he says of the 18th-century master. Ramos’ Superman appropriated the hero from a dramatic comic book setting and placed him against a nearly blank backdrop. For the record, Ramos lists C.C. Beck as his favorite comic artist. An image of Beck’s work on Captain Marvel adorns one of the glasses that hold Ramos’ brushes.

He eventually got that full-time college teaching job he desired, at California State University, Hayward (now Cal State, East Bay), where he taught until he retired in 1998. That’s what precipitated the move to Oakland. He suspects that part of the reason he received the Hayward position was that his art had, per chance, been featured not long prior in Time magazine. The

Ramos' "Wonder Woman #1" (1962) (Image courtesy of the Crocker Art Museum)

Ramos' Wonder Woman #1 (1962) (Image courtesy of the Crocker Art Museum)

1963 article listed Ramos first among six artists showing at a major exhibit of Pop Art in Los Angeles, among them Edward Ruscha and Thiebaud. It commented on the controversy inherent in Pop Art, quoting a visiting curator, Peter Selz of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, who called the collected paintings “limp and unconvincing.” Today, it’s worth noting, there are 10 Ramos works in the New York MoMA’s collection.

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“It is the most historically significant Pop Art painting in our permanent collection,” says Timothy Anglin Burgard. Burgard is curator of American art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco—comprised of the de Young and the Legion of Honor—whose collection includes, in addition to the Ramos, work by Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Wayne Thiebaud, and that avatar of Pop Art himself, Andy Warhol, who Ramos says once hit on him at a party in the ’60s at New York’s Dakota (where John Lennon lived and was killed). The subject of Burgard’s comment is that very same Superman painting that Ramos made in 1962 after saying “The hell with it.” It currently hangs near the entrance of the de Young in Golden Gate Park and it was acquired in conjunction with the opening of the new de Young Museum in 2005, and came directly from the Ramos family.