The Naked Eye

(page 5 of 7)

Burgard illuminates, at length, the place Superman holds in the de Young collection: “It was important for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco not only because the painting is historically significant, but also to have a truly stellar example of Pop Art, which obviously was a national phenomenon, as a cornerstone of our postwar permanent collection.” The work’s significance comes in many forms, but foremost because Ramos’ own transition from abstract expressionism like de Kooning’s work to superheroes coincided with the broader cultural transition from abstract expressionism to Pop Art—that is, from the cult of Jackson Pollock to the cult of Andy Warhol. Ramos’ piece, Burgard says, helped the newly expanded museum define its enlarged purview. (Burgard refers to the 2005 unveiling of a brand-new de Young, its predecessor building having been demolished as a result of damage during the 1989 earthquake.) “The Fine Arts Museums,” he says, “have been known for their historical collections, and with the expansion

1962's "The Atom" by Ramos, which Wayne Thiebaud donated to the Crocker Art Museum. (Image courtesy of the Crocker Art Museum)

The Atom by Ramos, which Wayne Thiebaud donated to the Crocker Art Museum. (Image courtesy of the Crocker Art Museum)

of our galleries, we were very interested in expanding the parameters of the collection into the postwar period.”

These superheroes were, ultimately, a transitional point for Ramos himself. “After the comic book heroes came the heroines, who were really sexy in those days,” Ramos says with relish. These include his famed work like Phantom Lady, which hangs in the Ramos’ living room when it isn’t touring museums on the other side of the world, and Ramos’ highest sale to date, Miss Liberty—Frontier Heroine, which went for $1.8 million. Miss Liberty shows a white-blonde young woman clad tightly—and fully—in an American flag outfit, her identity lightly disguised with a Lone Ranger mask. She straddles a fast-moving white stallion above a cloud of dust. It went to a collector living in Jerusalem, who informed Ramos’ New York dealer Louis K. Meisel that he desired a work showing no nudity, something of a scarce resource in the artist’s oeuvre.

Those comely heroines of a more reserved era served as the gateway to Ramos’ later contemporary nudes. “And from the 1960s on,” he says, “that’s what I’ve been doing.”

The nudes are how Ramos figures in the popular imagination, like Warhol with soup cans and Monet with lily pads: Hunt for the Best, in which a woman stands a head taller than the ketchup bottle she lovingly embraces; California Browned Bear, in which only tan lines can be said to get between a female sunbather and a docile grizzly; Miss Grapefruit Festival, in which a busty torso emerges from a horizon-spanning field of tellingly ripe fruit. Ramos’ women have, over time, come to form an army of near-universal sex appeal and buoyant humor. They lay astride, atop, or beside soda bottles, boxes of Velveeta and elephant seals. They explode from cans of Valvoline and candy bar wrappers as if from a birthday cake. He occasionally returns to the superheroes, having a few years back done a version of an almost claustrophobically attired Catwoman with a likeness of Michelle Pfeiffer’s face. And there was a period of landscapes. But the nudes endure.

All artists are, to some extent or another, products of their time. Ramos’ nudes arrived a decade after the 1953 founding of Playboy, and a few years in advance of the Summer of Love. By his telling, they occurred as a natural progression in his work: Superman and Batman rescued him from abstract expressionism, the female superheroes succeeded their male counterparts, and the more he painted the female form, the more he desired to paint the female form. Ramos says in the long run his career hasn’t suffered in the slightest, though there have been hurdles: “I couldn’t show my work at public spaces such as banks, like my fellow artist friends were.” Adds his daughter, and one-time model, Rochelle, “I feel that Europeans have a clear respect for the beauty of the human body, both female and male. At times, the United States seems particularly judgmental, a bit uptight, whereas Europeans have a better sense of humor.”

For evidence, look no further than the commission Ramos received last year from Ferdinand Oliver Porsche, great-grandson of the carmaker’s founder. He  requested a nude to celebrate the planned remake of the classic Volkswagen bus that will come out next year. Ramos suggested Porsche’s wife. Porsche thought about it, and agreed. Ramos will take pictures of her this summer for the painting.

American museums have at times indirectly addressed the tension of Ramos’ hyper-real nudes. For the cover of the catalog for his 1977 Oakland Museum exhibit, the editors selected one of Ramos’ paintings that features a largely abstract image in which only the woman’s face, neck and hair are visually legible. The cover of the catalog to a Rose Art Museum exhibit, which also included nudes, showed none of his art at all, just a blank, yellow square—it comes across as the cheeriest censorship mark ever.