The Naked Eye

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For its part, the Crocker, which will feature dozens of nudes in the retrospective, will have a nude on the cover of its program, albeit with some strategically placed lettering. And there won’t be any age restrictions but perhaps some “cautionary signage,” says Shields.

When it comes to the reactions to his work, Ramos has many colorful tales of battle. He recalls, as if it were yesterday, being informed that when the feminist artist Judy Chicago encountered his work in an exhibit, she screamed so angrily that museum employees reported hearing her voice a floor down. And he was once confronted by the famous Guerrilla Girls, the anonymous feminist collective. “We suffered the rage of feminists,” he says, “because we did paintings of nude women. Exploitation, they called it. My reaction to that is, ‘You’re assuming exploitation is a bad idea.’ Exploit a good idea, that’s good.” In other words, having painted countless nudes of beautiful women, Ramos is at best bewildered by the concept of seeing them as anything other than specimens worthy of celebration.

Ramos semi-jokes that he owes a debt to Robert Mapplethorpe, whose nude photographs of New York’s downtown scene—often replete with sadomasochistic imagery—made him a lightning rod for moralizing before he died as a result of AIDS in 1989: “He did things that make my work look timid.” Ramos tells of encountering a female artist at an Oakland studio that deals in reproductions for both of them: “She came over, thanked me for my work, and said, ‘When I first saw your work I didn’t like you at all, but that was 20 years ago.’ ”

At first, when pursuing his nudes, he painted these women largely from images he’d found in Playboy. Other images—the animals and logos and consumer packaging—were selected from other magazines. Sometimes he’d have to wait a year until the right image presented itself in order for him to complete a composition. “I’ve always considered myself an unreconstructed surrealist,” he says. “And my whole career has been based on a strategy that uses a lot of tenets of surrealism—incongruous relationships, for example,” by which he means the sort of contrasts he regularly posits between, say, a blossoming young woman and a half-obscured Lucky Strike logo.

He eventually shifted from clipping magazines and to using models, at first his wife, Leta. The matter was characteristically practical: “Well, it was either her, or I had to pay somebody five bucks an hour.” (Says Leta of the nudes, “In the beginning I was shocked, but I have learned to love and appreciate his work.”)

Through it all, Ramos kept his wits, and his wit. After the plainly titled Superman and Batman and Captain Midnight came titles in which Ramos’ humor was part of the package, such as the series of reclining nudes he captioned You Get More Salami with Modigliani. Decades after forcefully leaving behind Willem de Kooning, Ramos revisited the abstract expressionist but with his own trademark wordplay. That series he titled I Still Get a Thrill When I See Bill. Ultimately, he leans on art history—rich with painters who portrayed nudes, from Picasso to Goya—for validation. Ramos tells a story about a visit to the Louvre in 2009. “Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese,” he says, naming three formidable painters of the last millennium. “[There were 15] paintings of nudes by these guys. I got blown away. The sky parted and God came down and spoke to me and said, ‘You’re doing a good thing.’ I got vindicated.”