Over the course of five years in business, in a modest showroom on the top floor of a brownstone on West 57th Street in Manhattan, the Green Gallery had one of the most impressive runs in the history of contemporary art dealing. Opening in October of 1960, it gave Mark di Suvero, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Morris, George Segal, James Rosenquist, James Lee Byars, Donald Judd, Lucas Samaras, and Tom Wesselmann either their first or one of their first solo shows, and presented early work by a number of other pioneering figures, including Dan Flavin and Yayoi Kusama (one of the few women to appear). The Green Gallery closed in June of 1965, and every one of its artists went on to find fame. The man who ran the Green did not.
That man was Richard Bellamy, and his unusual story is told in Judith E. Stein’s assiduously researched new biography Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux; $27; 384 pp.), which doubles as a smart primer to the action-packed postwar art world. It tells new stories about stars and highlights the contributions of people who have been long forgotten. It is an essential piece of scholarship.
The poet Robert Creeley says of Bellamy, “I never heard him say anything was better than anything else, which was a wonderful quality.” That sounds intriguingly like Marcel Duchamp’s famous indifference when it came to aesthetic judgments. And like Duchamp (who also worked as a dealer), Bellamy was an exceedingly rare type: someone who shaped the course of 20th-century art, and whose life might be considered a work of art itself. In his early adult years in Provincetown, Bellamy actually had made paintings, including spare, monochrome abstractions. “I could claim that I originated techniques generally credited to such artists as Jackson Pollock and Ad Reinhardt,” told an interviewer years later, before adding, “But I had no talent, and I realized just how very difficult art is to create.”
The dealer whose gallery would become so central to the history of contemporary art almost did not enter the field at all. In 1948, Bellamy, barely 20 years old, was in Baltimore waiting to be inducted into the merchant marines, but decided to pay a visit to the bohemian artists’ enclave of Provincetown, Massachusetts. He had heard about it from Peter Hunt, an antiques dealer he met while visiting Mexico City. He quickly fell in with the scene there, working at Hunt’s store, dropping in on discussions hosted by Hans Hofmann, and becoming close with local artists. He never shipped out to sea.
By that point, Richard Hu Bellamy had already marked himself out as a somewhat peculiar figure. He was born in 1927 in Cincinnati, and grew up in nearby Wyoming, Ohio. Stein tracks down school classmates there who recalled him sneaking out of classroom windows to buy cigarettes, visit a local bar, or attend matinee performances of the Cincinnati Orchestra. He saw himself as an outsider from a young age, a feeling no doubt heightened by the racism he experienced as a half-Chinese boy. (His father was Caucasian, and his mother, who spurred his interest in culture, was Chinese. They had met at a medical school in China.)
Bellamy was not an ambitious career man, and dropped out of the University of Cincinnati after one semester. A CV says that in his early adult years he did construction work and operated as a “salesman for dance bands.” At one point he was a radio announcer in Connecticut and hosted a children’s show. Sadly, Stein disputes the wonderful rumor that he was fired after reading T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland on air one night. Her sources say he quit after being chastised for mysteriously spacing out and not talking for a stretch on live radio. An acquaintance from the 1950s describes him as “a romantic drifter trying to find a profession where you didn’t have to work too hard.”
In 1955, Bellamy’s artist friends hired him to run Hansa, a co-op started a few years earlier on 10th Street in Manhattan by Richard Stankiewicz, Wolf Kahn, Allan Kaprow, and others. He accepted the position after consulting the I Ching. It paid poorly. He was having relationship trouble at the time, and Stein writes, matter of factly, that “Dick was homeless in 1955 when he started at the Hansa.” (Throughout she refers to Bellamy as Dick, the nickname adopted by so many of his friends, a sign of closeness that would grate if her biography were not so unflinching in its treatment of him.) He lived in the gallery and cooked on a hotplate. The critic Barbara Rose says, “He was drunk ninety-nine percent of the time.” (Rose described him recently in the New York Times as an “impossible, improbable, irresponsible, irresistibly innocent sophisticate.”) Pretty soon Ivan Karp, the Village Voice’s first art critic, joined him as co-director.
Karp would go on to be a macher for Leo Castelli in the 1960s, but he and Bellamy sold little art at Hansa. They did, however, organize some wild-sounding shows, with artists like Jans Müller, Segal, Kaprow, and Heidi Fuchs, who Stein writes, “painted eerie faces on boxes fished out of the trash,” added many of her possessions to her show, including “a tree trunk encrusted with a huge leathery fungus,” and then “installed herself, haunting the rooms by day and sleeping there by night.” (All of which sounds pretty wonderful and of-the-present-moment.) But by 1959 the Hansa was done.
By the next year Bellamy was back in business. Bob Scull, who had married into a taxi empire and would become a vociferous collector of contemporary art along with his wife, Ethel, hired him to direct a new gallery that he would quietly fund with the aim of having the first crack at the most vanguard art. He picked the name Green from a list that Bellamy and Karp had dreamed up—the explanations for that ranged widely over the years, but the fact that it was the color of money has been mentioned by more than one person.
It was a distinctly odd pairing—the impecunious director and the social-climbing collector, whose behavior is the stuff of society-column lore. Scull was colorblind, and Stein quotes his son Jonathan recalling how he once attempted to bribe an official at the DMV while taking an eye test by pulling out a $50 bill and asking, “What color do YOU see?” A few years after the Green closed, Scull would sell a chunk of his collection at auction, much to the chagrin of artists and dealers. “I think a lot of people thought Bob was a vulgarian—but who cares?” Arne Glimcher, the founder of Pace Gallery, muses. “The Medicis were vulgarians.”
The gallery opened with Mark di Suvero’s first one-person show, which included a few of the ingeniously balanced sculptures he had been making from hunks of metal and wood. Right before it opened, he almost died after being accidentally crushed by an elevator while moving furniture (his day job was working for a furniture maker). Stein tells the story of di Suvero coming to the opening from the Rusk Institute, on Roosevelt Island, where he had been convalescing, and reveals how the show inspired his contemporaries to up their games. Richard Artschwager declared, “I realized—you can do anything.” Frank Stella brought Carl Andre, who said that “it broke open the scale problem” for him. The critic Sidney Geist wrote, “From now on nothing will be the same.”
Stein takes an astutely investigative eye to how the Green Gallery and its milieu operated. At one point, we see di Suvero visit his neighbor Robert Morris, who was at work on icy geometric sculptures in the early ‘60s, and tells him, “Don’t stop working. I just came to hate a little.” After hours at the gallery during an Oldenburg show, the Oldenburg and his wife, Patty, have sex inside one of his huge hamburger sculptures. “We almost choked from the heat of it,” she says. We learn that the great painter Ed Clark took the addresses of collectors from the dealer Sidney Janis, where he was working, and hooked up Bellamy.
Preternaturally plugged in to artistic advancements, Bellamy pops up in one amazing place after another, like the studio of Lee Bontecou, which he apparently happened upon while visiting a friend in her building. This was before the Green opened, and so he connected her with Karp, who would show her at Castelli. And yes, it’s true that during a very cold winter he used a Carl Andre sculpture as firewood at the apartment he was living in on the Lower East Side, but only after it became infested with cockroaches and after asking the sculptor, repeatedly, to pick it up.
Bellamy had catholic tastes, and he moved quickly—showing Minimalist sculpture and Pop paintings and performances and Lyrical Abstraction—always on the hunt for the next thing. One of the early ads for the Green read, “New art when I can find it.” There were sales—Rosenquist was one commercial success—but not enough. Scull supported the gallery for four years, and Lilly Brody, a wealthy artist, paid its rent for a fifth, and then Bellamy closed up shop, reportedly relieved that the end had come. It had been a remarkable ride, though not at all a comfortable one. Some artists complained about his drinking, and Samaras recalls an episode when Bellamy had to be talked out of jumping out the window of the gallery. Stein records another scene in which he “lurched at his friend Jill Johnston,” the storied critic, “with a carving knife.”
Throughout his life, when his romantic relationships were on the rocks, Bellamy had a disturbing tendency to sleep in the hallways outside the doors of his lovers, pushing self-effacement into a form of abjection—a man definitively apart. Some part of him feels unknowable. Certainly his choices were unusual. After the Green closed, he turned down an offer from Castelli to work out of his gallery and took an office showroom of the decidedly low-key dealer Noah Goldowsky, organizing the odd show here and there, and working with artists on projects and brokering sales. For a period around 1975, Stein thinks, he may have been living in his car.
In 1980 he opened a new gallery with an idiosyncratic schedule and program, Oil & Steel, in TriBeCa. (Rosenquist suggests an idiomatic play at work in the title: “Oil them up and steal their money.”) He maintained his unusual lifestyle. When Sophie Calle first met him in the early 1980s, after he awoke from a slumber amid debris on the floor of the gallery, she assumed she was talking to a homeless man who had wandered in. (He was apparently a charming homeless man, though, and she accepted his offer of a date, learning his identity only when Joseph Kosuth whispered to her she was accompanying “Dick Bellamy. A legend.”) He moved the gallery to Long Island City in 1985, next to the studio of di Suvero, whose career would be one of his life’s projects. He died in 1998, at the age of 70, in his sleep. His son, Miles Bellamy, reported that he had a copy of Proust open next to his bed.