Like Mel Ramos, I've been part of the art world since the late 1950s, only he's been a performer and I a spectator who tries to keep registering what's going on around me. For more than thirty years, I have watched his art evolve; and now, looking back, I'm amazed to realize how, decade after decade, my responses to it keep changing.
First, of course, came the sixties. In tandem with the outrageous young rebels who, beginning full blast in 1962, contaminated the high-minded atmosphere of the New York art world with soup cans, comic strips, movie stars, and billboard ads, Ramos slowly came into focus for me as an artist who was also out to shake up established pieties. Attracted to the rebellious spirit of Pop art and an instant fan of Lichtenstein and Warhol, I had eyes at first only for what I could see at home in New York; but I still remember how, having been shocked and rejuvenated by years of non-stop events that aroused love and hate at the local New York galleries, I stumbled into the Bianchini Gallery one day in 1964 and saw for the first time a bunch of paintings by an artist whose name was then unknown to me, Mel Ramos. I was instantly delighted by this surge of what looked like yet another new kind of insolent vulgarity that might thoroughly dispose of the lofty moral pretensions and ivorytower elitism of so much New York painting of the fifties. Here, it seemed, Ramos was proposing something even more offensive, if possible, than Popeye and Coca-Cola. As I recall, what I saw was a new race of sun-kissed pin-up girls, their breasts afloat in seas of grapefruit (fig. 142), their torsos welded to an erect banana, their windswept hair streaming against the mate wolf-call of the decade, "hubba hubba."
To be sure, the message of the paintings was familiar enough to New York eyes, namely that instead of wearing blinders to the crass realities of the world outside the museum door, we might be better off trying to adapt to these stubborn facts and turn the visual trash into a new kind of beauty. But there was also the unsettling truth that having got accustomed to the new visual language of New York Pop, with its translation of the most tawdry commercial styles into something that began to look astonishingly like real art, I couldn't help feeling that Ramos's paintings were from another planet, one so different that it didn't quite compute in New York.
That planet, of course, was California, which for most New Yorkers is far more extraterrestrial than Europe; and this strange place of origin, in the context of New York Pop, lent Ramos's paintings a remote, sensual flavor, like Paul Gauguin's Tahiti. With their bounties