Given Pop Artist Mel Ramos turns 80 in July, it might be too late for him to ever contemplate a second career as an agony uncle on a men’s magazine. But he would surely be well suited to such a role since Ramos has painted naked women on canvas for six decades, yet in August celebrates his 60th wedding anniversary.
Ramos’s devotion to the nude figure is unparalleled among America’s living artists. He’s painted women coming out of bananas, sitting on top of hamburgers, cigars and Toblerone bars, inside martini glasses and through keyholes. One of his wilder works pictured a girl with a raccoon between her legs.
You will not be surprised to hear feminists do not hold the work of Mel Ramos in awe. But ever since Ramos abandoned Abstract Expressionism as an art student in 1960 in an effort to get visually closer to the cultural world around him, he has specialized in portraying nudes and superhero paintings of Batman and Superman.
Ramos was feted recently at Art Wynwood, an international contemporary art fair in Miami held over President’s Day Weekend.
Art Wynwood is less splashier and glamorous than its Miami counterpart Art Basel that storms the cultural landscape each December, but that’s precisely the point. Wynwood is the younger sister who just likes having a few friends round for tea compared with Basel’s socialite princess’s grand party. “Art Wynwood is rather incredible in that it’s an art fair where people talk about art,” says Gala Kavachnina, who runs a contemporary art gallery in Miami.
It’s fitting that Ramos should have been honored with a Lifetime Achievement Artistic Award by Art Wynwood, for though his art often strikes a loud and garish note, the man himself is unassuming, quietly dedicated to his craft.
He radiates the security of an artist whose creative tastes have been constant for over half a century, foremost among them painting naked beautiful women. “It’s my great joy,” he tells me just before the dinner in his honor at Daniel Boulud’s Bistro Moderne in Miami. “I get these beautiful women who come over and take their clothes off for me.”
Ramos, the son of a Portuguese racing car driver, grew up in Sacramento and now works out of a studio in the Oakland Hills, San Francisco. He is hardly unloved as an artist; his figurative painting has been lauded for its classical technique, vibrant energy and modern consumerist sensibilities that offer an inventive spin on the classic calendar pin-up.
His pictures hang in the Guggenheim, MOMA and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and his work receives frequent retrospectives in Western Europe. His patrons included the late German playboy art collector and photographer Gunter Sachs. British indie pop group Blur used his painting “Hippopotamus” for the cover of their 1990 single She’s So High.
Yet Ramos remains underappreciated in U.S. art circles and you wonder how much this is due to his work being at variance with societal shifts and the rise of political correctness.
Some will always find his pictures misogynistic. “We were the target for feminist groups around the world for a long time who said I’d been exploiting women,” he says. “It’s not true—I love women. Then Robert Mapplethorpe and Helmut Newton came along with these very aggressive sexual pictures and photographs that made me look like I was painting Disneyland!”
Is it easier being a dead artist of nudes than a living one? “I think it is. I was in Paris a few years ago at the Louvre for a show I wanted to see and I walked into this big giant room and there were 30 or 40 paintings in one room and all of them were nudes by Botticelli and others. When I saw that, I felt invigorated and that I was hanging around in good company. They can’t be against me and people who making paintings like that.”
If Ramos’ devotion to the nude has not changed, the same cannot be said for his method. He used to make preliminary drawings before starting a painting but since the beginning of the century he uses Photoshop.
Ramos has also raised eyebrows for his technique of copying the faces in his nude pictures from female celebrities. In the sixties his models resembled Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell; more recently he has pictured Cindy Crawford sitting nude on a doughnut and drawn models who happen to be dead ringers for Megan Fox, Uma Thurman, and Charlize Theron.
This celebrity appropriation got Ramos into hot water with Gudrun Schiffer, the mother of erstwhile supermodel Claudia Schiffer. Frau Schiffer happened to see Ramos’s painting of her daughter in a hamburger bun—entitled “Doggie Dinah” in homage to a restaurant chain in California—in the Hamburger Morgenpost newspaper where it was reproduced to accompany one of his shows in the German city where she lived.
“The next thing I knew we had a problem with the lawyer,” he reveals. “We talked about my options and I said, ‘I’ll deny it—it was somebody else that looked like her!’ The lawyer reminded me that wouldn’t work because ‘You gave an interview and said it was her.’ I’ve stopped doing that. If anybody asks me now if that is so-and-so I say, ‘It looks like her but I don’t think it is!’” The Schiffer case was settled when Ramos paid a fee to get the painting out of his German exhibition.
Although they both possess a penchant for drawing Campbell’s Soup cans, Ramos’s modest manner is the antithesis of Warhol’s dictum that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. Yet Warhol was rather taken with Ramos when they met.
“We hung around in different crowds. I hung around with [Pop artists] Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselmann, but one night Warhol and I were at a party in New York at the Dakota Building,” he says. “Andy was talking about wanting to have the world’s biggest rock concert at the Taj Mahal. I said to myself, ‘That’s never going to happen.’”
Warhol’s former acolyte Bob Colacello has said Warhol was not a sexual person (“Andy didn’t even like to be touched by people”) and yet according to Ramos, “He was hitting on me. He kept grabbing my leg. I liked Andy though. He was a lot of fun.”
The superheroes have been less controversial than the nudes. Ramos started painting Batman, Green Lantern and Superman in the 1960s and recently returned to capturing his comic book heroes on canvas.
“Because of the big interest now in superhero movies I decided I’m going to do a retro series of them,” he says. “I spent the beginning of this week going through my collection of comics from the 1940s or 1950s and it’s a lot of fun revisiting them.” That world hasn’t changed, he maintains: “It’s still guys that get dressed up in costumes who go fight for law and order and get rid of the bad guys. It’s the American ideal. It will never go away.”
Ramos is not wild about the spate of superhero blockbusters. “I liked the first Batman film with Michael Keaton but wasn’t crazy about the ones that followed,” he says. As well as painting Captain America and Captain Marvel, Ramos says he intends to paint more female superheroes such as Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and Hawkgirl. Will this endear him more to feminists? “I hope so.”
Back in the 1960s Ramos’s wife, Leta, modeled for him on “30 or 40” occasions. She no longer sits for him. “She was another model but age caught up with her and she produced two wonderful children,” he says (one of whom, Rochelle, is his studio manager).
What is the secret to an enduring marriage for an artist? “Somebody once asked my wife the question of the secret to success in staying married. She thought about it for a minute and said, ‘Lack of imagination!’”
Ramos is busy with commissions from people and corporations (Pamela Anderson is among those to have commissioned a nude portrait from him). He recently re-imagined his 1972 painting “Lola Cola,” to depict Kate Hudson for UK Vogue and he tells me he’s designing a line of purses for a “very famous fashion house in London,” the name of which escapes him.
The dinner concludes with a tribute to Ramos delivered by Nick Korniloff, director of Art Wynwood. “You’re as hot as the day you started,” he tells him, adding he’s a pillar of the Pop Art establishment. Ramos smiles at the analogy. You expect he’d be even happier if there was a nude woman and stray superhero in close proximity.