The Gagosian Gallery recently hosted a show in New York of works from the John and Kimiko Powers collection. The show featured prime examples of Pop art by Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein and other luminaries of the 1960s. While the quality of works by these artists surprised no one, the quality of the show's two Mel Ramos paintings was startling. Looking at these two works was a quick reminder that for a brief moment, Ramos was considered every bit the equal of his Pop colleagues.
Between the years 1962 and 1965, Ramos produced what is generally considered to be his finest work. His earliest mature works were paintings of comic book superheroes -- the usual suspects, such as Superman, Batman and the Flash. It was the next body of work that etched his name in the art history books -- lushly painted nudes that cohabited the canvas with common products such as Velveeta cheese and Baby Ruth candy bars.
As the 1960s progressed, Ramos turned his attention to the animal kingdom. He began combining his Playboy Bunny-like nudes with ocelots and orangutans. The effect was still strong, but some of the juice had seeped out of the paintings. During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Ramos remained faithful to the nude. As for his market, by the end of the 1990s, Ramos continued to be a revered presence in Europe. However, in America, he was seen as an artist whose best days were behind him.
Lately, though, there's been something in the air that seems to indicate that Mel Ramos's market is due for an upward re-evaluation. While there has been no concrete evidence that Ramos's prices have been on the rise at auction, there's been talk among dealers that they've noticed increased demand.
For years, dealers have known that Mel Ramos was grossly underpriced compared to other famous artists of his generation. Part of the reason was the difficulty finding material. After all, despite producing numerous works on paper, Ramos has only created approximately 300 canvases over the last 40 years. Yet, you can still currently buy a major 1960s canvas at auction for under $100,000.
During the booming 1980s, Ramos' prices began to go up dramatically at auction. Paintings that had been selling for $25,000 got as high as $150,000. Part of this price surge was due to the heavy support of his longtime dealer, Louis Meisel. Whenever a significant Ramos came on the block, Meisel either bought it or bid it up to a respectable level. His strategy worked; because there were so few paintings in existence, he could afford to be supportive. Besides, Meisel obviously loved what he was buying and was perfectly content to hang onto the work until its true value was realized.
That day may have finally arrived. There have been credible reports that certain big collector/speculator types have been nosing around Meisel to see if he was selling. Along with Ramos's strong showing at the Gagosian Gallery, one senses the start of something big. The real key, in many ways, is the demand for the new work. While his recent paintings continue to sell, especially overseas, they haven't really tested the auction waters. Eventually, a late painting will come up for sale and assuming it does well, it will pull up the value of the early pictures, as well.
Another factor in the Ramos market is his connection to Wayne Thiebaud. Ramos studied with Thiebaud and his influence is evidenced by the creamy, thick brushstrokes that both outline his figures and define their mass. A Wayne Thiebaud retrospective opened at the Whitney in late June and the show is all but certain to be a hit. It requires no great leap of the imagination to believe that certain savvy collectors and dealers will examine those artists who are part of Thiebaud's legacy. They have no further to look than Mel Ramos.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at at 415-885-1809 or Polskyart@aol.com.