Those who long to return to the New York gallery world of times past need only to visit the Museum of Modern Art’s Cullman Research Center to see that that experience could be thin gruel. On the 10th anniversary of maverick dealer Richard Bellamy’s death, MoMA presents a tiny exhibition of Bellamy ephemera, up through February 25. It is a lesson in the perils of nostalgia, mostly focusing on Bellamy’s Green Gallery, a 57th Street space which gave a number of art notables their start from 1961 to 1965.
Although the gallery was backed by star collector Robert Scull, in practical terms this didn’t mean very much. Invoices detail the kind of nickel-and-diming that was the reality of a world which appears so glamorous in the mists of memory. An artist’s contract announces that "75 dollars is reserved for announcement costs, above which that artist is responsible" and that "the gallery will pay for one ad in the New York Times at a cost of 31 dollars." A later contract stipulates that "the cost of announcements shall be split down the middle between gallery and artist."
Bellamy produced rather desultory posters on newsprint for his shows, although one for Mark di Suvero exclaiming "Mark!" in red, white and blue is eye-catching. The poster for a group Christmas show (a staple gambit on the mistaken theory that people will buy art as Yule presents) features John Chamberlain, Lucas Samaras, the protean clown Aristodemus Kaldis "and others too numerous to mention!"
George Segal, now viewed as hopelessly kitschy, was Bellamy’s breakout "star." An inventory of sales showed that numerous Segal pastels sold at a typical price of $135 each, for a total of $10,000. The buyers are a raffish lineup of past players: publisher Harry Abrams, Surrealist dealer Emily Staempfli (I vividly remember the huge sexy Paul Delvaux above her fireplace), Dada dealer Julian Levy, collectors Richard Brown Baker and Leon Mnuchin and dealer Rosa Esman.
The grind of Green Gallery’s daily costs are summarized in an urgent past-due invoice from the Radar Fluorescent Company of Brooklyn for $115.95, owed by Dan Flavin: "Dan can’t get any more lamps from this company until the bill is paid!"
Ultimately, Bellamy had to shut down and set about helping his artists to find other representation. A letter from Dan Flavin to Bellamy summarizes the artist’s sudden desperation to find grant money and other support: "I am going to write to Philip Johnson, Walter Hopps, Robert Rosenblum and Marcel Duchamp for additional references." Those references, in those days, with the addition of a five cent token, could get you a ride on the subway. For the return trip, you walked.
Richard Bellamy went on to found the Oil and Steel Gallery, out on Long Island, with Mark Di Suvero. The deeds are vitrined in this show. His mystical legacy endures in the minds of those old enough to remember and, for a few more days, in a basement gallery space at MoMA.
"Selections from the Richard Bellamy Papers," Jan. 9-Feb. 25, 2008, at the Cullman Education and Research Building, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).