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Mel Ramos


by Donald Kuspit
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The American Dream is that of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, also too many of ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

-- James Truslow Adams

. . . the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success. That -- with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success -- is our national disease.

-- William James

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.   

-- George Carlin

Mel Ramos may be a Pop artist, but more to the point of his art is that it’s an ironic critique of the American Dream, personified in the form of the Dream Girl he repeatedly depicts. Sometimes she’s blonde, sometimes she’s brunette, but she is not exactly the girl next door. She’s much more attractive and seductive, not just because she’s sexier, but because she’s more daring and liberated: she stares shamelessly at us, confronting us with her nakedness, often smiling with a “come hither” look. But there’s a catch to her immodesty: she’s untouchable, peculiarly out of reach, there only to be looked at and arouse our desire, but never to satisfy it, indeed, unable by her very nature to do so: she’s all too perfect to be believed.

She’s after all just a dream, and finally not a very convincing one, for she leaves us disappointed. Ramos’ Dream Girl is a Bitch Goddess, a symbol of the wish for Success that is the American Dream, but we worship her at our own peril. She may reward us with Success for doing so, but the Success is not what we expected it to be: we thought it would mean a better and fuller and richer life, to use Adams’s words, but discover that all it means is squalid cash, as James said. We may be able to buy anything we want, but we can’t buy a self with it, suggesting that we have made a pact with the untrustworthy devil when we wished for Success. Just as antiquity’s Great Mother Goddess demanded that her priests castrate themselves to confirm their love for her -- that they were true only to her -- so the modern Bitch Goddess of American Success is a castrator. Americans sacrifice more to her than they care to admit.

Ramos has played a joke on us -- The Joker (1962), which I think is a self-portrait, gives the game away. The joker is a wild card, and Ramos seems wild about naked women, but he turns them into jokes: American Dream Girls that turn out to be bad dreams -- paper dolls, artificial fantasy figures, Big Lies, teasing whores or cock-teasers, to use that vulgar American term. The Joker wears more make-up than they do -- his face is completely painted white, reminding us that the white-faced Al Jolson was black-faced in The Jazz Singer (1927), and that some black performers once painted their faces white to “cross” the barrier between them and their white audiences, acts of self-effacement, not to say self-mockery, that made them look ridiculous, and thus acceptable to white audiences, for it confirmed that they were a joke -- but they’re more make-believe.

The not so hidden secret is that all of Ramos’ females are mass-produced products. They’re grand illusions, and Ramos is secretly disillusioned with them, however brilliantly he creates the illusion that they’re real. His disillusionment shows itself in two ways: ingeniously in the subtle precision with which they are painted, adding to their aura of perfection, and more obviously in the “for sale” sign built into their bodies. They’re sex toys, and what they’re selling is sex (which is not exactly love), and they’re using it to sell the products they’re associated with, suggesting their sexiness, and thus desirability (which is not exactly lovability).

The awkwardly painted whores in Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), are gruesome and grotesque, and however primitivized -- making them all the more perversely sordid and vulgar, not to say unwholesome and ugly -- they belong in the Old World (their primitivization makes them archetypally old, indeed, preternaturally ages them into anonymity). Ramos’ Brave New American Dream World whores are more insidiously grotesque and unconsciously horrifying by reason of their absurdly slick glamour -- as denaturalizing as Picasso’s primitivizing, and more pointed because it suggests their hollowness: there’s nothing behind the façade of their tempting prettiness. They’re more body than mind, however much their sometimes cunning faces suggest they have a mind of their own, but their bodies have a well-crafted robot-like character that suggests they’re glorified machines. They’re probably as perfectly functioning as the female robots one can rent for a weekend getaway in the visionary movie Westworld, to allude to Ramos’ interest in Hollywood types of womanliness. But they seem much more full-bodied, well-preserved, robustly ready-for-action ones: without the ornament of their outsize breasts -- now there’s the American Dream, with its (Capitalist) promise of plenty and superficial wholesomeness -- they would only be the pretty girl next door one ended up marrying, although they’re somewhat more shapely and desirable than her, and even more muscular, as their firm buttocks indicate. Picasso flattens the breasts of many of his whores and cannibalizes their bodies, suggesting the sense of deprivation -- the poverty and hunger that drove many Europeans to move to America -- he still had in 1907. Ramos makes them juicy and prominent, as America would like them to be, for they’re an essential part of the American Dream -- the part object that is more than the sum of all her other parts, that is a whole all by itself. (The Africa that produced the primitive figures that inspired Picasso was not exactly a land of milk and honey at the time, all the more so because its European colonizers were milking it dry and stealing its artistic honey, not to say raping it -- as Picasso, also a colonizer, did.)

Thus, while one might consider Ramos a ladies’ man, considering all the naked ladies he’s painted, none of them are exactly proper ladies, considering their pinup pulchritude and breasty presence. They are the bait in the trap of the product -- everything from ketchup to cars, candy to cheese, hamburgers to cigars, clothing to Coca-Cola. Ramos sets up a comparison between their bodies and the bodies of the products, a marriage made in commercial heaven, in which the traits of one are unconsciously transferred to the other by reason of their association. Their closeness and mutuality suggests their interchangeability, implying that one product is as good as any other, so long as it’s made in America. The naked lady often embraces the naked product, suggesting that they’re peculiarly alike -- at your service, as it were, for they are up to your standards. A car and a sparkplug may be male symbols, but both are as slim and sleek as Ramos’ female models, and thus peculiarly feminine, all the more so because they are their attributes -- model types themselves. They’re all luminous with glamour -- sparkling with ideality -- and brand new, consumer goods not yet consumed. They’re not only eternally feminine, but eternally young, as stage props always are.

When they’re put to the test of use, will they hold up? That’s the question that haunts Ramos’ pictures. There’s no sign of waste, loss, pain, sorrow, disappointment in them. He is an American Pygmalion who has magically produced the ideal female -- the All American Dream Girl prefigured in comic strips and movies and refined into perfection by him. Ramos’ female products will never die, at least not as long as there is popular culture, which in America is likely to be forever. They are immortal, perfect and successful, and lend their aura of immortality, perfection and above all Success to every product they endorse. They are, indeed, American Success Stories -- fables for self-indulgent, self-congratulatory America. They, not the city on the hill the Puritans dreamed of, are the monumental pies in the American sky, even as they seem to be the ring one tries to grab while riding the merry-go-round of American life. One always dreams one does so, even if one never does; one never thinks one is being taken for a ride by the wish for Success; one always believes one will have a lucky break -- an opportunity to be successful, even if it never comes, even if one never is: Americans can dream while asleep.  

But Ramos’ Demoiselles -- trophies of Success (unlike Picasso’s, who are trophies of Failure, signs of impotence, proof that he could not rise to the occasion of their presence; and less mature figures than the Statue of Liberty, but also a symbol, and more oddly grand and convincing) -- seem ready, willing, able and available, yet they’re an opportunity and possibility tantalizingly out of reach, altogether untouchable, completely untouched by human hands as well as time. Ramos renders them with ruthless clarity, exploring and probing every nook and cranny of their bodies with fastidious as well as fascinated attention. He is a powerful painter, confident in his handling; they submit to it whether they want to or not. They seem dominating, but he dominates them, mastering them with his paintbrush and ironically glorifying vision. He is a sultan with a harem of naked women, never tiring of them, for each obeys his every wish -- almost. Ramos is a master of illusionistic clarity, a merciless clarity that creates illusions even as it is paradoxically disillusioning, for it sees through things even as it sees them, shows them up even as it shows them.

He is an idealist and perfectionist, and his bodies -- those of his products as well as females -- are perfect and ideal but they remain conspicuously material, and his females sometimes behave like wild animals, as those -- some clearly dangerous and terrifying -- that sometimes accompany them suggest. The skin of his females is always unblemished, perfectly smooth and hygienically polished, even slick to the point of being slippery, making them even more perfect and harder to grab hold of let alone hold onto. No human skin is in fact unblemished, suggesting that their skin is the telltale sign of their unreality. They are not altogether human, however human they seem. The paradox of Ramos is that he is uncannily realistic -- a realist by innuendo, by insinuation. He creates an illusion and undermines it with the same deft perfectionist touch. His girls are too good to be true, which is why they are dreams -- in the end bad dreams, because they wear their falseness on their skin. They are ingeniously ironic examples of what Baudelaire called “modern beauty” -- more than Picasso’s conspicuously ironic Demoiselles, all the more so because their nakedness, undesirability and monstrousness insults the naked eye rather than pleases it, as the nakedness, desirability and attractiveness of Ramos’ nudes do (however frustrating they ultimately are) -- suggesting that modernity has betrayed us.

And so has modern art, if I read Ramos’ “takes” on it correctly, that is, ironically. He brilliantly uses his Dream Girls to show it up, not to say mock and trivialize it -- certainly to bring it into question -- as he does in his “I Get A Thrill When I See Bill”series from 1977. Ramos replaces the hideous, vicious head of de Kooning’s Woman No. 1 (1950-52), with his own appreciative Pop culture image of woman’s head. Which gives one more of a thrill? Ramos’ female head is far from the ugly Medusa’s head of de Kooning’s woman, with her repulsive, eviscerated body -- altogether irreconcilable with it, making for a more dynamic total picture than either one by itself. The pretty American face doesn’t intend to turn you to stone as the harsh face of de Kooning’s European woman does, but rather to draw you to it and lead you down to the rest of her seductive Dream Body. De Kooning undoes and uglifies the female body, Ramos “does” and celebrates the female face, in effect restoring and re-finishing De Kooning’s “ruined” woman and peculiarly unfinished painting, seemingly rapidly sketched rather than deliberately made, as Ramos’ female face is. De Kooning devalues and destroys woman -- finishes the dirty work begun by Picasso in the Demoiselles -- while Ramos preserves and cherishes and renews her.

Ramos has created a paragone between “classical” avant-garde art and “classical” Pop Art. He invites us to compare de Kooning’s avant-gardizing, negating treatment of woman, confirming Baudelaire’s idea that she is a horror (his word) -- no doubt because when he was young a cross-eyed prostitute gave him the syphilis from which he later died, which is probably why he looked at women with jaundiced eyes, convinced that they were all sickening prostitutes who destroyed men and whom in return he destroyed and dreaded in numerous poems (she’s the evil in The Flowers of Evil) -- with his own life-affirming popular culture female face. De Kooning has his fantasies about women, and so does Ramos, but his are far from hateful. The question is which does her more justice, which shows her as human -- perhaps a frigid femme fatale hiding behind her good looks and, at times, her apparently passionate intensity, but still recognizably and socially human.

For Ramos, woman is a public, social figure, ironically engaged with the male viewer -- a voyeur, no doubt, but not a covert one, for he unashamedly enjoys and openly celebrates the naked female bodies he sees. She may be a stereotype but she’s a convincing one, sweet sometimes despite her tart and taunting character, especially in his ironic Beaver Shot and Red Coat, both 1966, among other “sexually explicit” and provocative works -- reminding us of Freud’s remark that all roads on the female body lead to the vagina, the mothering breast being the major milestone on the way -- rather than some monster, a bitter negative stereotype of her lurking in the artist’s sick unconscious. As though putting the final stamp of ironic disapproval on modern art, and suggesting its datedness and demise, Ramos uses a Mondrian as a decorative backdrop for a naked model in The Drawing Lesson No. 5 (2000), and turns modern art into fashionable design in Polka Dotty (1966). (Suggesting just how dated, tired, tediously and banally modern Damien Hirst’s polka dot paintings are, to give him his decadent due.) I am suggesting that Ramos is an ironical dialectician, and a social moralist and critical realist despite himself. 

“Mel Ramos: Selections from the Retrospective,” Mar. 1-31, 2012, at Bernarducci Meisel Gallery, 37 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.