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Remembering Dick Bellamy

We met in Venice in 1966 on a boat going to the Biennale. I was a student at the time living in Florence on a Fulbright, and had just exhibited 22 live animals and an assortment of zoological habitats in Rome. Dick had heard of the show. We talked. He wrote his number on a brown paper bag and said, “Look me up when you get to New York.” He had these great dark eyes, and when he talked they widened. These eyes were to become the first I trusted completely, unequivocally.

Richard Bellamy during the installation of a group show Contemporary Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings (IV): 1956–1983 at Oil and Steel Gallery. Photographed by Diane Blell, 1983.
Richard Bellamy during the installation of a group show Contemporary Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings (IV): 1956–1983 at Oil and Steel Gallery. Photographed by Diane Blell, 1983.

After I arrived in New York, Dick would phone me every morning. He would always ask the same question: “Richard, how is the weather downtown?” I would put the phone down, walk the length of the loft to the window, look out, go back and report: gray, sunny, fog, rain, snow, whatever. It took me a while to realize that the weather was the same uptown, and this was Dick’s way of keeping in touch. The fact that he phoned every day without fail gave me a sense of security that I needed. I knew that art was being made around the corner and I was nowhere, driving a truck for a living and trying to sort it all out. When I got some work together, Dick came by to check me out. His seriousness, his humour, his cynicism, and his sensibility were all shaped by his aesthetics. His mind and eye operated with unusual sharpness and insight. He wasn’t one for small talk, for chatter. One had to wait him out. His response took strange forms: he would lie flat on his back staring at the ceiling—he did a lot of that—he would crawl around on all fours and run around the room with his hands over his head singing/shouting joyful, incoherent, hysterical, poetic nonsense. His uneasiness was apparent but he made no pretense of keeping up his guard. When he would finally focus, he would become still and fall silent. He seemed rather remote then, detached, sad in a way. I always thought of Dick’s charades as a kind of deferred speech, to allow for a space and a time in our exchange that permitted us to overcome our vulnerability. Dick had the good sense to lay back and let it be. More often than not, the discontinuity of his language ensured a continuity of understanding.

He had an uncanny ability to discover potential where it might have been overlooked or discarded. Once he came by to look at a group of rubber pieces. There happened to be a lead roll lying on the floor in a corner. He asked me, ”Did you intend that?” I said, “Look, Dick, I just bought 35 feet of lead from a plumbing supply house and unrolled it and then very tightly rolled it back up. But I’m not sure.” He said, “Do more.” I did, and we exhibited them.

Dick was my first audience and my first dealer, although it’s strange calling Dick a dealer. Dick the dealer is an oxymoron. He cared more for his artists than for anyone else. He didn’t particularly identify with his collectors. That’s why artists loved him and dealers were suspect. They couldn’t figure him out. He wasn’t attached to possessions, to things. His relation to art wasn’t mercantile. I always thought business embarrassed him. He was able to see implications and to sense possibilities, often before the artist even recognized them. His relationship to artists was a form of dialogue, of collaboration. I am sure this is not only true for me, but for every artist he worked with. He was personally involved in the process of bringing new work into being. His attachment to artists was such that he consistently followed the work of an amazing number of them. Dick came to almost every one of my shows. In 1991, he showed up in a snowstorm in Nebraska in a Hawaiian shirt and tennis shoes for the installation of one of my pieces. He wasn’t possessive of his artists. To discover work, to bring new work into existence, was his passion. More so than anyone, and within a few years, Dick changed the face of art in America. He started as director of the Hansa Gallery in 55. It’s going to be impossible for me to mention every artist he showed, but I do want to read an abbreviated list running from the Hansa to the Green to Noah Goldowsky: (in most instances these were the first or second exhibitions of these artists) Myron Stout, Allan Kaprow, Alfred Leslie, George Segal, Jan Müller, Richard Stankiewicz, Brassaï, Miles Forest, John Chamberlain, Robert Whitman, Lucas Samaras, Lester Johnson, Mary Frank, Dody Muller, Mark di Suvero, Sally Hazelet Drummond, Philip Wofford, Jane Wilson, Claes Oldenburg, Patricia Passlof, Richard Smith, Ronald Bladen, Robert Beauchamp, Milet Andreyevich, Yayoi Kusama, James Rosenquist, Tom Wesselmann, Dan Flavin, Don Judd, Bob Morris, Larry Poons, and later at Goldowsky: Walter De Maria, Neil Jenney, Keith Sonnier, and myself.

Dick had a wide range of what he thought was deserving, wider than anyone since. He intuitively understood that, in a sense, only the original and the contested work deserved recognition. You can’t just pass it off as a good eye, that’s too simple. Dick set the table, and a lot of us are still eating at the trough.

For me to say that Dick was a great and extraordinary person might seem too charged with the sentiment of the day, somewhat of a cliché, but why not state what I know to be true. Dick meant a great deal to me, and to countless others, and to the culture of this country. No matter how you cut it, Dick was great.

—Richard Serra (May 13, 1998)


Richard Serra


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2009

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