INTERVIEW WITH MEL RAMOS
»That's the way the world is; it's the way I wee it as a painter.«
Hans-Joachim Müller, a well-known German art journalist, spoke to Mel Ramos, American Pop Art painter.
Your work seems to be inextricably bound to the term Pop Art. Do you feel that Pop Art is a closed epoch in art and cultural history, or is it still alive, is Pop Art still current?
Pop Art existed for maybe six weeks, no longer. Pop Art happened in the year 1960, when artists like Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, and some of the English artists, such as Peter Blake or Richard Hamilton, got together, and everyone forgot about his own background, and made something new that had never been before. This short period, strictly speaking, was Pop Art. And then everyone went his own way again. But the shock wave that they triggered as a whole, it’s still reverberating. To this day, young artists are still discovering their own kind of Pop Art. The roots go deep; it was really a long time ago. I had also been in the grip of this shock wave. It’s okay that people still call me a Pop artist. Maybe, if you look carefully, that’s not really what I am, but I no longer resist the categorization. Like James Rosenquist, for example, who, I know, doesn’t want to be called a Pop artist any more. That’s his problem. The term still definitely has meaning for me. Pop Art is not finished.
The mass-media visuals, however, to which your painting refers, have changed. What still fascinates you about comics, cartoons, and advertising?
When I was studying art, Abstract Expressionism was everywhere. Naturally, as a student, I tried my hand at it, too. But I soon realized that I didn’t want to keep doing it. Painters like de Kooning, Motherwell, and Franz Kline were great role models, and I couldn’t improve upon their works. It was clear to me that if I had tried, I’d simply have been wasting my time. And I didn’t want to be just a Sunday painter, merely indulging in his hobby. I really wanted to be a serious painter. And I could only become a serious painter by painting pictures that I liked. That’s how I ran across these masterful drawings in the comics, which were, after all, by absolutely serious artists. More and more, I incorporated the super-hero world, especially the female characters, into my pictures, and I turned them into art objects. The next step was to fuse them with advertising. The compositions were supposed to look as sexy as possible. Because I was most interested in the plain fact that “sex sells” always works.
So are your paintings supposed to be critical?
No, not at all. I’m not a critic; I’m an observer. I look at things the way that you would look at a landscape. That’s the way it is, that’s the way of the world, that’s the way I see, as a painter. I’m not trying to start any gender debates. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t have my own private opinion about everything under the sun—for example, I think about climate change. But I don’t express that in my paintings. I don’t think that paintings are suited to carrying messages.
And what would you say if someone described your paintings as symbols of modern capitalism?
I haven’t thought about that at all. If I really think about it, then I’m actually grateful for modern capitalism, because it’s made it possible for people to buy my pictures, which are, after all, pretty expensive.
There are only female figures in your paintings. There aren’t any male pinups ...
Yes, I’ve painted male portraits, but the main point is true, I’m interested in the female figure. Why is that? What can I say to that? I love women; I’m a healthy, male American. And women are objects of desire for me. That’s the truth.
The truth is, though, that this sounds rather politically incorrect—at least, in Europe. Maybe it has something to do with a specific view of the American way of life, when you so easily merge pinups and consumer goods?
It can’t be denied that my work betrays the American painter. On the other hand, I also have one leg in Europe. I spend many months every year in my house in Spain, and the pictures that I make there are not very different from the ones I paint in America. Maybe what we call the modern lifestyle has really become a global phenomenon.
Your work contains many allusions to classic nudes.
Yes, my absolute favorite is Diego Velasquez. I saw an exhibition last summer at the Louvre in Paris—Tintoretto, Titian, and Veronese, and I remember a room that was full of nude paintings. They all had such a sheen of understanding, which impressed me enormously. It was an affirmation of my own work. It finally became clear to me that I was on the right track, and doing a good job. I know that some feminists criticize my work for being sexist. But I think that my real roots lie in the wonderful history of nude painting.
Nude painting is, as a rule, staged.
It has something to do with staging, what I do in the studio. It’s like a photo shoot; first I take a whole series of photos of my models and then I start drawing. In this medium, I try out all kinds of details and poses. And when I’ve decided upon a certain setting, then I start to paint. However, the intermediate steps on the computer are also very important. These days, I use the computer like a painting tool. It is really fantastic. I can scan all of my photos and then work on them as I please, make collages, set the background color. And I can always see exactly what the painting will be like.
The seventies and even some of the eighties were determined by mainstream Minimalism.
I wasn’t interested in any of that. After all, I belong to a different generation. All of these different styles that came and went after Pop Art, they came and went past me. I remember a show in a gallery in New York, by one of these Minimalist artists. I think it was Arakawa. He very expressly show a “war painting” that was completely blank. A black canvas, nothing else. I thought, oh, God, what is that. The highlight in my experience with Minimalism.
Did you feel isolated?
I was always in contact with others who think the way I do, with Lichtenstein, Wesselmann, or Allan Jones. And my paintings haven’t exactly gone out of style; otherwise, there wouldn’t be this exhibition here in Tübingen.
Are you satisfied with your show?
Yes, very. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen so many of my paintings in one place. There are some early paintings that I’d almost totally forgotten, which I still really like. With others, I’m a little bit disappointed—I remembered them differently. But all in all, they make a very good impression.