American Pop Artist Mel Ramos is known for his voluptuous female nudes in settings inspired by mass media and commercial art, which he depicted in paintings and prints over his five-decade career and more recently in sculptures. He also has had a long academic career. Ramos was born in Sacramento in 1935, the son of a racecar driver. Inspired works by the Spanish artist Salvador Dali (1904-1989) to become an artist, he designed posters and a logo for his high school. After studying at Sacramento Junior College and San Jose State College (now University), he went to Sacramento State College (now University) where he was taught by the figurative artist Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920). He had married Lolita (“Leta”) Helmers in 1955. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1957 and master’s degree from Sacramento State the next year, he began teaching art in Sacramento high schools, first Elk Grove H.S. and then Mira Loma H.S. His paintings were similar to the abstracted figures of Nathan Oliveira (1928-2010) and Willem De Kooning (1904-1997). He exhibited a painting in each of the first three “Winter Invitational” exhibitions at the Legion of Honor in 1960, 1961 and 1961-2. Around 1961 Ramos changed his style and based his work to images found in comic strips. He undertook a series of garishly-colored super-heroes, painted using a thick oleaginous pigment. His reputation as a Pop artist was established when his depictions of cartoon figures were included in the 1963 exhibition, “Pop Goes the Easel” at the Houston Contemporary Art Museum, along with works by Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), James Rosenquist (b. 1933) and Andy Warhol (1928-1987). Also in 1963 Ramos’s works appeared group exhibitions at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Oakland Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. His first solo exhibition was mounted by the Bianchini Gallery in New York City in 1964, the year he contributed two color lithographs depicting pin-up girls to Walasse Ting’s (1929-2010) 1964 book of poetry and prints, 1¢ Life. Ramos painted his first female nude, “Georgia Peach” in 1964 (private collection?). Ramos went on to paint several series of nudes in the 1960s, perhaps inspired by the pin-up girls of the illustrators. By 1965 he developed a specific kind of Pop Art iconography, combining nude pin-up girls from American magazines, perhaps the illustrations of George Petty (1894-1975) and Alberto Vargas (1896-1982), and advertisements with branded products. Ramos also included consumer products in his paintings, such as wine bottles, packages of cigarettes, candy wrappers, Coca-Cola bottles, product boxes and cigars, all enlarged to the scale of his nude. His “day job” evolved as well, as he taught at Sacramento State for the academic year 1965-66, then at Arizona State University in Tempe before moving his family to Oakland and joining California State University, Hayward (now CSU East Bay) later in 1966. Ramos had a one-man exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the Museum of Modern Art) in 1967 and the Mills College Art Gallery in 1968. Germans found his art in a 1967 Cologne gallery show too erotic; a C public prosecutor instructed the police to cover his paintings with opaque paper. But in 1969 a museum in Aachen, Germany, the Gegenverkehr art center, put on a small solo exhibition of Ramos’s nudes. In the late 1960s he began a series of “Animal Paintings,” each depicting a nude with an animal, on the back of a hippopotamus, rhinoceros, walrus or zebra, in a gorilla’s lap, draped over a panda or with a leopard seal’s head on her thigh. In 1969 he was represented in the exhibition “Human Concerns” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. He had a solo show at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City, in 1972, was represented at the “Pop Art” exhibition at the Whitney in 1974 and had a retrospective in 1977 at the Oakland Museum. In his series “Salute to Art History,” Ramos created paintings based on famous female nudes, including “Manet’s Olympia” (1974, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Art), after Édouard Manet, “Plenti-Grand Odalisque” (1973), after Jean-August-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) and “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1987), after Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). During the 1980s he add landscapes and self-portraits to his repertoire. The award of a Visual Artists Fellowship Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a U.S./France Exchange Fellowship allowed him to travel to France, Sicily and the Canary Islands in 1986. In 1992 he established a studio in Spain while also living in Oakland. Ramos retired from Cal State Hayward in 1997 as Professor Emeritus. He exhibited widely over the following years, most recently with retrospective exhibits shown in Europe in 2010 and at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento in 2012.Ramos resided in Oakland and died there on October 18, 2018. (Rev. TNB 4/2014, 10/2018) Selected bibliography: Letze, Otto, ed. Mel Ramos: 50 Years of Pop Art. Exhibition catalog. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2010. Shields, Scott A., Jonathon Keats and Diana L Daniels. Mel Ramos: 50 Years of Superheroes, Nudes and Other Pop Delights. Exhibition catalog. San Francisco: Modernism Inc., 2012.
Art © Mel Ramos/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY