Mel is best known for his pin-up girl posters back in the 60s. In this meeting he talked of where art is today, how digital art fits into it all, and how he feels about criticism.
A few months ago some friends and I were having lunch with Pop artist, Mel Ramos. After chatting awhile about his home in Spain and mutual acquaintances, the topic got around to his current art, and the value of criticism.
Mel is best known for his pin-up girl posters back in the 60s. While Roy Lichenstein , Andy Warhol and others were making Pop Art on the East Coast, Mel was here in California just as deeply engrossed in the current trend of the time: away from abstraction and into figurative and objects.
He used bottles of Coke and Baby Ruth candy bars. He painted nudes straddling cigarette packs, nudes ascending from ears of corn, nudes reclining on most any commercial product. This humorous commentary on American advertising and the use of sex to sell stuff was one take on his art, while the content actually goes deeper into the history of art itself. In many of his paintings the model was posed in the same fashion as a nude in an historical painting. Art about Art was Mel’s niche in the parodies he painted of famous art. It was the age of Abstract Expressionism. Although it actually ended in the late 1950s, it was the art that was taught in the schools at the time. But Mel went into figurative painting.
He went to New York with his former teacher Wayne Thiebaud in the 60s. “I’m from California and want to show my work,” he said. And he did.
On His Work
Figurative is the oldest art venue of all. Mel mentioned that the oldest carving known is “Venus of Willendorf” – a tiny nude only three inches high from the Paleolithic Age. He went on that the success of figurative painting is the size and scale of the human form relative to the surrounding objects. If the human is projected from an ear of corn or straddling a Coke bottle, then the human is perceived to be normal size and the other object exceedingly large. Never do we assume for a moment the human is tiny. He realized he had to make adjustments in foreshortening to make it work, to make it look “real” in the surreal settings. It is the incongruous relationships between figure and object that make them work.
Mel typically works in series, beginning when he saw 27 of Monet’s Haystacks in one room. The experience convinced him that one painting is not as great as many variations and derivations. He knows influences happen, but feels too much influence can hinder an artist. “One often can’t rise to the level of one’s antecedents.” In other words, if a contemporary artist dreams of painting like – say, Renoir – and just doesn’t have the training, or the flair, or the style of Renoir, then the artist can feel defeated before really beginning. Because every artist has their own brush strokes, their own palette, their own techniques. Influence, then is not about the form of art, but the content.
Mel works on the computer these days. The key to success has leaned a bit in his favor for the move to digital. It used to be one in ten paintings was successful. Today it is about three in ten.
His paintings were all influenced by what he was thinking at the time – on the day they were painted. Even though each painting has a great story behind it, he never explains them, but feels it is okay if others interpret. He draws on Arches watercolor paper with “H” pencils, no “B”. He feels the B pencils are all too dark for figurative. “In the end it all comes down to drawing. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of drawing.” As with any art, Mel says, one must keep doing it until you get it right. All art takes practice and rote.
Asked if he minded being criticized by some people because his nudes resemble suggestive poses from girlie magazines, he answered “What’s life without a few risks?” He often gets comments about his women in the paintings and pressure from women’s lib followers. “It wasn’t a problem when I started out. It only became a problem when they started into activity.”