What are dreams made of? A beautiful woman. Naked. And preferably washed down with a Coca-Cola. Figurative painter, Mel Ramos, makes a living out of painting just that. Having pioneered the pop art movement in the 1960s alongside Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, the 76-year-old Californian artist is renowned for painting naked women straddling life-size cigars or lazing sensuously on cheeseburgers. In an extensive interview, Mel chats to us about his fascination for advertising, his run-in with feminists and what it’s like to paint Pamela Anderson.
How did growing up in post-war America shape your perspective on the world?
Post-war America? Wow. That’s an unusual question, very original. My father was in the navy and was stationed in the Pacific in World War II, he was a machinist mate in charge of the floating dry docks for repairing ships. I was 10-years-old when he came back in 1945… and I remember it being the happiest time of my life.
I grew up in Sacramento, California and when I was in high school, I liked to draw. My art teacher made me do the school posters for the football and basketball games, I didn’t have to do class assignments. I figured if you were gonna be good at what you do, there would be perks involved and that was one of them. They’re still using my logo from 1954 in the high school newspaper.
Did you ever expect to be a successful painter when you were growing up?
I had absolutely no idea. When I finally decided I wanted to be a painter, I knew I was going to have to have a day job to support it, so I went into teaching. I did that for 41 years. I did nine years at high school, then I got a job at a university in the Bay Area where I lived. I was there for 31 years teaching painting and drawing.
Do you miss teaching?
No, not at all! 41 years is enough. My life has completely changed since I left university, just getting more work done and having more exhibitions. I just had an exhibition close last Sunday in Vienna at the Albertina Museum, which had to have been the highlight of my career.
Why is that?
It’s one of the great museums of the world. They have one of the world’s biggest collections of works-on-paper and Vienna is an incredible city. A lot of people turned up – there was something like a 30% higher attendance at my show – so they were very happy. I’m very happy. I’m still very happy about it and floating on Cloud Nine.
Why do you only use iconic brands like Coca-Cola or Mentos in your work?
It’s about parody and satire. Those kinds of objects simply didn’t exist prior to 1960. If you wanted to see Campbell’s soup, you wouldn’t see Campbell’s soup, you’d see some Dutch person cooking soup on a fire, that’s what you saw before Campbell’s soup. The 1960s kinda changed the direction of contemporary art.
Do you think that was due to the emergence of the advertising industry?
I just think it was because several artists – Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol – and so on and so forth, our so-called pop artists, all converged at the same point in their lives at a point where they began using popular imagery in their work, imagery that you see everyday in the press, in the movies or whatever. For whatever reason, they embraced this notion and it went on for a while in the 1960s. Then they all kind of wandered off, continuing in whatever direction they were going. We were all going in different directions… but we all came together from different directions. So we crossed paths, did this thing, then moved on.
Some critics label me as being the last pop artist. None of those other guys would admit they were pop artists, but I have no problem with it. You can call me whatever you want, as long as you spell my name right!
Why did find 1950s and ‘60s advertising so fascinating?
Simple. That’s what I wanted to do when I was younger, I wanted to be an advertising illustrator. I didn’t go to art school, I went to a university with an art department, and all the instructors were teaching abstract expressionism at the time – this was in the late ‘50s. If I wanted to get a passing grade, I had to do abstract expressionism. So that’s what I did for a while and I realised it was a dead end, I was stuck at the bottom of the barrel. Everyone I know who did this already did it a lot better than I could ever do it.
Why do you think you couldn’t be like them?
I decided that it was going nowhere. I thought to myself, “I can’t do this. Seriously, like everybody else is doing it. I’m just going to have some fun and do some things that I like.” And what I liked was comic books (that I was collecting at the time) and thought these things would make great images. So in 1959, I did a painting of Batman, but it was an abstract painting. It looked like a figure with a cape. Then in 1960, I did another painting of Batman – the real Batman, the way he appears in Kane’s drawings – I had so much fun doing that, I did a painting of Superman, then the Green Lantern and so on.
When I ran out of male figures, I started doing female heroines like Wonder Woman. I’m a big fan of advertising. A lot of my ideas stem from advertising and it was at this point that I noticed these figures in the comics were getting kinda sexy, great drawings by great illustrators. When they had the Hays Office (a US government censorship body) they started censoring comic books, they had to be done for children. When that happened, the drawings in those things went downhill.
That led me to sense that there was some kind of cultural condition about eroticism in this country. I realised, in advertising, they were using the notion that sex sells. I like that notion.
Why do you think the notion that ‘sex sells’ has an affect on people?
I have no idea. This is America, not everybody in the world is that way. But here they are. I guess not so much any more, but there was a time when I was involved with setting off some militant feminists who were on my case, young women and feminists picketed me at my lectures. This went on for several years, but I think I just outlasted them. My work was so timid and non-confrontational compared to what followed, people like Robert Mapplethorpe, you know, artists like that…
How did you feel about those protests? Did you feel like you had done something wrong or did you just ignore it?
No, no, not at all. I’ve been accused of exploiting women. How do you even exploit women? I don’t do that. I’ve been married to my wife for 56 years and she doesn’t think I ever exploited her. She was a model of mine when I first started out, but she never thought I was exploiting her.
And there’s my daughter, who is now my studio manager, she’s incredibly brilliant and smart and beautiful, so I’m truly gifted.
You don’t like to use the term ‘pin-up’ when describing your work. What would you call it?
The term pin-up was used during World War 2 where soldiers kept themselves smiling with portraits of Betty Gable, Elizabeth Taylor and all those sorts of women pinned on the wall.
It’s completely different to what you do.
Exactly. I’m a big fan of pin-up artists like Gil Elvgren, I have a Gil Elvgren painting. They were great illustrators, really talented people. But in my mind, there is a bit of a stigma to the word pin-up when it applies to my work. That’s not what I’m about and when people use the term to describe my work, they’ve kinda missed the point.
What would you call your work?
Figurative painting. I’m a figurative painter, like Velázquez was. There was a time when I wanted to be like Velázquez. Picasso was a famous painter of women. He had a sense about women and that was primarily the bulk of his work, Modigliani also. All these people had a passion for painting the figure and I’m one of them.
What attracts you to it?
(Laughs) Well, that’s kind of self-explanatory. I’m a heterosexual man and I find painting beautiful women very satisfying.
What do you think is the most beautiful part of a woman?
The face. Otherwise, there are different types of body types and I don’t go to extremes, I just stay somewhere in the middle. I like normal body types.
Recently, Pamela Anderson modelled for me. She commissioned me to paint her, so she modelled for me. But she has these very artificial breasts. Very enormous and I know they were man-made, not female-made, unless she had a female doctor.
I have to say, she’s a real professional. She ripped off her robe and started going into poses and I just clicked away, I didn’t have to tell her anything.
You’ve worked in other mediums like sculpture, too.
That’s right. I just did a large, life-size piece in stainless steel and polished aluminium of a girl in a martini glass. I did a martini glass sculpture in Paris, but it was only half size because of engineering problems. The stainless steel was my chance to do something for the outdoors. The model for this one was Dita Von Teese.
I make my work based on images I make on the computer. I make collages from various photographs and use Photoshop. I can do a lot of those, churn out five or six images in a day whereas before, I would just hand-draw and it would take me two days to do one drawing. That was some time ago. I really miss drawing, so this last year, I did a lot of drawings, probably around 50 and I had a show in Hamburg and they sold them all.
What do you want the viewer to take away from your work?
If you don’t walk away with a smile on your face, you don’t quite understand the work. What can I say? I have no agenda. My work is an affirmation, it’s not critical of anything, I’m not exploiting women as some people would say. If I was doing that, my wife would’ve left me a long time ago, but she’s still around. I don’t know.
You paint most people’s fantasy – women, eroticism, entertainment. What’s your biggest fantasy?
That’s the title of my latest book, Pop Art Fantasies. I mean, sure, it’s a fantasy, of course.
My life is a fantasy at the moment, I’m living a fantasy. You can quote me on that. I’m living a fantasy at the moment. I’m doing exactly what I want, I get to spend the day with my daughter, so what more could I want? She’s a great cook by the way…
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing any of this?
I’d be sitting around wondering what I’m gonna do. That’s about it. I can’t do anything else. I’d play tennis, but I’m a lousy player. When I was in college, I played baseball, but I was always second string, I was always on the bench. So painting’s the only thing I’ve ever had approval for.
What about retirement?
I’ve already retired from teaching, but from painting, absolutely not. You don’t have to. I mean, your work is probably going to be better if you keep working, if you don’t retire. Practice, practice, practice. There’s no reward at the end, other than the satisfaction that you can see your work improving. That’s the biggest satisfaction for me, when I can see my work is getting better.