For five decades, pop art pioneer Mel Ramos' 1962 painting The Daredevil has been hidden from the public's view, which is almost unfathomable given the painter's prestige, impact and importance.
In the early 1960s, the Sacramento-born Ramos was as well-known in the pop-art world as contemporaries named Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist. In museums across the country, his works as playful as they were thoughtful, dizzying spins on familiar images were displayed alongside theirs. So profound was his impact that when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art brought west in the summer of 1963 the Guggenheim's revolutionary New York-centric exhibition "Six Painters and the Object," Ramos was among the half-dozen California artists added to the show.
Ramos died two years ago, at the age of 83, and to see his hidden Daredevil 50 years after it was gifted to a friend feels like being reunited with a long-lost acquaintance.
For the first time in its history, Ramos' rendering of the 1940s superhero will be available at auction. Befitting such a moment, the breakthrough piece serves as the catalog cover for Heritage Auctions
' November 19 Modern & Contemporary Art event.
The Daredevil marked Ramos' earliest forays into appropriating and interpreting comic-book heroes, following his tutelage under Wayne Thiebaud at Sacramento Junior College and time spent earning his B.A. and M.A. at Sacramento State College in the late 1950s. For a while he flirted with abstract expressionism. But in time Ramos returned to the world of comic books.
"I had decided that abstract expressionism was not for me," Ramos told The Sacramento Bee in 2012. "In 1959, I painted Batman, really just a guy with a cape, and I had fun doing that. I was a big comic book fan as a kid and I decided to paint my childhood heroes.
"I was enamored of the work of C.C. Beck, who drew Captain Marvel. He was a terrific artist, but rather than going into comic books I decided to do heraldic portraits of superheroes to give them a little more class. The first of these were heavily laden with impasto, reflecting the influence of Wayne [Thiebaud], who was a mentor for me at that time."
Ramos' Batman titled A Sinister Figure Lurks in the Shadows, from 1962 would become one of the artist's most famous and coveted pieces. Five years ago, Dallas-based Heritage Auctions had the privilege of selling it for $173,000. Like The Daredevil, Ramos' Batman had been hidden from public view for several decades.
"Like other pop artists, Mel Ramos was a big fan of comic books," says Holly Sherratt, Heritage Auctions Director of Modern & Contemporary Art. "He would often trade his paintings for comics. As his daughter mentioned to us recently, even later in life when his paintings became quite valuable, he still thought these were fair trades."
The Daredevil shows its title character from the side, poised on one foot, in black and white tights with spiked belt and bracelets an homage to the hero created by artist-writer Jack Binder for Lev Gleason Publications' Silver Streak Comics in 1940. (Daredevil would go to appear in his own eponymous comic the following year, most famously battling Hitler in his very first issue.) The hero appears against a thickly painted mustard-yellow background, his shadow drawn in a single line in vivid green, the underside of his raised foot a shining combination of pink and purple.
"I decided to just go, 'The hell with it. I'm going to be an artist. I'll paint whatever the hell I want,'" Ramos once said Ramos of his shift from abstraction to figuration.
"Though it was sourced from a comic book, whose colors are often flat, this painting shows my father's commitment to visible brushwork and texture," says his daughter, Rochelle Leininger. "The thick application of paint is a classic example of the way he approached painting at this point in his career."
Like the best of the pop artists Ramos saw fine art in what was dismissed as low-brow literature comic books. It was his intention to present the colorful heroes "in a heraldic way, the way Gainsborough would do a portrait," he said, referring to the 18th-century English master Thomas Gainsborough.
Little wonder, then, his works appear in museums worldwide, from the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. His works, too, are collected by the likes of Oscar-winning actress Eva Marie Saint and Sir Paul McCartney.
Over the course of his storied career Ramos would become more famous for his paintings of nudes two of which are also available in the Modern & Contemporary Event, Transfiguration of Galatea from 1999 and, from 1976, Salami/Modigliani. But it's his work remaking comic-book protagonists that make Ramos an art-world hero.