Years back, I bought a small book on pop art to pass the time between baseball innings as I watched a San Francisco Giant’s game at a local bar. It’s something I do. The book is by Simon Wilson and it’s a notable book on pop art because Warhol is not featured on the cover. Nor is Lichtenstein or Wasselman. Instead there’s a piece by Mel Ramos called “Tobacco Rhoda.” The book now sits on my window sill and every day I see the cover and I think of Eve Babitz.
Eve Babitz is a writer and artist. Back in the ‘60s she was also all those things and a bit of a “bad girl,” in that she determined her identity. She had high-profile art and music boyfriends like Jim Morrisson, Ed Ruscha, and Walter Hopps. In 1963, she was photographed by Julian Wasselman playing chess with Marcel Duchamp at the Pasadena Art Museum. She was naked. She did it to piss off Hopps, her married paramour, who shunned her at a party because his wife was in attendance. Hopps walked in on the shoot and, apparently, dropped his gum. I know this because of a book, “The Contact Sheet,” which features 36 exposures of Wasselman’s shoot with Babitz. The photo below is the most commonly reproduced.
Which is all a lot of readily available art history gossip. The point is: Babitz. Tobacco Rhoda. They’re the same woman: The body position, the drape of the breasts, the head position, the hair. It’s no coincidence. Babitz’s face is entirely different; you can see that in the other versions of this photo. Ramos puts a cup in her hands and replaces her table and chair with cigarette cartons. He also trims her stomach and has her facing the viewer. All standard fair for the voyueristic pin-up style that Ramos utilized.
Ramos was a descendant of Duchamp. Duchamp himself referenced the works of artists that came before (Renoir, Michaelangelo) and was a practitioner of appropriation par excellence. Duchamp’s work engaged with sex, voyeurism, and popular culture. He muddled them. Coffee grinders and sex (The Large Glass lurks in the background) vs cigarettes and sex. So it’s not at all strange that Ramos would reference Duchamp here.
The quirk is that, in Ramos’s “Tobacco Rhoda,” Duchamp is referenced obliquely but is not actually present. Because “Tobacco Rhoda” is based not on a Duchamp work but on Wasser’s photograph — Wasser’s construct, of which Duchamp is but a part. In effect, Ramos is referencing a reference to the godfather of reference. Or so it seems to me. It’s also possible Ramos just needed a body and he opened a magazine and there she was. But Babitz wasn’t just any body. She was playing chess, naked, against Duchamp. Looking away. Your move. Ramos took it and she was looking at him — not Duchamp (or Hopps).
Of course we’re all looking at Babitz.
Is this a novel set of scattered observations I’ve made? Probably not. I’m familiar with Ramos, but not as well-versed as I should be. But a reasonably capable Internet search returns nothing of the sort (which is fine for a blog post). The point is, for me, that my curiosity stems from books that are on opposite sides of my studio. And they were calling me, in their magnetic pull, until I sat down in a chair, in between them, and put the images side by side. And there they were. The same woman. One with chess, and the other with cigarettes.
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