Mel Ramos (American, born 1935)
The Atom, 1962
Oil on canvas 50 in. x 44 in. (127 cm x 111.76 cm)
Crocker Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Thiebaud1986.6
In 1962, when Mel Ramos portrayed The Atom, also known as The Mighty Mite, in the grand tradition of oil painting, such superheroes were still considered subversive, corrupting agents on America’s youth. Only eight years earlier the comic industry, bowing to Congressional pressure, had agreed to police itself. Society called upon DC Comics and other publishers to assure that in their stories, crime and criminals would be punished and good triumph over evil. It is not without some irony that Mel Ramos describes his choice of superhero subjects in the early 1960s as merely painting the people he respected and admired. Ramos came to his Pop Art subjects not only because to do so was contemporary, but because after a half-century of pictorial achievement by Picasso, Matisse, and even Willem de Kooning, he felt the pursuit of traditional portrait and still-life painting lacked authenticity. Currency could be found instead in the saturation of American life with television and pulp media, which drew many artists, including Warhol, to depict its characters. Ramos’s new subject matter and Pop Art broadly projected the interests and experience of an emerging generation. Evident here is Ramos’s adoption of the flat colors associated with comics although, in actuality, his paint handling is precise and illusionism convincing. The Atom was one among many superheroes he depicted, including the iconic Green Lantern and Superman. In this large canvas, the Atom, whose power lay in his ability to diminish in size, even to the atomic level, struggles against a carnivorous Venus Fly Trap. Playing off this concept of scale, Ramos gives his tiny specimen a monumental portrayal with billboard-like appeal.