The Atom, 1962.
Mel Ramos (American, born 1935)
Oil on canvas, 50 x 44 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Thiebaud, 1986.6.

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, assuring 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 they were contemporary, but because after a half-century of pictorial innovation by Picasso, Matisse, and Willem de Kooning, he felt the pursuit of traditional portrait and still-life painting lacked authenticity. Instead, Ramos found inspiration 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.

Here, Ramos’ adoption of the flat colors associated with comics is evident although, in actuality, his paint handling is precise . The Atom was 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 flytrap. Playing off this concept of scale, Ramos gives his tiny specimen a monumental portrayal with billboard-like appeal.

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