On ViewNew York Studio School
Leland Bell: Paint, Precision, and Placement. A Centennial Exhibition
September 9 – October 23, 2022
Any ambitious painter faces a conundrum: what can a painting say today that hasn’t already been said? Some artists, chastened by the historical record, may phrase it a little differently: how to paint something worth hanging on a wall, when the walls of our museums already boast the most extraordinary paintings? Leland Bell (1922-1991), who would have turned one hundred years old this fall, was possessed by the second of these challenges. His centennial show at the New York Studio School, which includes some two dozen paintings and drawings selected by curator Steven Harvey, puts on full, luminous display his passions, insights and struggles.
As a young abstract painter in New York City in the forties, Bell knew Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning before the ascent of Abstract-Expressionism. But he drew deeper inspiration from his friendships with Giacometti and Jean Hélion, and in the late forties began gravitating towards tightly composed paintings based in the observable world. In these he sought to capture the “rhythms of life,” as he put it, in a distinctive style of planar colors and enclosing black outlines. He also gained a reputation as a passionate lecturer, his favorite topics ranging, a little improbably, from Giotto and Matisse to Watteau and Mondrian.
Wandering among Bell’s paintings even fans of his work may be struck anew by the intensity of his faith that sequences of nuanced colors might reveal the essence of his subjects. Some of the earlier paintings show an appealing immediacy of brushwork and impression of natural light. But they say something mysterious too. Viewers may sense that elements are animated in how they occupy their places: by the tightening, relaxing, and dislocating of intervals within an unfolding composition. In Self-portrait I (1976), for instance, the artist’s face becomes a world of subtle but urgent events. Arcing and angling lines pace out its volumes and details; the eyes, staring out with mild bemusement, could be, rhythmically, miles apart. Two Figures with a Cat (1980) is a rough-hewn gem; within its smallish dimensions, torsos, arms, and legs course decisively across the surface, roughly rendered, but radiant in hue.
Bell’s paintings never ingratiate themselves to the viewer, and his later works abstained from the kind of evocative, energized brushwork that, in de Kooning’s hands, celebrated his engagement with the materiality of paint. Those seeking narratives or messages will find only the slimmest of stories beyond the basic disposition of things—the optical revelations of the way a nose, eye and ear fit on a face, or how gestures can be made to cross and intersect in a lively pattern.
But color itself speaks, and in a painting like Morning II (1976–78) it speaks with a remarkably focused power. Here, a central figure—a column of vivacious lights and absorbent half-darks—acquires a momentous presence in its resistance to background horizontals: to the deep, vacant blue of the wall; the warm, medium-density notes of a reclining figure; the elusive buoyancy of blue-gray bedsheets; the adamant depth of a dark green-blue shadow beneath. Many an artist might be satisfied to simply depict height, but this figure, rising before tiers of shifting hues, embodies it.
To be sure, Bell’s compulsion to compose verges on the obsessive in some of later, larger paintings. In a painting like Three Figures with Bird (1985), the swerves and dips mount with such prolixity that one wonders if we’re getting a transposition of a transposition of the observable. But even in this somewhat convoluted work, we may feel a generosity behind the impulse to locate the character of every object in its most elemental, optical self.
Throughout all these paintings, color is crucial to the artist’s process. Without its force, Bell’s inventive search for essences would devolve into a mere stylistic exercise. And, arguably, style has always been the lesser offspring of essential invention. What, if not the urgency of color and rhythm, imparts such gravity to Giotto’s gestures? And less weight to those of his student Taddeo Gaddi? What, if not the energizing of color and form, imparts such astonishing vigor to Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans (1849-50) in the Musée d’Orsay, compared to Thomas Couture’s feather-weight, 25-foot wide The Romans in their Decadence (1847) hanging across the hall?
Rounding out the Studio School installation, paintings by several of Bell’s peers, including Albert Kresch, Robert de Niro, Sr., and Paul Resika, grace the lobby alcove. Also on view are paintings by Bell’s wife Louisa Matthiasdottir and their daughter Temma Bell, both fine colorists who have plied their own paths. Of particular interest are the works by two of Leland Bell’s heroes: a charcoal drawing of Bell by Hélion, and a 1920s portrait of a youth by André Derain, full of subtly rhyming and countering movements. No wonder Bell found nourishment here.