“A Sense of Something Beyond Ourselves: Re-introducing Trevor Bell,”
Modern Painters (Winter 2000): 46-47
For many years, success in the United States has served as a barometer of a British artist's status. In the 1960s and ‘70s a number of artists crossed the Atlantic to reap material benefits from the reputation that British painting enjoyed at American art schools: not simply the financial rewards of a larger, richer market, but also more relaxed teaching regimes and superior studio accommodation. Ironically, however, return has not proven easy. While such painters as John Hoyland enjoy a revival, those who have not maintained a constant presence in London galleries struggle to be remembered. As a recent newspaper profile made clear, Richard Smith is one such artist; Trevor Bell is another.
This summer Trevor Bell's arrival back in Britain was announced by an exhibition of extraordinary ambition and beauty. In 1996, having retired as professor of post-graduate painting at Florida State University, Tallahassee, Bell moved back to Cornwall, where he had first secured a reputation in the 1950s. Apart from a few works at Tate St Ives and small shows in Cornwall and London, this was his first substantial public appearance in Britain since his return. Around 50 recent paintings articulated the expansive, top-lit spaces of the new North Light Gallery in Huddersfield. As the dramatic shapes of the canvases reached out across the white walls, so their vibrant colours resonated around the room, energizing the northern light that filled it. Bell's paintings are sometimes baroque in the complexity of their shapes, their paint quality, or both; at other times they are almost square and reduced to a few thin films of flat colour. The group of works, drawn from the last ten years, revealed an artist who maintains a mastery of his medium, who continues to paint with a consummate control of colour and scale, and without compromise. Moreover, the development over the decade shows how Bell is still extending his exploration of the practice of painting.
Bell's work of the 1990s is derived from different landscape experiences: the tropical heat and storms of Florida, the wild sea and cliffs of Cornwall, or the soaring heights and tiny shrines encountered while hiking in the Himalayas. Through his art, he seeks to recreate the subjective reaction to, or memory of, an event, his physiological and cerebral experience of a place. In Zanskar River (1992), an undulating wooden strip divides two canvases in a fairly literal evocation of the deep valley in Kashmir. More recent works are, generally, more simple. Blue Zawn and Force Eight (both 1997) use the same tapering form and illusory pictorial space to create a sense of airy ascendancy: zawn is the Cornish word for the thin inlets in the granite cliffs where the sea has eroded the softer, tin-bearing rock. In others, the relationship to an original source is less clear, most notably in recent works in which broad, calligraphic bands disturb and define the space of the painting.
To achieve these forms, the artist ‘draws' on the wall with strips of plywood, bending the timber and holding it in place with nails to define the edges of the canvas. The shapes have often been anticipated in drawings, which may also give a clue to the original source of inspiration. Once the form of the support has been achieved, the strips are strengthened to hold the shape, and canvas is stretched across the framework. Often the edges will be beveled inwards, or rounded, so that the shadow cast onto the wall (an intrinsic part of the work) reflects the colour of the sides of the support; in one group of paintings, a coloured strip curves out from the canvas and back again, enclosing a section of the wall within the composition. Paint is then applied and controlled with a range of brushes, brooms, sponges and knives, its differing qualities deriving from a variety of techniques, including mixing the acrylic with filler to achieve a thicker, matter appearance. While the shaped canvas asserts the work's status as an independent object, the paint creates a sense of depth that is at once enveloping and closed off. In some works, the paint layer is aestheticised, and emphasized, by a glistering quality that appears to result from the inclusion of glass dust in the medium. The tensions between the painting's objecthood— achieved through a respect for the picture surface and the sculptural quality of the canvas— and the creation of a shallow pictorial space reveals Bell's roots in the art of the late 1950s. So too do the delight in sublime landscape and the belief in the spiritual value of nature that underpin these works.
Bell was, perhaps, the most talented of the younger generation of painters who were drawn to St Ives by the presence of such artists as Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron and Terry Frost. Following his arrival in 1955, he developed a style of painting which, in its use of line and a few blocks of painterly colour to evoke a sense of landscape or the sea, showed a debt above all to Roger Hilton. If his practice owed most to Hilton, Heron's formalist aesthetics—focused on a belief in colour, shallow pictorial space and the compositional importance of the painting's edges—provided a crucial theoretical basis. It was with such work that Bell enjoyed prodigious success: he became the first artist to join the Waddington Galleries after their move to London, where his first one-person show, at the age of twenty-eight, sold out before the opening, and was welcomed by Heron as the emergence of ‘the best non-figurative painter under thirty' in Britain; the following year, 1959, saw Bell awarded the International Painting Prize at the Paris Biennale and an Italian government scholarship. The quality that Norbert Lynton writing in Art News and Review, identified in those Cornish works might be found revived in the most recent canvases: “the creative interaction of spontaneous expressive gestures and that distillation or ‘condensation of sensations’ (Matisse) which is probably the prerequisite for permanent significance in art.”
While a Gregory Fellow at the University of Leeds, between 1960 and 1963, Bell produced paintings from a reduced palette, in which dark forms reached out to the edges of the canvas. From these it was a short step to shaped supports which would, eventually, stretch across the wall, bringing in the architectural space as an active element of the work. Though Heron would later favorably compare Bell's work with that of Frank Stella, the most obvious parallel was with Ellsworth Kelly's work, which also created a tension between canvas and floor. Bell resisted the purity of Kelly, however, modulating the surfaces and, sometimes, painting the sides of the support so that the narrow strip of wall between two shapes would glow with colour. If, at first, his shaped paintings extended the formal tensions within the preceding, landscape-derived work, they soon took on a wittier, more reflexive tone. Multiple odd-shaped canvases, for example might be arrayed in a long horizontal row, as if a single, huge triangular painting had been sliced into pieces. With Split Jet (1968-70) the two sections of a divided triangle were stacked one above the other in a destabilization of received ideas of pictorial composition that is as complex as it is humorous. Another work, consisting of a long lozenge shape with a triangle placed above either end, tips pointing inwards, derived from the folding-winged planes used on American aircraft carriers. These works were presented in Bell's retrospective exhibition that toured Edinburgh, Belfast, and Sheffield in 1970. His next major showing, at the Whitechapel in 1973, followed a year's teaching in Florida and, in its heated palette, already revealed the inspiration of the tropical climate. Shortly afterwards Bell moved permanently to Tallahassee.
In America, Bell persisted with the shaped canvas. Though he simplified the forms, the works grew in scale, often consisting of several supports. The size and intense, shimmering colours reflected his concern with what he termed “the heatscape” of Florida and, also, a particular interest in the sight of the moon shots at nearby Cape Canaveral. During the 1980s, he returned to dynamically shaped canvases, exploring in particular the “movement” created by the curved forms of the Rocker paintings. In these, a semi-circle might be broken into three, and the middle section placed slightly out from the other two, as if tapped lightly at its apex with a hammer. Now, one can see a sort of cyclical progression from a concern, primarily, with chromatic intensity in the 1970s, through this return to formal dynamism, to the varied forms exhibited this year. Though the profiles of his canvases are more curvilinear, more organic, the formal relationships within the paintings and between the painting and the space indicate a return to some of the formal issues at play in the work of the 1960s. The conscious concerns and intentions that determine these works can, in fact, be traced back to his earliest abstract paintings made in Cornwall at the end of the 1950s.
In the past, the favourable critiques of Bell's work by such writers as Heron, Lynton and John Elderfield concentrated on the artist's engagement with the linguistic conventions of painting. He was, after all, participating in the modernist melee that followed Clement Greenberg's prescriptive account of modern painting: edges and centres, symmetry and asymmetry, shallow space and flatness, objecthood and theatricality were all. But there is a deeper purpose behind Bell's work which has emerged more clearly in the last ten years. Bell's art is, in the loosest sense, spiritual. It evokes, or reflects, an idea of some abstract force that exceeds material reality. It is noteworthy that he recalls how a Japanese Zen priest, visiting Bernard Leach in St Ives in the 1950s put “words around the feelings I had as a painter.”1 Such feelings might most clearly be seen in the quiet, contemplative works which relate to the small, simple, isolated shrines he saw high in the Himalaya mountains.
In this sense, we can see his art as solidly rooted in the values of 1950s St Ives, where artists sought to salvage the fantasy of utopian modernism for the post-war world through a reengagement with nature. The dangers and losses of the modern world would be compensated through the rediscovery of natural order and process, and a renewed sense of individual identity would be established through the exploration of forces larger than ourselves. Bell's work, one might say, has always derived in one way or another from this new sublime. As he wrote in 1995: “Art does not make social statements, but contributes to society on a deeper, less tangible level. I feel that what we should get from art is a sense of wonder, of something beyond ourselves, that celebrates our ‘being' here. It condenses the experience we all have as human beings, and, by forming it, makes it significant. We all have an in-built need for harmony and the structures that create harmony. Basically, art is an affirmation of life.”
1 Interview with Sarah Fox-Pitt, 10 October 1981, Tate Gallery Archive TAV 311A
Chris Stephens is currently Senior Curator at the Tate Britain in London. His essay originally appeared in Modern Painters following the opening of Trevor Bell: Both Ends of the Stream, paintings 1990-2000, Florida, Himalayas, Cornwall, 10 May - 8 July, North Light Gallery, Huddersfield.