Trevor Bell was forty-two when he first came to Florida State University to teach for the 1972-73 academic year. He arrived fresh from a major touring museum show (as we would call it in the United States) of his work covering the period 1966 to 1970, organized by the Richard Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh. The catalogue text was by John Elderfield, and the critical response at all the exhibition’s venues, which included Belfast and Sheffield, had been enthusiastic. Patrick Heron, eminent St Ives School painter, ten years Bell’s senior, and a first-rank critic, in a long and combative article in Studio International called Bell “one of the most important painters working anywhere today.”1 This was not the first time Heron had been so complimentary. In a catalogue preface to Bell’s first solo show in 1958, at the Waddington Gallery, London, Heron had called him “the best non-figurative painter under 30 in this country.”2 By the time Bell returned to Florida State University in 1975, now to stay for the next twenty some years, he had also been celebrated with an exhibition of recent work at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, a venue that long had been a significant showcase for contemporary art.
In 1996 Bell moved back to Britain and specifically to West Cornwall where, between 1955 and 1960, in the bosom of the St Ives School, so to speak, he had spent five important formative years, returning as if to renew his connections with his English roots. These roots also included Yorkshire: Bell was born in Leeds and attended Leeds Art College from 1947-1952, and in 1960-1963 was the Gregory Fellow in Painting at Leeds University. His first major exhibition once back in Britain was staged in Yorkshire, in 2000, at the North Light Gallery outside of Huddersfield. In 2004 the Tate Gallery St Ives, which is dedicated to presenting twentieth-cen- tury art in the context of Cornwall, will, in the wake of shows of the work of Patrick Heron, Bryan Winter, Terry Frost and many other members of the so-called St Ives School, stage a solo exhibi- tion of new work by Trevor Bell.
During the two decades spent working in Florida, what sort of artist did Bell become? How did the sojourn in the United States affect his work? Alex Kidson, reviewing the North Light exhibition in Burlington Magazine, struggled with this question of geographical identity, offering the opinion that Bell while he “may well at this point [in 2000] be a Cornish artist; there are signs that the organizers of this exhibition cast him as a Yorkshire artist, and he fits the bill of a global artist well enough. But he bears very little resemblance to a British one.”3 Is he, was he ever, an American artist because of all those years in Florida? Or was he always, in the United States, real- ly an Englishman abroad? Perhaps these are idle, if not silly, questions: akin to speculating about what would have happened to his art had Bell never come to America.
Yet, when we try to define what kind of artist Bell is now, in 2003, would we not speak in much the same terms as did the reviewers of his first youthful gallery exhibitions? Trewin Copplestone in Art News and Reviews (London) discussing Bell’s Waddington Gallery exhibition in 1958, described him as a St Ives landscapist, whose “naturalism,” however, is “not the visual equivalent of naturalist painting but the natural force immanent in things seen.”4 Writing about Bell’s 1964 exhibition at the same gallery, Heron in Art International, in an unusual ingenuous tone, remarked on how “Some of the pictures’ titles refer to landscape but there are no landscape images to be seen.” On the contrary, “One seems to recognize qualities of landscape in terms of weight and light and possibly sweeping movement, but there is nothing that looks even remotely like a particular piece or a generalised notion of landscape.” Argued Heron, “This is very important, because Bell is linked with the St Ives School and because the received image of that school is one of painters adopting the freedom of abstract art in order to flirt, cannily or sentimentally according to the personality, with that time-honoured, tradition-tested national commodity: the British landscape seen through British weather.”5 Heron goes on to conclude that “at the level of sensation” there has always been a close link between the environment in which Bell has worked and his art, whether that be Yorkshire, Cornwall or indeed Italy, where Bell had had an extended stay in 1958 on a traveling scholarship.
Do we detect some defensiveness on Heron’s part requiring him to distance Bell’s work from the “received image” of the St Ives School? It may be that its members, including Terry Frost (who had encouraged Bell to move to St Ives), Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton and Heron himself, did during the 1950s open up new possibilities for abstraction in Britain. But in 1954 Lawrence Alloway, in a book dedicated to contemporary British abstract artists, had already written ever so mockingly about how “In St Ives they combine non-figurative theory with the practice of abstraction because the landscape is so nice, nobody can quite bring themselves to leave it out of their art.”6 While he liked Bell’s 1964 Waddington show, Norbert Lynton, then director of the Hayward Gallery, also felt obliged, presumably to cover himself with his readers, to open his review with the remark that these paintings—abstract, free compositions based on sensations inspired by landscape—“are of a kind not reckoned to be terribly fashionable at the moment.”7
What had become fashionable in London was a new kind of imagery, technological and urban, based in popular culture and fascinated with product packaging, advertising art and the mass media. Whatever the origins of the name Pop Art, its advent had been signaled in 1956, by the celebrated exhibition This Is Tomorrow, held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, that famously included Richard Hamilton’s now iconic collage Just what is it that makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing? In North America a broad spectrum of the flashy new British orientation was presented as London: The New Scene, an exhibition that circulated widely in both Canada and the United States. Many of the artists included – Peter Blake, Bernard Cohen, Robyn Denny, Bridget Riley, Richard Smith, Joe Tilson – were more or less Bell’s generation, but, as the catalogue patronizingly underscored, there was “virtually no connection between them and the pastoralists of St Ives.”8
Where did Bell fit in all of this? Chris Stephens had usefully described Bell as representing “a transitional generation, bridging the gap between St Ives’s dominance and the rise of other places and artistic stars.”9 A decade or so younger than the “middle generation,” as Heron and his peers came to be called, Bell was open to the new ideas of the 1960s, and soon began to challenge much that was dear to his elders, their relatively small scale, their just a little precious attachment to detail, the lyrical basis of their abstraction. Bell had already begun to break with the confines of the traditional rectangle in the early 1960s, resorting to a variety of circular, oval, triangular and other more complex shapes. These shaped canvases were at first small, the inspirations for them having come from as divergent sources as the early Sienese painted altar crosses and oval Tinterettos he had discovered in Italy on his Italian Government Scholarship in 1958, and the primitive masks that had fascinated him in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris in 1959. (He and Anthony Caro that year were the two international prizewinners, for painting and sculpture, respectively, in the 1ère Biennale de Paris.) Bell’s shaped canvases were not to be associated with concurrent uses by Postpainterly Abstract artists in the United States, Stella or Noland. For Bell it was not a matter of deducing an outer shape from an internal regular geometric structure or vice-versa. His issues had to do with expressive drama, as Norbert Lynton described it in 1964: “Bell can do his best work on these odd surfaces.... usually he paints against the directions indicated by the format, so that he uses the silhouettes as an additional source of tension.”10 This was still abstract, “tachist” (Bell’s description) landscape making; but by the mid-1960s matters became more analytical, and three-dimensional so that John Elderfield, on the basis of an extended studio visit with Bell, who was then teaching at Winchester School of Art, could comment on his “object preoccupation,” to the point that “a development into sculpture seemed possible.”11 Indeed, some of the new works—Keel and Early are examples of near-sculptural constructions from 1967—transpose sea and landscape motifs into cheeky Pop Art-like reliefs. Early sports a pair of splayed golden lips formed by the arc of the just-rising sun reflected on the ledge of an ocean. In other more abstract paintings—Split Jet, 1970—Bell has turned his literally split-into-two, sharply acute-triangled planar image into two thick wedges by beveling the blue-painted edges of his stretchers so that they slant obliquely towards the wall.
Elderfield summarized the outcome of Bell’s mid-decade experiments in this way: a previous “concern with what is best described as dynamics [has] led him naturally into an investigation of the mechanism of painting itself. The interest in thrust, gesture, tension and so on, earlier motivated by the observation of natural phenomenon, was transferred to a non-referential context.”12 The Richard Demarco Gallery exhibition in 1970 presented a selection of the work from the preceding four years. The paintings were now large and formally assertive, shaped like fans, masks, or flying things, or they were simply abstract. Most were flat, geometric and bright- ly colored, some swooping with bird-wing curves, some two-part and symmetrically pivoted, some cantilevered, and others like long extended triangular wedges cut apart and requiring reassembly in the eye. All dramatically engaged with the space of the wall, shaping it, thrusting across it or sliced open by it. Overall their size and spread exceeded what the eye could grasp in a single glace, to the extent that, as wrote Elderfield, “in a real sense these works are only com- pleted by the observer.” Elderfield’s reading of them, substantiated by a quotation from the minimalist sculptor Robert Morris, took its cues from Michael Fried’s characterization of the experience of American minimalist objects as “theatrical,” insofar as it was time bound and viewer interactive. “Mine is,” Elderfield admits, a “willfully theatrical interpreta- tion,” one in which “experience is oriented in time and the object and the spectator’s perception
together control the environment.”
These were also to be Bell’s least referential paintings (although the outline shapes can evoke real world references) and his most hardedged ones. But they are never so in the programmed way of Noland or Stella in the 1960s. They are not serially generated, and inside their eccentric configurations, while the raked bands and stripes of saturated color that cross them can meet straight and brisk, they are as often hand-made, “stunningly seductive” reds, mauves, oranges, pinks, sponged and brushed into highly worked surfaces. What might be called an Op Art effect applies in another innovation that appeared whereby in certain works the canvas edges have again been beveled, but this time so that they faced towards the wall behind the stretcher, the edge brightly colored but now invisible to the viewer, casting a reflected glow onto the wall and behind the painting.
If Elderfield saw these paintings somewhat through an American lens, Heron would use them to launch an angry tirade against current American art and the unjustified chauvinistic hype (from Clement Greenberg and other guilty critics) that he saw accompanying its promotion in Britain during the 1960s. To Heron’s eye it was Trevor Bell who in this exhibition had “achieved a major breakthrough in the field of the shaped canvas and [was] an infinitely greater painter in every way than Frank Stella.”13 Heron’s tone was shrill, and the sense of special plead- ing that his argument turned into probably did not especially aid Bell’s critical reception. Which is not to say that he did not isolate aspects of the paintings that he saw, perhaps rightly, as British, or as European, that we will discover to be ongoing features of Bell’s work: their genesis in intu- ition and sensibility rather than ratiocination; their eventual resolution in equilibrium and still- ness; the subtlety of their hand-made paintwork; the formal structure which pulled the images centripetally inward as against dissolving them, as he saw it, in the centrifugal action of the best-known American shaped canvases. In good Greenbergian fashion, however, he affirmed how visually “none of Bell’s wedges fails to lie flat.”
In an earlier article, Heron had taken considerable credit for how he and his generation had very early recognized the importance of the ‘first generation’ New York painters, espe- cially Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, Motherwell, Kline, Newman, Still, Gottlieb; how the British had given the Americans “their first foreign approval,” writing: “We hailed them because it showed the way out of the claustrophobic post-cubist idioms of postwar French painting and led to new concepts of pictorial space.” But once the Americans had arrived at their extremes of “flatness, emptiness and bigness,” once they had “swept away detail and all complex divisions of the picture surface” they had, in Heron’s view, run aground and not found some new way to move on. The Americans had gotten caught in the “academic emptiness” of Greenberg’s Post-Painterly Abstraction, whereas the British, meaning Heron’s “middle gener- ation” of St Ives School painters, had showed the way to move forward, and that way was “towards some sort of re-complication of the picture surface.” The Americans, to Heron’s dismay, didn’t understand this, but ascribed the British drive to pictorial complexity as being merely a retreat back into Cubism. Dominated in the mid-1960s by “sheerly conceptual, exclusively intellectual or systematized way of working,” the Americans failed to see that the “hand- made” look of British pictures was not some dalliance with the past but to Heron “meant to be”—hence his critical rejection of the American addiction to symmetrical format, and his contrary praise of Bell’s “major breakthrough” in the field of the shaped canvas because the latter confirmed his belief “that painting should resolve asymmetric, unequal, disparate formal ingredients into a state of architectonic harmony which, while remaining asymmetrical, nevertheless constitutes a state of perfect balance, or equilibrium.”14 Our question is whether this British imperative to re-complicate, or at least not to decomplicate (which they never really did), helps account for the reorientation that Bells’ work underwent once he got to Florida, helps explain why his next major step forward would also be one back toward representation. If so, Bell was to proceed, not in the “middle generation” way, but with a robustness quite at odds with Heron’s own meticulous practice to which Heron referred when defending the hand-painting quality of Bell’s abstract geometric paintings: “Last year my fifteen-foot canvases, involving sixty or more square feet of a single colour, were painted (in oil paint) from end to end with small Chinese water-colour brushes.”15
The Whitechapel show in 1973 was already infused with Florida. Merete Bates who reviewed the exhibition for The Guardian, observed a change in program (or rather she paraphrases Bell’s own articulation of it): “Where, before, he was a painter with an acute sense of dynamics and the necessity of a painting’s independent rather than referential existence, now he is one of the few opening up visual language and potential.”16 The art-altering new experience had occurred during Bell’s first year in Florida as a visiting artist at Florida State University. It was the launch of Apollo 17 on Dec. 7, 1972, the first nighttime launch from Cape Canaveral. Additional drama was lent to the event when the countdown for initial launch time of 9:53 p.m. on Dec. 6 was suddenly halted because of technical problems, minutes before ignition. Disappointed watchers, expecting an indefinite postponement, began after awhile to disperse, although a couple of hours later, the countdown was resumed so that the launch occurred at 12:33 a.m. As the Kennedy Space Center itself describes it: “The launch could be seen from hundreds of miles away. Observers in Miami, northern Florida, Georgia, and points even farther away reported seeing the plumes of flame as Apollo 17 roared into space.”17
Bell’s recollections remain vivid: I’ll never forget it a long as I live. When it went the night sky became blue, an extraordinary blue. It [Apollo 17] didn’t seem to move very much, and it was all silent because we were too far away.... It just hovered there in space as it was getting momentum. But what I have never heard recorded, by anybody, was the fact that all those exhaust fumes and all that fire has to go somewhere...but it goes into concrete bunkers, travels back, and then it stood there like pillars of fire, standing there and gradually diminishing...while the rocket was heading away. Then suddenly the sound waves hit us. It was totally orgiastic. We were all screaming. It was too much for your sensibility to cope with, too powerful, like the earth breaking up.18
As he explained to Merete Bates, standing in front of Burn (1973), when it was hanging at the Whitechapel Gallery: “A painter takes what he needs. I saw the moon shot in Florida and couldn’t get it out of my mind. As long as I stuck to particulars, I could do nothing with it. Then I realized that what I want- ed to get was a tremendous lift and at the same times a tremendous expansion of energy. That’s why the angles are so acute and the colour radiates from hot to cool lemon at the tips.” Reviewers of the show were impressed by how large and bold the paintings were, noted their Floridian titles, and remarked on their "splendid energy," and, in Marina Vaizey's words, how they were “ablaze with radiant, almost incandescent colour.” They tended to agree that viewers looking for tasteful (meaning English?) mystery, subtlety or gentleness, would find nothing here.19
The earliest paintings to come out of the Apollo experience, works like Ocala and Blue V from 1973, were object-like wedges with similarities to the top panel of Split Jet (1970), with its distinctly-colored beveled edges. Now these dart-like object-paintings had been turned vertical, hung with their tips pointed to the floor, their downwards spear-like push countered by a rising thrust of hot radiating color/light spreading upwards within the central triangle. But maybe there was something a little clunky about all of this for Bell—too physical a solution to release the immaterial sensation of expanding and contracting energy, object-paintings too much a demonstration perhaps of physical phenomena rather than an immediate delivery of it. Here were powerful experiences that required another reorientation, a turning away, in part at least, from the more fashionable formal solutions of London of the 1960s. Here were expressive prob- lems, perhaps analogous to those of St Ives School painting, but also brand-new due to the sheer grandeur of them, light, heat and energy of unprecedented magnitudes. Something of a fresh combination was called for: what was useful from his British abstract landscape techniques restructured in terms of the strategies of theatricality that Elderfield had discovered in the big ’60s shaped canvases.
Viewers at the Whitechapel noted that the long horizontally hung triangle of Bar (1973) was so big that that it took noticeable time to walk from one end to the other, and a wag, when the painting was shown in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington later the same year, dubbed it the biggest paddle in the world. “I suppose I am asking for trouble on this scale. But it had to be done,” Bell commented, musing over the compositional “possibilities” in Bar: “there is no reason why it should stop where it does, why the colour changes shouldn’t go on forever.”20 There were other ways. Burn, also in the Whitechapel show, stacked trapezoidal panels vertically, increasingly splayed as they ascended, progressing up the wall, “with the energy of a sunset or an intensely controlled burst of light” as Benjamin Forgey noted when the painting was shown at the Corcoran later in the year.21 Elsewhere, in Tall Seven (1975) and other “light pillar,” works, Bell sets spectral color aplay across rows of narrow vertical trapezoids spaced along the gallery wall, a strategy that culminated in a mural commissioned for the Lewis State Bank in Tallahassee, Southern Light (1976, now in the collection of the Tallahassee / Leon County Civic Center) which runs 125 feet and twenty-one panels, hung side by side, dazzlingly pulling the eye through the gamut of the colors of the rainbow from the deepest of blues to the most brilliant yellows.
Size per se was of course not the issue. The issue was to use the stretch and shape of the individ- ual canvas—shape until the mid-1980s was never more irregular than the regular trapezoid—or multiple canvases, to release light and color with full intensity. This is also why the objectness of early 1973 had to cede to surface articulation. Occasionally, as in the earlier British work, the spaces separating the individual panels were visually activated by edges beveled so that they faced towards the wall, and painted to cast a glow of colored light onto the wall in between—Burn is an example—but this bevel effect was also soon abandoned. Bell’s significant realization was that colour need not be shaped but should be released into fluidity. Edges consequently softened and colors increasingly smoldered, their temperatures modulated, as they sped aloft. In the multiple panel paintings his interest turned to what he called “color pulses” —to the way in which the eye can be constantly shifted across the surface of the canvas in rhythmic progressions, drawing analogues between this “eye travel” – a felicitous phrase he recently used – and the experience of listening to music, colour pulsations working as relations of tones, intervals, rhythms and counterpoints for the eye rather than the ear. Pavanne (1982), a large painting for the then new Tallahassee / Leon County Civic Center took its title from the stately court dance of the 16th century, just as an early 1962 commission for the Phillips Record Company collection in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, was called, after Bach, Art of the Fugue.
Later in the decade a parallel body of work emerges. Individual paintings are commonly composed of horizontally-oriented two-part trapezoids. In these the earlier color columns have been collapsed into vertical stacks of loose-edged color rectangles that are more than a little reminiscent of hovering stratus clouds able to glide above or below one another. Color stays hot, but these paintings are nevertheless comparatively serene, engaging the viewer less viscerally, more contemplatively. They echo Rothko, with whose work Bell was quite familiar, espe- cially from the Tate Gallery installations. Their shallow, slightly illusionistic space is comparable to Rothko’s, and even the effulgent magentas, the searing reds and oranges, colors that we might have thought to be characteristic of Florida’s “heatscapes,” as Bell has called them, can be found often in Rothko, certainly in the 1950s. When we set Rothko’s color fields and Bell’s side by side, however, real differences of personality stand out. Where Rothko finds tranquility and stasis, Bell stays tremulous and nervous: the figure-ground relations are more edgy, the ground is more ground, the figure is more figure, the push and pull of cool, hot and hotter hues are more strident, and the slanted vertical forces against the horizontal ones more tense. Concomitantly, if the contemporary color field Postpainterly Abstraction strove to be decorative in the Matissian sense, Bell’s works belong resolutely to the expressionist Northern Romantic tradition. Never mind their Floridian genesis: think Turner’s violent sea storms, Munch’s blinding suns and Hodler’s late glowing red dusks over Lake Geneva.
By the early 1980s Bell was becoming dissatisfied with the direction the work was taking. The canvas format had become too neutral and the internal events too evanescent. It was time to regroup as it were, to reconsider, as he would explain it, in an artist’s statement dated somewhere near the end of the decade:
In 1983 I exhibited a group of my early black and white, radically shaped canvases from the 60s at the FSU Art gallery. For some time, I had wanted my works to again proclaim their objectness, for I have always believed in the exertive powers of factual work. I also accept oblique reference to external experience and on seeing these early works I know I had to move away from a development which was becoming increasingly atmospheric.22
Significant also to the next developments in his work was a return visit to Cornwall and Northern England in 1984, followed over the next years by some seven trips to India and across the Himalayas. As in the past, local impressions from the places and things of his travels would imprint themselves into the painting.
For the last decade of Bell’s Florida sojourn, several themes and compositional types overlap and interlink, and it will not do much justice to assume too chronological an ordering. A principal pre-occupation, however, will be Bell’s new adventures with increasingly vigorously shaped canvases, and in that sense, with “proclaiming” again the objectness of the paintings (“paintings, not pictures” says a memo posted in his Vellyndruchia studio). At the same time— for this will truly be a period of re-complication— what happens inside those often eccentric framing edges, the paint gestures, the intensified spatial richness, can again be called “tachist,” evoking, if we may, Bell’s own now long-ago description of how he articulated the thrusts and tensions of his landscape-based images inside those very first shaped canvases that he had recently pulled out for reconsideration.
An initial break from the rectangle and trapezoid formats was a series of protractor- shaped pictures from the mid-1990s. These are still essentially Floridian, animated with spectral light and heated colors. Like Blue Radial (1985) they also stay basically geometrical, subdivided by arcs and radii. They revisit the part-to-part interpenetrating constructions of the work from the late 1960s, concomitantly playing with architectural integration as inherent in their structural dynamics. About the same time Bell also introduced a “gate” configuration (Temple Gate, 1985): “I was obviously remembering, however obliquely, things such as architectural inspirations, architectural sources in India,” he told a reviewer, stressing at the same time how the architec- ture—meaning now the architecture of the paintings, the external post and lintel configuration which are re-depicted inside the paintings to form doorways or windows into deeper, spiritually imbued places—was also meant “to be an expressive force in its own right.”23
The success of Bell’s painting depends on the exquisite poise with which he can hold external references and internal plastic expression in balance. When this balances teeters, espe- cially when images of the world are left more literal than oblique, the painter, within the terms he has set up for himself, risks sentimentality because he lets his self-contained formal expression be contaminated by extra-painterly associations. The series to which Temple Gate belongs seems to me to indicate how easily the fine line of equilibrium can be crossed: the painting delivers a powerful architectural silhouette, but it does so less by analogy than by actual structure. Bell’s more straightforward paintings of the series, those that only imply the gate theme, as a conse- quence more effectively elevate themselves into what Jon Meyer has called “Bell’s most metaphoric works,” their trapezoidal shapes transformed into “abstracted mandalas.”24
But there are no rules, because the “rockers” too are hardly oblique in their reference if one has the entrée provided by Bell as he introduces them in his retrospective slide lecture with a close-up photograph of a cluster of fishing boat hulls in a Cornish harbor. The subject of rocking boat shapes is, of course, ubiquitous in St Ives School painting— Scott, Frost, Lanyon, Hilton— but Bell handles it with unprecedented panache and scale, picking up the image of the half-oval fronted by a keel board from his own 1967 relief painting, Keel, which had similarly incorporated at least a couple of viewpoints compressed into a single frontal image. Here, literal shape does not in the least inhibit expressive exuberance. These are among Bell’s most kinetically provocatively paintings, near animations of the dizzying sensations of pitch and yaw. It is important to notice that the two hull shapes in Counterpart, 1988, do not overlap but abut, meet side to side, confounding both near and far, letting surface be at once both flat and rounded container, until the rocking semi-oval shapes are alternatively boats and bowls of sloshing sea. The keel boards he has dema- terialized into flashes of magenta light, like flickers of late sunlight on choppy waves, a memory flash of the south glimpsed among the darker and more brooding colors of the northern harbor.
Bell’s most dramatic departure from regular shapes occurs at the very beginning of the 1990s when geometry finally yields to free and unconstrained curvilinearity. For a year or two it is as if the framing edge detaches itself, elastically expanding into surrounding space to dance around the shape and imagery it left behind. Sometimes, indeed like a supple ribbon it winds in and through its solid counterpart, mimicking or counterpointing both its amorphous contours and the drawing within. These opened-up constructions emerged when Bell invented a unique process of laminating and bending plywood which allowed him to draw in space and to make any form that he wished.
Occasionally this free-floating laminated line drawing is used descriptively, as in the maplike Zanskar River (1992). But soon inside and outside reconverged into the unity of organically shaped abstract landscape paintings somehow always redolent of real places and spaces, first in the Himalayas and in India, and then increasingly in Cornwall. Not of their picture post- card look, but of the recollected sensations of the temperature of their colors, the moisture of their atmospheres, the raw upheavals that shaped them, the ruggedness of their contours, their empty expanses, the feelings of threat, fear, giddiness, wonder they caused, concretely reconstructed in the drag and flow of paint, and in the bulging and contracting contours of their edges that seem at once to be shaped by and to be shaping the sensate and affective events embodied within.
When Bell left Florida in 1996 it was with a remarkably increased arsenal of expres- sive means which he has continued to elaborate, finding additional ways of defying the rectangle, as well as fresh ways to both amplify and simplify and make more incisive (but not to refine, I think, if that implies enervation through perfecting) his handling paint. Yet, as I have already implied, it is fair to conclude that overall he has not really deviated far from the goal that grounded the work of his first London exhibition in 1958, which was to deliver, as the reviewer then said, “not the visual equivalent of naturalist painting but the natural force immanent in things seen.” We have seen that like his early St Ives School mentors, ultimately, he could not bear to leave landscape out of his art. We have witnessed how after his period of geometric abstraction in the later 1960s, Bell started to subject his art to the process of “recomplicating” what before it had been modernism’s imperative to reduce, in a way taking up the task that Heron in the mid-1960s had projected onto British painting. We have also seen him let go of earlier inhibitions bred by dogma about modernist flatness, and, without sacrificing flatness as controlling principle, learn to play free and loose with pictorial space, let the eye, and the body, and the mind travel in and out between figure and ground, and shift their focus from paint to illusion and back again.
So what did being in the United States give to his work? The work gained in scale perhaps, and exploited the “theatricality” that Elderfield observed, but these had been characteristics of the work he showed in the Demarco exhibition in 1970, already influenced in many ways by the new American art that was available in London. The better question is: what epiphanies did the Apollo launch and the heat and colour of Florida give to Bell? —or the Himalayan ascents and then the Cornish zawns? A critic understands that, concomitantly, the accumula- tive specifics of real life experience served to shape and reshape the internal formal growth of the work.
Bell is back working in Cornwall, the place where as a later participant in the St Ives School, he originally launched his long professional career. Surely, for him, this is about going back to roots, but the grace and expansiveness of the recent work, it should be evident, has little to do with coming full circle. On the contrary, it is work that has consistently unfolded on the path of an ever opening spiral, “turning in the widening gyre” of Yeats’ falcon, so to speak, but executed not out of hearing of the falconer. Things have not fallen apart and the center continues to hold, and the best “are full of passionate intensity.” The new work signals a kind of Cornish homecoming, infused and inflected with the breath and spirit of the long sojourn in Florida and other destina- tions abroad. But none of this would matter, would indeed be sentimental claptrap, if the issue all along had not been to make good paintings. Whether he made art at the relative center of things as he initially did in Britain, or on the Floridian periphery where he lived for twenty years, Bell, as all serious artists must be, remains resolutely interrogative and keenly self-critical. He never ceases to move forward.
Roald Nasgaard, Professor and Chair of the Art Department at Florida State University, was for many years the Chief Curator and Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. He is a regular contributor to the magazine 'Canadian Art' and author of the recently published book 'Abstract Painting in Canada'.
1 Patrick Heron, “Two Cultures,” Studio International, 2 December 1970: 246.
2 Patrick Heron, “Trevor Bell: a note by Patrick Heron” (London: Waddington Gallery, 1958).
3 Alex Kidson, Burlington Magazine, July 2000, n.pag .
4 Trewin Coplestone, “Trevor Bell,” Arts News and 5 Review [London], 1958, n. pag.
5 Heron, Art International, Mar. 1964: 74-75.
6 Lawrence Alloway, Nine Abstract Artists, their work and theory (London: Tirani, 1954), cited in Tom Cross, Painting in the Warmth of the Sun: St Ives Artists 1939-1975 (Tiverton, Devon: Westcountry, 1995) 136.
7 Norbert Lynton, “Recollections,” New Statesman, 10 January 1964.
8 Martin Friedman in London: The New Scene (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1965) 12.
9 Chris Stevens, Trevor Bell, Anthony Benjamin, Brian Wall (Leigh on Sea: ISIS Gallery, 1994).
11 John Elderfield in Trevor Bell 1966-70 (Edinburgh: The Richard Demarco Gallery, 1970).
13 Heron, Studio International, December 1970: 240.
14 Heron, “The Ascendancy of London in the Sixties,” Studio International, December 1966, reprinted in Mel Gooding,ed., Painter as Critic, Patrick Heron: Selected Writings (London: Tate, 2001), 158-159.
15 Heron, Studio International, December 1970: 247.
16 Merete Bates, The Guardian, 1973, n. pag.
17 NASA Public Affairs, Kennedy Space Center, FL, “The Kennedy Space Center Story,” 1991 ed., Chap. 9, <http:/www-pao.ksc.nasa.gov/kscpao/kscstory/ch9/ch9.htm>.
18 Conversation with author at Vellyndruchia, 10 March 2003.
19 Marina Vaizey, Financial Times [London], 21 Nov. 1973, and A.P. Maguire, Yorkshire Post, 5 Nov. 1973.
21 BenjaminForgey,TheSundayStar and Daily News [Washington, D.C.], 3 June 1973, n. pag.
22 “Artist’s statement,” Marsha Orr Contemporary Fine Arts, Tallahassee, n.d.
23 Blake A. Samson, “Abstract artist revels in possibil- ities of today,” Daytona News Journal, July 1988, n. pag .
24 Jon Meyer, “The Paintings of Trevor Bell,” Expanding Themes (Ft. Lauderdale: Museum of Art, 1989) 16, 18.