Trevor Bell: Florida 1980, Exhibition catalogue. The Four Arts Center (Florida State University Institute for Contemporary Art, School of Visual Arts).
The artist, Trevor Bell, exudes an endless energy and enthusiasm for painting, about which he is articulate and passionate.1 For over twenty years, on both sides of the Atlantic, his achievements have been acclaimed by curators, critics, painters and patrons, deservedly so, for the paintings are of importance and significance. He extends the tradition and potential of modern painting into new realms of space and sensation.
His consistent concern with shape and color result in an inner conviction and strong intuition which allow for paintings that appear spontaneous and fresh yet are deliberate and considered. To achieve such apparent joy of spontaneity, often the painter works for many months. The deceptive duality of gesture and structure is contained within the overall shape and surface of each canvas. Trevor Bell is concerned with space and environment within and outside the canvas. He regards himself as a visual person, sensitive to space and sensation, responsive to his surroundings and the subtle and dramatic shifts that occur within nature. From his early work in Yorkshire to his most recent paintings in Florida, the impact and influence of his surroundings are dramatically evident.
Within the early Yorkshire paintings, the drama of that heavy landscape was expressed through extraordinary canvases of graphic images and ingenious shapes. A series of black and white paintings incisively describes and prescribes space and environment, exploiting the relationships between positive and negative, ground and image. Another series were sail-like in shape and feeling, being paintings of nautical abstraction. Writing in the late ‘50s of early works, the critic and painter Patrick Heron wrote that “... spatial equality, at the surface of a painting, of every plane with every other plane... distinguishes the best art of our time. And it is this quality that Bell is now pursuing, with astonishing success very often. Triangular or irregular sail-like planes now flap on the surface of his work, combining a purely plastic sensibility (in the bulky mass of each fluently scribbled area) with an inventive linear character. The drawing no longer confines the bigger planes: it threads them, as a rope threads the edges of a sail. Invention, in the realm of pictorial space, may therefore draw freely either upon a plastic color sense—which shows in his resonant, bulky planes, so well-endowed with body—or upon a gift for linear organiza- tion. Neither of these two departments in his talent now dominates the other. In brief, he is now painting.”2
Mention must also be made of the endless drawings of decisive gesture and expressive marks. Trevor Bell is always exploring and investigating through drawing and discovering new structures, elements, and images. As in his paintings, tactile force, joyous gesture and pure color prevail. His drawings combine expressive wit with intelligent inquiry. In the words of the critic Merete Bates: “...the drawings strike the finest balance between two extremes: a pure, romantic and an abstract, scientific thought.”3
Throughout the work of past years, systems and structures repeat, echo, reappear, and vanish. The painter has the ambition and nerve to explore and exploit many concepts. In an essay that surveyed the paintings of the ‘60s, John Elderfield wrote that “Trevor Bell’s paintings cover a range wider than most artists would think prudent. What makes them so interesting is that his themes run parallel rather than in strict sequence. But after experiencing surprise at the difference of the works one begins to understand their basic and persistent themes and finds a strong sense of continuity between the very recent and the earlier, landscape-oriented pictures. From 1960-63, Bell was making paintings whose interior shapes referred to landscape—but to the forces as much as to the forms of landscape; and it was this concern for what is best described as dynamics which led him naturally into an investigation of the mechanisms of painting itself.”4 That investigation continues today.
The titles and descriptions of his work may be seen as clues and insights to his concerns. In his notes, he uses the words “cantilever, radial, core, quartets, acceleration, countering, lift, shifts, multiple change, rhythm, and space through color.” The paintings celebrate the act of painting.
The viewer is enveloped by the work. With no fixed point of focus, the eye shifts endlessly over the surface and the viewer is encouraged to travel visually and spatially. The very size of the work demands a relationship that is physical as well as aesthetic. “This realized control of space beyond the object is of course implicit in the shaped canvas itself: the positive / negative aspect occasioned by real (i.e. wall) spaces within the painting area itself effects an interaction of object and environment. But Bell has developed this through what is best described as a series of strategic ploys... Experience is oriented in time and the object and the spectator’s perception together control the environment.”5 The first major exhibition of Trevor Bell’s paintings in America was at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1973. The large galleries with high ceilings and skylights, allowing natural light to illuminate the works, were an ideal setting for the large canvases. The exhibition was impressive, showing the work to the best advantage in a changing light. The painting Burn was a critical work of that time, dealing with shape, edge, tension, color, and light, consisting of stacked trapezoidal panels. The complexity of structures was contained within an overall symmetry. Other works dealt with that energy and direction that thrust the painting beyond the limits of the can- vas to infinity.
On his first encounter with these works, critic Ben Forgey wrote “Bell’s enormous, declamatory, high-keyed shaped canvases are stunning, almost heroic in feeling but not bombastic... panels that progress up the wall with the energy of a sunset or an intensely controlled burst of light...instead of bombast, genuine elevation. Top and bottom edges are emphasized with scumbled lines of incredibly hot oranges and yellows; these are subtly enhanced by edges beveled and painted so that the wall gives a faint halation. The fields of cooler, bluish hues, painterly and subtly transparent, are at once controlled and activated by the edges.”6
In the past few years in Tallahassee, the experience of object and perception controlling the environment is readily apparent, particularly in a vast painting installed in a local bank. The painting dominates and enriches the building’s interior. Twenty-five panels, each eight feet high and six feet wide, cover 125 feet of wall space situated behind the tellers’ counter. Lateral and vertical progression through the spectrum gives an overwhelming sense of light and color. The commission was difficult as the bank was black and austere. However, within the formal rigidity of the anonymous architecture, the paintings breathe light and luminosity. The painting becomes not only the focus of the interior but the interior itself. Mastery of color and form combined in a simplicity of statement articulates the space. The physicality of the work and the sensation of seeing give a sensation of awe. The painting is titled Southern Light a tribute to the influence of the sun and warmth of the painter’s new surroundings.7
Another commission is even more complex in its imagery. The painting Radial is forty feet by four and was painted for a restaurant interior.8 As with all of Trevor Bell’s work, the painting is to be viewed from a distance and up close. The strong color phenomenon is evident from afar and as the viewer approaches a greater involvement occurs with systems and surface. The painting promotes movement within endless variables. There is a progression from the center outwards and from the bottom diagonally upward. The two paintings are not only large in size but also in significance, for few artists can deal with such scale and environment so effectively.
His most recent works reflect the vibrant color and light of the South. Although each painting in the current exhibition is different, a sense of unity is brought about by the intensity and innovation of the painter, creating atmosphere and sensation through color, shape, structure, and mark. The inner surface is highly articulated and concerned with a central image. The vibrancy of these new works is undeniable.
A sense of invitation and confrontation is evident within the painting entitled Expanding Red. The viewer seems invited to step visually into the canvas, but that invitation is countered by the very structure and forms within the canvas. A complexity of subtle imagery exists with two vertical lines that emerge from the top of the canvas and join at the bottom to create an open square in which float two bands of color. The total phenomenon overtakes the underlying structure. The sloped edges have a variable property that articulates the inner space. The symmetrical shapes within the canvas are manipulated by the asymmetrical form, color, and gesture. An intense interest in clamps and grids is apparent, as is a counter perspective and aerial space, expanding perceptions and consciousness.
The utilization of the image of a clamp is taken further in the work Spacer. As the title indicates, the work has to do both with space and spacing, for the image resembles a big clamp with a gap between. The top and bottom elements of the clamp give a dual activity against the edge and angle of the canvas. As usual, secondary issues emerge, giving an added complexity and enrichment to the surface. The open-angled edge indicates another joined space, an extension to the right of the viewer. The asymmetrical possibilities of the canvas are stated but left unexplored. The open edge on the right is dramatically complemented by the closed side on the left with its strong verticality. The color struts, strides and travels across the surface. The painting changes space and tempo. The elements of time and speed move towards the point of instability that sets up a visual dynamic.
To describe the paintings, one must create a language which deals with the total abstraction and sensual sensation of modern painting. Trevor Bell reveals a great mastery in his understanding of the delicate tension that exists in painting that is purely dependent upon gesture, color, surface and space.
In the past few months, the painter has deliberately set himself the problem of working within a square format. The square with its rigid and repetitive edges has been a source of endless fascination to twentieth-century painters. In the painting Core, Trevor Bell attempts multiple readings of the rectangle. Again, by using the clamping device, he develops a complexity of surface and sensation. The main issue would appear to be the central gap, again, the core of the painting. The asymmetrical structure around that center core creates a counterpoint. The perimeter areas have changes of color and counterplay. Many issues of color exist in the inversion and interchange of pigment. The inner and outer exchange of values is combined with the lateral and vertical travel inherent within the surface. The floating square contrasts suspended form and inherent motion.
The suspension of form and color on the surface of the canvas is one of the most interesting explorations of this century. The tradition that was opened up by Cezanne, exploited by Pollock and Rothko, continues to be explored. The tradition of modern painting is further expanded in the vision and ability of Trevor Bell. His significant achievements can be discussed and realized in the painting Fuse.
The painting reveals a strong and powerful presence. The image is frontal with the central separation and gap between the two canvases becoming the “core” of the painting. The intention is to overcome that gap with a saturation of colors so that the forms go across the interval as the eye travels between the canvases. Standing in the center of the painting, one is aware of the shapes and colors calling one another across the gap. The sensation gives powerful energy and tension. The light within the painting is so intense as to become like some neon aurora borealis. Orange and red orange shapes float on a blue background with purple and green. The orange bar at the top of the painting hovers ominously, brightly suggesting an outer energy from above. The red orange color separated between the two canvases suspends motion and relates to inner energy.
To heighten the whole sensation, the edges of the canvas are shaped inward and upward, elevating the space. From a distance, the sensation is electric and sharp whereas, close to the surface, brush marks activate the canvas. The edge is a structural force giving compression. As with many of these canvases, the painting indicates a continuing of itself with the edge extending into boundless eternity. The changes within the canvas create a luminous light and pulsating color.
The early reputation of the artist is surpassed by present achievements. The paintings cannot be denied, neither can the artist. The final assessment of any artist is within the work. Trevor Bell has proved himself a significant and heroic painter who believes in the joy of painting. His works confirm that modern painting changes our sensibilities into new perceptions of visual understandings. Liberated from the pictorial perspective of yesteryear and with limitless potential of pigment, the artist can open up limitless concepts and sensations and Trevor Bell does that so well. He has become a virtuoso of color and an orchestrator of light. Thrust and gesture open up new and total realizations of space and sensation. His painting is to be enjoyed and acclaimed.
1 The essay is based on conversations that took place with the artist in his studio, Tallahassee, March 1980. The writer has known Trevor Bell for over twenty years, first meeting in England and since continuing a personal and professional relationship, often interrupted by time and distance. As Director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, I invited the painter to exhibit his work, which he did with memorable ef- fectiveness and predictable excellence. These writings concentrate on the recent paintings shown in the current exhibition at the Four Arts Center, Tallahassee.—R.S., 1980
2 Patrick Heron, “Trevor Bell: a note by Patrick Heron” on the occasion of the painter’s first one-man show in London, 1958.
3 Merete Bates, “Trevor Bell,” The Observer Review. June 7, 1980.
4 John Elderfield, “Trevor Bell 1966-70,” exhibition catalogue: The Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh, touring to The Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Belfast; and Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield, 1970.
6 Benjamin Forgey, The Sunday Star and Daily News, Washington D.C., June 3, 1973.
7 Southern Light, 21 panels, 125 x 8 feet 1976, was at Lewis State Bank, Tallahassee, Florida, until it was added to the collection of the Tallahassee / Leon County Civic Center.
8 Radial, 40 x 4 feet, 1977. IBM Headquarters, Atlanta, Georgia.
Roy Slade, former Director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and Director Emeritus of the Cranbrook Art Museum.