Questions About Trevor Bell, 1972 to 1992
We can view Trevor Bell’s career from two sides of the Atlantic. Depending on which side we take, we can debate the 1970s and 1980s as either the centre of his painting career, or as a two-decade absence. These twenty or more years are a period of either visibility or invisibility. We can also speculate on what we learn about Bell’s career and his painting by looking at this period in terms of how it is ‘framed,’ in time and in space.
A position as an artist
For example, it may be an overstatement to say that Bell’s present connection in the UK with the term ‘St Ives’ was created between the late 1970s and the mid 1980s, while he was “not around.” However, it is certainly true that his career through the 1960s and 1970s, before he left Britain, was far removed from St Ives. Consider his position in 1972. A teaching base in Winchester, an exhibiting career centred on London, and any personal associations in his career perhaps more frequently made with Leeds and Yorkshire than St Ives and Cornwall.
A body of new work had toured the UK in a very successful show in 1970, the only real connection with ‘St Ives’ being a tour-de-force review by Patrick Heron. His Whitechapel exhibition in 1973 concentrated on large, shaped paintings, flat areas of colour and an architec- tural scale. This was precisely the kind of painting language that was often contrasted with the St Ives idiom. The latter had already been characterised by that time as being predominantly softly handled gestural painting, with pictorial references to landscape preventing the sense of ‘pure’ abstraction.
Bell had already visited Florida, and seen a space programme launch—prompting knowing references in some reviews— “It is ten years since Trevor Bell rocketed to early success under the auspices of the Waddington Gallery London.”1 Yet, at this point, Bell’s public career in Britain is effectively suspended. Between 1972 and 1992 in the United States, Bell had twenty six solo shows with an even longer list of mixed shows. However, in the UK over the same period, Bell had only two small solo dealer exhibitions, and his work was included in only two other exhibitions.
One of these British exhibitions was the only major museum exhibition in which he figured in this period. It was the Tate Gallery’s ‘St Ives 1939 – 64.’ 2 This sought to define ‘St Ives’ as a place and as a term in art history. In a curious set of curatorial constructions, the exhibition surveyed a wide range of artists, represented by work from the 1920s to the 1970s, despite its title. It travelled from the traditional and early avant-gardist artists associated with the town between the two world wars, through the extraordinary creative explosion it hosted between 1939 and 1953, to the flourishing of abstract art in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Bell was featured as a player in this last phase.
The exhibition’s title implied that St Ives status as a forge for the new ended with the death of Peter Lanyon in 1964. The show included art which somehow modified this argument to suggest that a coda played out until the deaths of Barbara Hepworth, Roger Hilton and Brian Wynter in 1975.
The work by Trevor Bell in the show, a work from 1960 called Black, was an example of a particular kind of painting which was at the time seen as characteristic of the late ’50s generation. It shared with works by five or six other artists a formation of an image, using a limited range of hues and sharp contrast of tone, around motifs which could prompt associations of the experience of landscape. This work made two curatorial points, one positive, one negative.
First, it demonstrated how Bell’s work between 1955 and 1960 shared a set of painting goals and techniques with a body of work by artists from Roger Hilton to Anthony Benjamin. Second, it isolated this pictorial language and references of five years in his late 20s, from all of Bell’s other work. In other words, it (and the work in the Tate’s collection, Overcast from 1962) serve to confirm Bell as a ‘St Ives artist.’
If perhaps you were to pose a rhetorical question of, say, the typical art college or University graduate in the late 1970s—“tell me who Trevor Bell is?”—you might forgive the person if they answered, “a maker of landscape orientated abstract paintings” or even “a St Ives artist.” The rest of his output was, after all, invisible.
Painters were invisible?
Bell’s situation at the time of the ‘St Ives’ exhibition in London—this invisibility in Britain of the bulk of his work in the 1970s and 1980s—gives pause for thought about the general invisibility of a certain kind of painting over these two decades. In UK terms, a 1972 exhibition, ‘The New Art’ at the Hayward Gallery, enshrined the first generation of British conceptual artists, from Gilbert and George to Richard Long, as the next important movement in contemporary art. This model of value was still built around a tightly constructed timetable of modernist progression. They appeared to follow the abstract painters and sculptors of the later 1960s, many of whom had been their art school tutors.
A subsequent run of exhibitions in the 1970s, at the Hayward and elsewhere, attempted to survey current British art. These were the vehicles for the critical debate to announce the notion that modern (and particularly modernist) painting was dead. By 1980 this was challenged, sometimes defensively, but occasionally more constructively. For example at the Hayward Gallery in an exhibition selected by John Hoyland, the selectors asked “What made ambitious abstract painting go underground?”3 Meanwhile, the 1981 exhibition in London, ‘A New Spirit in Painting’ is also now remembered, as one recent essay had it, as “herald- ing the return to full-blooded figurative painting in international contemporary art, after a period characterised by dry, conceptual and ephemeral art.”4
In fact, ‘A New Spirit in Painting’ covered three generations of painters. Many defied categorisation, but one could loosely say that some were figurative; some abstract; and some embracing the minimal painting which could be called dry and conceptual were it not for the romantic aura with which the work was imbued.
Despite the increasingly pluralist agendas of galleries and magazines, many painters found it hard to feel valued. One vehicle founded for the discussion of a certain arena of abstract painting and sculpture, Artscribe, had by the late 1980s become a generalist contemporary review. The founding of Modern Painters magazine in spring 1988 added, until the death of founding editor Peter Fuller, a radical conservative agenda to the debate about painting which positioned certain kinds of figurative work alongside the tradition of non-representative art and its conceptual ‘alternative.’
A certain kind of new abstract painting generated a strand within this debate, positioning some younger painters alongside conceptualist colleagues. This often stressed ‘preordained’ painting techniques to create a distinction both between them and the older age group of abstract artists, as well as between them and other painting traditions. How artists of different generations became fixed by critical reference or by the fashion for creating critical genres was a matter of intriguing concern.
The second of Bell’s two solo shows in Britain during his Florida years, in 1989 and 1990 respectively, happened to be cited at this time, one critic using the ‘fashion’ device to describe the authority of Bell’s new work: “Pursuing my thesis on the fickleness of fame, I draw your attention to two further exhibitions, one by a young artist who is current critical flavour of the month, the other who occupied precisely the same position 32 years ago. The latter is Trevor Bell, a British born abstract painter who has lived since the sixties in Florida. Bell was the first artist to be taken on by Leslie Waddington when that dealer opened in Cork Street in 1958. Bell is much less in the news here these days but is showing his canvases of complex shape ... in the relative obscurity of Camden Town. Bell’s former role at Waddington Galleries is filled now by a later hopeful, Ian Davenport. The latter is only in his mid twenties yet is attracting the kind of eulogies from the more modish critics that Bell received himself at one time.”5
Other factors may help explain the hiatus in some artists’ careers in Britain over the period. For example, the shrinking of resources in the public sector in the UK in the late 1970s and 1980s, particularly in major municipal and University museums and galleries, had meant quite simply that artists had lost the kind of opportunities to have summative or refreshing exhibitions as their careers progressed. There were simply not the shows that, say, an artist like Bell might have considered as the logical progression from his Whitechapel show of 1973.
A parallel drying up of resources also characterised public collecting in Britain in the later 1970s and 1980s. When Bryan Wynter had his show of ‘IMOOS’ works in 1966, all were sold to British public collections, three of which were outside London. The work in his second show of kinetics in 1967 remained largely unsold, as did his subsequent show of large scale acrylic abstracts. When Bell had his 1989 and 1990 London shows, none sold.
Compounding this, a particular problem for galleries in the 1980s was, to connect with international peers. It could be contended that, despite the recurring theme of perceptions of dominance of American art, it became particularly difficult for curators to find ways to connect with, research, and present art from the United States in Britain. Apart from new art emanating from the New York centred dealer network, and from senior historical figures, there was little interest in or, where it existed, resources to support, exhibitions which explored artists of Bell’s situation. Today, this now appears to have effectively excluded a generation of senior figures in painting in the United States and its peer group in Canada from exposure in Britain.
By the early 1990s, it became possible to argue that painting in Britain had been re-discovered, re-thought and recontextualised in a variety of ways. Abstract or near abstract painting was well positioned to be ‘rediscovered’ in the context of a host of many painting idioms. At the time Bell relocated from Florida to Cornwall, the opening of Tate St Ives was only one example of a com- plex re-opening of the discussion about different genres of painting.
Curiously, one effect of refocusing on the ‘St Ives’ artists when Tate St Ives was opened in 1993 was to bring out the paradoxes around the process of defining artists like Bell as being ‘St Ives.’ Audiences for ‘St Ives’ art realised that many of the artists’ work was far wider than it had been previously presented as being. And, most important, audiences realised that far from ‘St Ives’ having “died” between 1964 and 1975, many of the artists were in fact alive and well and working away in their studios.
It also became evident that many of these artists represented a certain career type. Their celebrity as young artists in the late ’50s and early ’60s and subsequent invisibility in the 1970s and early 1980s were models of cycles of fame and obscurity which the art market and art world had become very efficient at creating. They now had an opportunity to try and regain the position their work warranted.
Around the early 1990s, many of the senior figures in abstract painting began to be reassessed. Bell’s friends and mentors Patrick Heron and Terry Frost had major exhibitions of recent work. Frost was studied in stimulating historical shows, and Heron had a major retrospective which connected his recent work with his earliest work. The younger senior artists, such as Bell, began to be invited to have shows of recent work, too.
At times, it has been hard to disentangle critical debate from market position. Matthew Collings has recently reviewed this process in a characteristically wry essay for an exhibition in a London dealer gallery where artists of three generations, all making abstract painting, were surveyed through recent work. He came up with some provisional headings to provoke some distinctions between them. For example, Bell’s contemporaries (Bell was not in the show) become ‘authentics,’ whilst Davenport and his ilk become ‘hypers.’ After them come ‘ecletics.’
Collings grapples with the contrast between the categories as being ‘serious’ or not, ‘fashionable’ or not in 2001: “It might be one of the art world’s current text book rules to say that the aesthetic is permitted as long as there is some necrophilia or punk nihilism which can connect the aesthetic to a social dimension – that is, to make it seem as if the work isn’t just self indulgent. Make it seem to be part of a comment on modern despair. Why not let it be indulgent, though? How bad would that be? This might be the other side of saying that frankly you’ve got to accept that sometimes a work can be fashionable but good anyway.”6
The persistence of memory – the continuity of practice
In the mid 1980s, whilst working in Florida, Trevor Bell produced a painting called Wheal Dream. It was one of a group of what he calls ‘rockers.’ This term, ‘rockers,’ is one of Bell’s disingenuously throw- away headings for the visual appearance of groups of paintings. The ‘rockers’ are broadly semicircular, with an interstice which generates a rocking circular rhythm. They recall the forms and gestures of some St Ives artists, notably Frost. The term might also prompt a tongue-in-cheek association with a leather jacketed up-beat feeling.
You will discover one or two of the titles from this group if you were to take a walk around the places Bell used to haunt in Cornwall in the 1950s and 60s. ‘Wheal Dream’ was the name of the street in St Ives in which Bell rented a basement studio shared with the sculptor Brian Wall in the late 1950s. The studio itself, the basement of the Seaman’s Mission, was a component of the concrete cap on the mine.
The title Bosigran, derives from a place between Pendeen and Zennor, on the cliffs of West Cornwall, where the cliff edge drops sheer into the sea. Like the idea of working above a mineshaft, Bell recollects the consciousness of space in being at the cliff edge. There is even a piece called Cornishman. Bell was to subsequently show the group in Florida under the loose title of ‘Cornwall series.’
Bell acknowledges that these works may have been prompted by a specific visit to Cornwall; but evidence of how motifs begin to inflect upon the work, as opposed to more ephemeral associations absorbed on these visits, appears when the artist was more actively pur- suing the idea of returning to Cornwall from 1990 onwards.7
There is a double-meaning, then, in the brief surfacing of this memory. Not only does their Cornish recollection stand out for allowing us to glimpse the artist’s own recollections of Cornwall, prompting the realisation that over his two decades in Florida he did regularly visit Britain, his family roots in the north and his personal history in the far south west, but also that few other of his titles from the late ’70s and ’80s seem to do this. The coincidence of the date with that of the Tate’s St Ives show may be of little importance since the works are based on drawings made on the visit – when the artist rented a small cottage in the Tregeseal valley.
The persistence of memory is important to Bell. It reflects the fact that he sees paint- ing in part as an expression not simply of personal experience, but as a way of enshrining a cer- tain kind of process within experience. Having experienced particular places, he seeks to recre- ate the experience so generated within a visual expression. The forms, colours, motifs of many of his works often have a geographical or topographical reference. These references allow the viewer to shift back and forth between their own sense of the meaning of Bell’s painting and the artist’s specific promptings.
Depending on where you stand
A key component of the discussion of painting’s relevance in the period after Bell returned to Britain in 1992 was a shift of attitude to content. The validity of the formal and the expressionistic arenas of content in painting occupied by Bell was richly contentious as Bell’s work emerged in the early 1990s. He operated in a painting lan- guage whose mix of stringency and informality posi- tioned it between two polarities—artists working with process to achieve a more apparently minimalist stance, and painters who used gesture, surface and image to reference the body and landscape motifs.
Whilst much of his ‘Florida’ work is very direct in its image-making and construction, Bell’s work in the transitional period around the late 1980s into the 1990s saw him renewing his practice by taking a more oblique and fractured view of the essentials of painting. The impression in hindsight is that his assertive, declamatory approach of the 1970s and 1980s was softening and becoming more reflective. Above all, association, memory and personal experience re-surface, often in motifs which generate a relationship between the human presence and the experience of landscape.
The imagery from Bell’s earliest work on the cusp of the moment of relocation from Florida to Cornwall reflected his own gradual transition. The Cornish generic title of the ‘Zawn’ series suggests a directness of reference to the coastal geological feature which gave it its name— a narrow split at a cliff edge, through which the sea can flow or explode in a breaking wave. They are also built on the works, such as the wonderful Zanskar River, which exploit memories of exploring the mountains of Ladakh. Zanskar River exploits as its motif a similar ‘tipping up’ of a landscape motif as the ‘Zawn’ series, so that we sense a view ‘down’ into a deep narrow space.
Alongside the other key motif of this period, what one might refer to as the final motif of the Florida period, is the gate or door image. Also closely related to his travels with Harriet Bell in Ladakh, this motif had first surfaced in a work of 1986 called Temple Gate.8 It has been referred to frequently in writings on Bells work over the last decade. Devices such as passages into a deep dark space through a light space (or vice versa); and the gesture of a mark, or marks, framing a deep space are remarked upon in a variety of studies of Bell’s work.
What is common to this body of work, these two themes of the dizzying descent into the landscape and the gateway is, of course, an image of the ‘rite of passage.’ In both the view- er of the painting experiences the impact of the physical human presence standing before a deep space. This is not, however, to be pinned down neatly to a simple view of the artist’s experience of the passage of time.
Soon after he arrived back in Cornwall, he and I discussed using an ‘old’ work to contextualise some ‘new’ work in a show we were planning. We did not have a work in mind—we just thought about the idea of doing so. On my next studio visit, he had looked out what older work there was—and had found a painting from 1962 called Forces. It came from the body of work made in Leeds when he was a Gregory Fellow, which had also generated Black.
I found it hard to know whether he was deeply worried or quietly pleased to find this old painting. It had an uncanny relationship to the new work dominated at the time by the later ‘Zawn’ paintings. One option was to conclude that it might suggest he had not progressed at all. However, the way it, like the new work, could stand up to public scrutiny in a major exhibition despite a gap of over three decades, suggested to me that here was an artist of unusual consistency, power and insight.
Content not circumstance
What we now see, in Bell’s painting of the last decade, is the result of a fascinating process of dialogue between the painting traditions of the United States and Britain. From being a pioneer of understanding American and European abstract expressionism, Bell pushed the progress of 1960s British painting. He then became part of the American mainstream, only for that to be by-passed in Britain.
For any painter of Bell’s outlook within his generation, the great American painters, from the abstract expressionists to Diebenkorn and Noland, were iconic figures. For a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, moreover, Bell had become one of those artists whose work, precisely because of the active engagement it demonstrated with the language of American painting, became, as Patrick Heron argued, marginalised by the fact of constant comparison with it. When Bell became an American painter, his work, in effect, became invisible in Britain. Ironically, it did so at a time when painters of his ilk who remained in Britain had to contend with the negative legacy of the transatlantic traffic in the critical debate around painting.
Bell’s Florida oeuvre does seem astonishingly ‘American’ to a European eye. With its scale, its use of brilliant colour, its adoption of localised motifs and its functioning within institu- tions like public buildings, corporations and academic institutions, it presents a paradigm which is not apparent in his contemporaries and peers in the UK. Yet the work from the early 1990s onwards has become distinct, and to have an attitude which, for all its brilliance and bravura, is much softer, reflective and is reunited with an explicit landscape tradition first set out in his work of the early 1960s. This work may look ‘European’ to a North American eye.
His painting today is the result of vast experience, expressed with the vividness and energy present in his earliest mature work. Study of his long career tells us that labels to do with circumstances are to a large degree spurious. He is no more a St Ives artist than a Florida artist or a Leeds artist. He is both American and British. He is defined by his practice, in all its complexity, depth and richness of imagery, in all its simplicity and joy.
1 Merete Bates, ‘Trevor Bell at the Whitechapel Art Gallery,’ in The Guardian, n.d. [Fall, 1973].
2 St Ives 1939-64, Twenty Five Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery (The Tate Gallery, 1985).
3 Tom Hilton, ‘A Force against the Basilisk’, in Hayward Annual 1980, (Hayward Gallery, London, 1980), p. 7.
4 F. Bonami and J. Nesbitt, ‘Like hands stuck in a mattress,’ in Examining Pictures, (Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1999), n. pag.
5 Anon (Giles Auty?) The Spectator (20 October, 1990). Like Bell, Davenport has survived the vicissitudes of fashion and continues to
make very strong paintings and works on paper. The exhibition in question was presented by Gillian Jason, who represents Bell today.
6 Matthew Collings, ‘Rough guide to playful thoughts on abstract art,’ in British Abstract Painting 2001 (Momentum, 2001).
7 In conversation with the author, April 2003.
8 Cf., Jon Meyer, “The Paintings of Trevor Bell” in Expanding Themes (Museum of Art, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, 1989).
Michael Tooby is currently Director of the National Museum and Gallery of Wales in Cardiff;
He was founding curator of Tate Gallery St Ives, where he served from 1992 to 1999.