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. From 1964 to 1966, a period of extremely flexible reassessment, many of his paintings were about “how-to-do-it” themes, reminiscent in conception of Jasper Johns’s “device” works, but far less didactic—more a free play with a mass of process and surface conventions. Some of the earlier paintings had been shaped, but it was from this period that the object preoccupation began in earnest, translating the original interest in forces in movement from a depiction within the object to the shape of the support itself.
At this stage certain basic observations could be made: an awareness of reference persisted but was more often in terms of association than direct source; both the expressionistic surfaces of the earlier works and the harder, more deterministic ones of the “device” period had been extended, but the trend towards a more deliberated control was firmly established; also firmly established was the concern for literal shape, not, however, as an “applied” feature (though the establishment of a restricting “set” Bell finds useful) but as generated from the interest in dynamics and in pictorial strategies. A certain point was reached (around 1967-8) when the literal object-character was so assertive that a development into sculpture seemed possible. And yet, while accepting a free interpretation of “painting,” Bell’s preoccupation with shape has always been a painter’s; from 1968 the literal quality of the shaped canvases, although self-evident in a total sense, was counteracted by a new, or rather newly realized, manner of relating the canvas to its immediate environment and, importantly, to the spectator, which is perhaps the single most exciting characteristic of the recent work. As Robert Morris said in a context interesting in comparison to this one: “...the concerns now are for more control of…the entire situation…. The object has not become less important. It has merely become less self-important.”1
The 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. In the paintings done this year, we find him working inventively with a concept of painting which somehow echoes the nature of real (i.e. fragmented) perception. In some recent bilateral pictures, like Red and Copper, each formed by a pair of triangular shapes meeting at a narrow low pivot and leaving at the centre of each work an “empty” inverted triangle of wall-space, the total length of a picture (around 20 ft.) prevents one from holding the complete image at one go. Instead one is forced (by the “missing” triangle) to scan one lateral perimeter to the other, like watching a tennis match from the umpire’s seat, in doing so crossing the court where the action passes rather than originates and, within the real surfaces, picking up and accumulating visual clues, checking sensations; in brief, one is pushed into a determinedly active role so as to determine what is going on—at no single moment is the whole implication of a work manifest. Experience is oriented in time and the object and the spectator’s perception together control the environment.
This wilfully theatrical interpretation of the possibilities of shaped canvas towards effecting an environmental control poses as many questions as it answers. The tendencies towards extreme elongation and utilising complicated varigation of shape, pose very sharply the problematic duality between the physical periphery of the support effecting a total object and this periphery belonging part by part to the activity engendered by certain individual surface sections, as well as revealing the innate difficulty in making painting work as painting and at the same time working for a more dynamic and open-ended total spatial situation. Trevor Bell’s work shows that he has been taking risks; but his most successful paintings achieve an impressive equilibrium of pictorial impact and spatial control.
1 “Notes on Sculpture, Part II,” Artforum, October 1966;
cf. also Michael Fried’s criticism of the theatrical, literalist position in his “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum, June 1967.