Trevor Bell - Recent Paintings

Exhibition Catalogue: The Cummer Gallery of Art, Jacksonville, Florida, 1987.



In his work during the early eighties Trevor Bell explored the shaped canvas, the direct color experience, saturated light, and the insistence on the “objectness” of the canvas existing in its own right. In addition to these concerns have come the technical breakthroughs which improvements in contemporary paint science afforded.

Bell’s work has come a long way from his abstract impressionist canvases of the fifties, in which grey, black and ochre predominated. The paintings spoke clearly of the city of his birth, Leeds, England, with its industrial structures, its gray skies and northern climate. Later works, painted in Cornwall, where he was a member of the Penwith artists’ group, evoked the sea, ships and cliffs, and the cool colors of the shore. The paintings became increasingly defined, moving toward pure abstraction, still with heavy predominance of black.

In a review of his one-man show in London in 1958, Patrick Heron, the English artist and critic, called Bell “the best nonfigurative painter under thirty in this country.” Other honors quickly followed: a Traveling Scholarship to Italy and inclusion in the prestigious First International Biennale Exhibition in Paris in 1959; in conjunction with sculptor Anthony Caro, a prize for six month’s study in France.

The change from somber, strongly defined works to his present brilliant coloration has been one of gradual development. Bell began experimenting with the shaped canvases as early as 1962, using them to assert the canvases’ presence and their disassociation from the wall. The forms and shapes of the compositions seemed at first to press against the edges of the canvas, which in turn seemed to assume its shape as a result of the needs of the composition itself—form following function.

By 1970 the shaped canvases predominated and Bell began exploring their interaction with the entire space in which they hung. This was particularly successful in a series of stark black and white triangular paintings which stretched the eye beyond the edge of the canvas into the surrounding areas. Some canvases with a span of 20-30 feet forced the eye to read across them from left to right and back again. Like such artists as Frank Stella and Kenneth Nolan in this country, Bell pushed the sides of the canvases out so far that the spectator was forced to become actively involved in studying them from end to end, with a resulting tension created in the eye from the effort to apprehend the total spacial experience.

The shapes of the canvases became less regular as they grew in size. They appeared to float on the walls, despite their converging diagonals which normally read as perceptival. By the early seventies Bell was actually breaking the canvases up into separate units, leaving enough space between them, when hung, to force the wall itself to become an active part of the composition. Unlike Stella and Noland, however, Bell clung to a richly articulated surface, creating a sensuous and changing coloration that gave the works an emotional as well as an intellectual impact.

It was in 1970 that Trevor Bell left England to go first to Canada to teach, and from there to Tallahassee, Florida, where he has since lived. Responding to the brilliant light and color of Florida, the artist’s paintings became increasingly strong in tone and saturation.

In 1973 Bell held an important showing of his work at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., which was enthusiastically received. Benjamin Forgey, Washington’s leading art critic, called them “stunning, almost heroic in feeling.” Their huge size made him think of cathedrals or of an intensely controlled burst of light. This is not surprising since the canvases related to the artist’s experience of the moon shot at Cape Canaveral. Bell said at the time: “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 the particulars, I could do nothing with it. Then I realized that what I wanted to get was a tremendous lift and at the same time a tremendous expansion of energy. That’s why the angles are so acute and the color radiates from hot to cool at the tip.” He was referring to the large painting, Bar, an elongated horizontal triangle painted a shimmering blue, forging from an orange base at one end and going on and on to a final static green tip.

Questioned as to the size of the painting and his obsession with a grand scale in his works, Bell replied: “It’s a matter of want, initially, I suppose. I wanted to paint bigger, it brought problems. I went into shape, broke from the normal rectangle of the picture form into, for example, a triangle. But a triangle with a tachist kind of landscape within it wasn’t enough. The whole mechanics of the painting had to be altered. That was when I realized how much we’re conditioned by the tradition of the picture frame as a window. Now the elements in the painting had to work independently.” Since the painting edge no longer served as a frame through which the spectator looked into a pictorial third dimension, the canvas must now work in and of itself as an object to catch and hold the interest of the viewer, with no illusionistic imagery to carry it.

Another work of the Canaveral period, Burn, enormous in size, consisted of three widening stripes that form great wings. Said Bell, “I’m beginning to realize that color needn’t be shape. In Burn, for example, at first I strictly sectioned the radials, almost hard edge. But it didn’t work. So I began merging the color and it expressed something quite different.” This scumbling of the colors, so that they flow into each other and interact in a very intimate way, is a unique aspect of Bell’s work: he is not interested in mere decorative patterning, the work must live and glow, expanding and contracting like Northern Lights.

Bell does not believe that a painting must tell a story to be understood, rather that a work of art must convey its message in purely visual terms which supercede the story-telling function. His paintings, like music, affect the viewer through tone and interval, rhythm and accent, the push and pull of tough versus soft, of expansion versus contraction, of melodic line which pulls the eye rather than touching the ear.

Nevertheless, Bell feels that Burn relates directly to the moon shot experience. He wrote at the time: “Determinedly an object, Burn was nevertheless a deliberate re-creation of fundamental aspects of that particular experience, the energy, the lift, the multiple state acceleration, and the light phenomenon; the night sky turned blue… and the amazing pillars of fire left behind the rocket immediately after take-off.”

From the stimulus of the moon shot evolved another series of the tall, narrow canvases, called Light Pillars, the component panels separated by space which required the viewer’s participation in a constant, controlled shifting of focus moving across the surfaces of the multiple canvases, vertically and diagonally, the eye constantly in movement. By means of these “pulses” of interactive colors capable of transmitting light sensations, Bell could saturate and shift the viewer’s eye by use of varying intensities and placement progressions.

The works themselves got larger and larger. A mural commissioned by the Lewis State Bank in Tallahassee was 125 feet long, all of it high-keyed continuing experience of intense color and light. Called Southern Light, it consists of 21 panels hung side by side.1 The experience covers the entire spectrum of the rainbow, pulling the eye from the deep blues at the left through reds and oranges to an explosion of yellow at the far right. These “light pulses,” as Bell calls them, create a shift across the slightly separated individual panels, pulling the eye into the cross reference reading through gradations of color alone. The eye is forced to move across the space in different directions and varying rhythms as hot color picks up from cold and then moves into brilliant light at the high end of the spectrum. The work is an extension of the Light Pillar series, which in turn had its genesis in the Canaveral moon shot.

Bell’s painting, Florida Queen, commissioned for the Orlando Airport in 1981, has a complex shape, wedged at the ends and composed of six panels tightly joined. It moves upwards from deep intense red at the bottom through orange and yellow to that particularly transparent green which in this subtropical climate is only seen at sunset just as the sun goes down. Florida Queen has the intense lift and strange glow of the Aurora Borealis, giving an extraordinary feeling of levitation, a sensitive choice for an airport. And it is precisely here that Bell’s paintings are at their strongest: it is not the placing of the brilliant color on canvas that distinguishes his work, it is what he can make color do. His flamelike tones rise like the forms in an El Greco or a Tintoretto, yet he is able to create this intensity of experience through color relations alone.

Soon Bell began exploring even further variations of canvas shape, using wedges, diagonals, circular forms, wheels, and a square with rounded corners, among others. Works like Small Florida Light divided the canvas into two unequal parts, the composition carrying across the slightly intervening space through the continuation of the color and forms. In the wheel-like canvases, called Radial, colors radiate out from the center, some brilliant in tone, like Radial with Counterweights, now in the collection of IBM in New York; others somber and foreboding as in Bosigran and Rotator, where the handsome deep tones are enlivened by streaks of red and yellow, like lightning on a stormy night. These are among his most effective works, proving that Bell can make as strong a statement using recessive colors as he can with the brilliant hot tones.

The squares with rounded corners are a particularly effective format, lending themselves to quiet, more pacific effects with many alternative readings. A recent trip by the artist to India brought forth a shape based on a temple gate and gave new impetus to the work. The somewhat complex form of the canvas is centered and held by “energy bars” and “stabilizers” as Bell calls them: vertical and horizontal bands of color which bring the canvas back into a balanced format. Temple Gate, painted in 1985 and included in his one-man show at the Metropolitan Museum of Miami, is a fine example: the wedged red shape is held in check by a loosely defined rectangle of blue and orange in the center, the whole unified by areas in which a mixture of the blue and orange complementary colors becomes a somber anchor to the pure tones.

Recently, the artist has made an effort to get away from what he perceived as an increasingly “atmospheric” surface and back to a statement of pure color on a flat surface. He has begun to shift away from the left-to-right reading of the work and return to a more frontal, advancing and receding use of color, the hazy scumbling of the early ‘80s being replaced with defined color areas which once again assert the primacy of the picture plane and their objectness, their “itness,” as Aldous Huxley called it. These paintings force the viewer to see them as paint on canvas, proclaiming their function as a color statement where the actual physical properties of advancing and receding colors create the space relationships.

A recent visit back to Cornwall and the north of England reminded Bell of the cooler, more somber colors of his native land. What he has called “the rocking and swinging images” observed in English harbors brought about a return to the circular forms of the earlier works of the eighties. In addition, the cool blues and dark grays of the English climate were once again to influence his painter’s eye.

He found, however, as with the moon shot at Canaveral, that too exact an image of the view experienced interfered with his paintings, so that he needed time to digest the new visual stimuli and transmute them in terms of painting alone. As a result, Bell sought a return to the density and the use of deep pictorial space which had been abandoned in the pure color paintings. Yet at the same time he wanted to make that space ambiguous, or even canceled, so that the sensation of depth was there without overt references to form in space.

The new darker colors and heavy, rocking shapes, like boats swinging at anchor in a rough English sea, show this new attitude toward color: it has become more structural and specifically related to paint quality and to form, rather than to the earlier concern with light pulsation as an end in itself.

But the colors are always a quintessential ingredient in Bell’s work. Their more subtle interactions on the canvas still proclaim this artist as one of the foremost colorists of our day.

In 1987, Leslie Ahlander was the art critic for the Miami News. For fifteen years she had been the art critic for the Washington Post, and had also worked as a staff member for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C., and the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida.