Lori Bookstein Fine Art:   Leland Bell: Morning Series   July 7 - Aug 1, 2014     


Untitled (Morning Series IV)
ca. 1980s
acrylic and chalk on paper
15¾ x 12½ in

Leland Bell (1922-1991) was in many ways an artist outside of his own time. Moving to New York in the early 1940s, he became acquainted with a number of the future Abstract Expressionists – he argued about painting with Jackson Pollock, his co-worker at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (precursor to the Guggenheim) – but he was closer, personally and philosophically, to Giacometti and Jean Hélion. His tastes covered a wide range, from Coptic art to the great Venetian painters to Watteau and Arp and Matisse: essentially, all art that celebrated the compositional dynamics of color and form. Even as his painting evolved from abstraction to figuration in the 50s, he was driven to explore orchestrations of contained forces, putting him out of step with the angst-ridden gestures and enveloping, all-over effects of the New York School.

A passionate lecturer on the formal eloquence of the masters, Bell inspired many listeners and offended others with his dismissal of both academic and postmodern art. I was among the many who were inspired. I first studied with Bell in 1974, and attended many of his lectures and museum talks up till his death in 1991. He had the best eye for painting of anyone I’ve known. Along with other students, I gained from him, over the years, an inkling of the sprit that connected the greatest artists, and how this spirit distinguished them from their lesser peers, not through skill, taste, or sophistication, but through particularly deep perceptions of painting’s most irreducible elements: color and form. It was a tremendous gift.

Bell’s energy, however, went foremost into his own paintings. These unique works are the other gift that he leaves us. His abstracted figure paintings, still lifes and landscapes are at once stark and luminous, capturing his subjects in urgently redrawn contours and pulsing hues.

His twelve small paintings currently on view at Lori Bookstein include ten works in graphite, charcoal and acrylic – many of which leave large portions of the ground exposed – as well as two “finished” oil paintings. (“Finished” being a relative term with Bell’s work; he was known for constantly reworking paintings, even after they had been exhibited or reproduced in magazines.) All date from the 1980s, and all pursue a favored theme: a nude woman standing before a window, beneath which a man reclines in a bed and a cat crouches on the floor.

At first glance, these works withhold easy charms. Deprived of seductive textures and atmosphere, all elements are reduced to planes, with some colors unnaturalistically heighted, and some human forms more bulbous than graceful. Move beyond cursory impressions, however, and Bell’s passions become clear. Though schematized, the images all derive from observed effects of light, coalescing with pictorial energy rather than illustrational verisimilitude. He employs compositional means – the gathering rhythms of weighted color – to not simply picture a standing individual, but to embody it: to convey the resistance of a torso to gravity, and the extension of an arm and its resolution in a hand.

Even with portions of their surfaces left bare, the acrylic paintings unfold as complete worlds. In “Untitled (Morning Series IV)”, a diagonal division of the floor – a deep, retiring burnt sienna set against a lighter terra cotta hue – palpably conveys a falling shadow. At the painting’s very top, the woman’s contour arcs in a series of articulations – hip, shoulder, elbow – that culminate, just beyond the window frame, in the bending of a wrist. This taut arc elasticizes the broad space between it and the floor’s diagonal. One senses, tangibly, the enclosure of space by a stretching figure. The window frame, dividing vacant blue of sky from absorptive blue-green curtain, speeds down to the opposing, horizontal complex of the male figure, planting him physically below our point of view. (This despite the fact that he consists entirely of chalk and paint outlines.) Though only about sixteen inches tall, the painting re-creates the scale of real-life events.

From painting to painting, Bell’s blues range from rich cobalt to airy cerulean and shrill tints of “thalo.” Introspective green-blues set off earthy orange-pinks; a royal purple presides, while a deep turquoise sounds in the depths; an acidic green-ochre of floor launches a sky of flaming orange. Color propels the drawing; in response to the pressures of hues, the drawing in each painting locates events anew: the woman’s torso arcs forward or slightly backwards, the man lies prone or props upward on pillows, arms and legs assume various positions. Or, does drawing propel the color? Whichever leads, both dive into the adventure of a visual language, breathing life into the artifice underneath all painting.

These are not simply a modernist’s fanciful preoccupations. After all, what makes the gesture of the lifted arm in Rembrandt’s “Flora” so momentous? Take away the technical dross from this painting at the Metropolitan Museum—the indulgences of texture and atmosphere, which Rembrandt’s students could supply equally well—and you’re left with the singular effect of forms building powerfully upon each other. Rembrandt, of course, went deeper, locating the intensifying articulations of a face within the broader scheme of the figure, these details somehow heightening rather than diluting the rhythmic accumulation. It’s a feat matched by few painters, and no living ones; no wonder Bell talked repeatedly of the “impossibility” of a true likeness.

Standing in front of his paintings at Lori Bookstein, I recalled an observation of my old English teacher: “People like to think they’re revealing themselves, when they’re actually exposing themselves.” The phrase would apply particularly well to painters. We all produce and reveal our work in the shadows of some very great artists, and in the process instantly expose our incomplete comprehension of them. Bell’s paintings, too, expose obvious tendencies. His ability to articulate detail without weakening the whole was limited (as it is for virtually every other modern painter), and he was obsessed with preserving rhythmic momentum even if it meant dispensing with detail. Most of all, he disdained easy seductions. What his paintings reveal is subtler, and occurs in-between his color and lines. They reveal not strategic effects, nor indulgent predilections, but the potent interactions of forms and colors. These he shares, allowing then to speak for themselves, as finally they must.

Bell, ultimately, sought to reveal not himself, nor his abilities, but the transcendent powers of painting. Not every viewer will be receptive, but for others the lyrical force of his paintings will inspire.

Lori Bookstein Fine Art
138 Tenth Ave., New York NY 10011
212-750-0949 · www.loribooksteinfineart.com