Painter Leland Bell, A Great Lecturer, Finally Gets Exhibit

The Leland Bell exhibition, which has come to the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries after a yearlong tour of college museums, is not to be missed by anyone with a serious interest in the art of painting. Bell, who died in 1991 at the age of 69, has been a very distinctive figure on the New York art scene for more than four decades. He was an artist possessed of deeply held beliefs about painting, and he was never shy about expressing them. Among his artist friends, his tireless, high-spirited talk about painting was a legend in itself, and his public lectures were often spellbinding. I once wandered into the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.-a kind of second home to Bell-and heard him lecturing on Braque. I left feeling, as I’m sure others did that day, that I’d never before been given such a profound understanding of this wonderful painter.

About his personal pantheon of European modernists-besides Braque, he especially admired Arp, Mondrian, Balthus, Giacometti, Derain, Hélion, Léger and La Fresnaye-Bell often spoke with a missionary zeal, and it was under their influence that he created a pictorial style of his own. This might best be described as painterly representation tempered by the discipline of abstraction. Or as Bell himself once said: “I would love to have a structure as powerful and human and deeply probing as Mondrian’s, but I also want to invent something that will accommodate the appearance of things.”

This was a combination of aesthetic imperatives that placed Bell very much at odds with the most acclaimed pictorial styles of his day, especially in New York. He had himself started out as an abstract painter, but was unapologetic about abandoning abstraction in favor of representation at the very moment when New York School abstraction was scoring its famous “triumph” on the international art scene. Nor was Bell ever swayed from his course by the successive waves of Neo-Dada, Pop Art, Minimalism and the other movements that were capturing the lion’s share of attention in the media and the museums.

Throughout that entire period of radical change and aesthetic tumult on this side of the Atlantic, Bell remained steadfast in his loyalty to the earlier European modernists he revered. He was a frequent visitor to Paris, and got to know most of the painters he looked to for his standard of achievement. This was a more audacious commitment than it may seem in retrospect, for there was, inevitably, a price to be paid for his rugged independence: As far as I have been able to determine, neither Clement Greenberg nor Harold Rosenberg, nor any of the critics or curators or collectors who followed their lead, ever paid Bell’s work the slightest attention. That he was never given the honor of a retrospective at a New York museum is itself a measure of how rigid and conformist the New York art establishment had become in the period of its greatest prosperity.

For all these reasons, the exhibition that has now come to New York- Changing Rhythms: Works by Leland Bell, 1950’s-1991 -is a considerable event. Organized by Andrea Packard for the List Gallery at Swarthmore College and accompanied by an excellent catalog, Changing Rhythms gives us the most comprehensive account of the artist’s oeuvre ever to be seen in the city where he lived and worked for most of his life. If only for the section of the show devoted to Bell’s riveting portraits and self-portraits, this would be a show not to miss. The self-portraits may seem primarily psychological at first, for they look back at us even as we attempt to comprehend their force-yet in the end, the sustained intensity of expression proves to be a feat of pictorial invention that has elevated “the appearance of things” to another dimension of human experience.

Even more ambitious are the two series of paintings devoted to figure groups in interior settings. These are Bell’s masterworks. The intimate Morning paintings are set in a bedroom where a nude couple is distracted by the presence of a cat that has brought in a dead bird. In the ampler Butterfly and Bird pictures, the fully clothed figures are gathered around a dining table, and here the distraction is caused by the presence of uninvited flying creatures. The paintings in these series lend themselves to a variety of psychological interpretation, and some of these are discussed in the texts for the show’s catalog.

Yet here, too, the high interest that the paintings command is not anecdotal but pictorial. That they are full of allusions to Léger and Hélion and Balthus certainly adds something to our experience of them, but they remain pictorial inventions of Bell himself, and not the least of the many compelling things about them is way the aesthetics of abstraction is expressively integrated into figural compositions that are at once subtle, sensuous and austere.

Is it too much to hope that this fine exhibition of Bell’s work will prompt one of our New York museums to mount a full-scale retrospective? Probably. Yet he was a more important artist-a more important influence, too-than many people in the art world have understood him to be, and he is much missed today.

In one of the several excellent essays in the catalog for Changing Rhythms , the art historian Martica Sawin tells a story about going to see Bell’s paintings in his studio in 1957. When she arrived, Bell promptly confronted her by declaring: “I read what you wrote about Derain and I know you aren’t going to like my painting.” As Ms. Sawin writes: “This was a characteristic Bell opening gambit-a challenge on behalf of one of his artist-heroes and a warning that he wanted his own art to be seen in the context of the modern European tradition.” I once had a similar experience in the early 1960’s, when I wrote something about Derain that met with Bell’s disapproval. I still think he vastly overrated Derain. Yet since then, whenever I encounter a painting by Derain, I tend to give it a harder look, and more often than not come away feeling obliged to admit that Bell was right about him after all. Leland Bell, both the painter and the talker, had that effect on a lot of people. And this exhibition certainly establishes his place in the tradition he cherished.

Changing Rhythms: Works by Leland Bell, 1950’s-1991 remains on view at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 20 East 79th Street, through Sept. 28.