TREVOR BELL AT EIGHTY
'EARTH, AIR, FIRE, WATER, AETHER'
“I think about things that excite me: convoluted strata, the eroded and broken edges of cliffs, the constant interaction of the elements, the movement of boats on water...
I think about the object and its inner image; the activity of each and the play between the two and I try to be straight forward to remove unnecessary information.
For all the theorizing, formal and conceptual notions, the truth of the matter is that I see myself as a conduit - the titles come afterwards so that I don’t impose myself on the work as it goes along. Then I leave it alone.
I have been saying the same thing all my working life, just in different ways.”
This was written for my 2002 Lydon Contemporary exhibition in Chicago and here I am in 2010 realizing that whatever I might conjure up - I could not, and should not say more.
Trevor Bell, 2010
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It is an enormous privilege to be showcasing this extraordinary exhibition of new work by Trevor Bell to commemorate his eightieth birthday.
As I write these words, with raw memory having recently arrived back from the studio, having been confronted by this monumental collection, I have to pinch myself to re-register that this giant of 20th and now 21st Century painting has created these paintings unaided at such a grand age. However whilst marveling at the brave and youthful energy of the physical gestural mark making it is clear that they could only have been achieved to such effect aided by the wisdom and confidence of advanced experience. Such a rare combination is incredibly inspiring, indeed moving.
This afternoon whilst at the studio I pointed to a photograph of Bell working on an epic painting standing some two stories high taken whilst in the USA some years ago. “I’ve still got it in me you know” Bell enforced, with that steely (now familiar) look with associated glint in the eye. I have no doubt about it.
The work itself needs no further introduction by me - the exhibition title suggests enough, and of course the paintings themselves say it all, when seen and when felt. I have however placed below, extracts from selected texts written about Bell’s works over the years by way of paying homage to this important occasion and to a remarkable man who’s life time has been spent making work of such impact and timeless relevance.
Joseph Clarke, 2010
"The Spontaneity that we have idolised since the coming of Romanticism as the hallmark of sincerity and creative drive is here replaced by a tactical skill that marshals pictorial elements and firmly controls them without denying them their individual life."
Norbert Lynton, Art Critic and Historian New Statesman, 1964
"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... From 1960 - 1963 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."
John Elderfield, Head Curator of MOMA New York and Art Historian, 1970
"One of the most important painters working anywhere today is Trevor Bell... As far as I am concerned [Bell’s paintings] are far and away the most original and successful shaped canvas paintings - which remain paintings - to have been produced anywhere. But the task of justifying this judgement and of explaining, even to myself, the reasons for their very great power and beauty is daunting in the extreme, because so much about their construction, their literal appearance and colour, is unique and therefor outside existing terms of formal comparison and analysis ."
Patrick Heron, Artist, 1970
"Works on paper and studies for paintings stand up well on their own, showing careful thought that underlines the blazing paintings... With their disarming appearance of irresponsible spontaneity. A tough, experienced and travelled sensibility has been at work, making light-filled glowing paintings which flirt interestingly somewhere between stridency and serenity."
Marina Vaizey, Art Critic, Author, Curator, Broadcaster, Financial Times, 1973
"Bell has chosen to set before us images which, in part, are to do with the energy of human touch set against a pictorial space which evokes the painting tradition of evocations of the sublime. In this way, encouragingly and honestly naive in our contemporary culture which values such feelings below the cynical and the pessimistic, Bell reflects the optimism which has always underpinned the best abstract art."
Michael Tooby, Gallery Director and Curator, Tate Gallery St. Ives catalogue, 1999
"Bell’s immediate surroundings, and the craggy Cornish coastline in particular, provided important stimuli for his abstractions. Like the early Kandinsky, he often derived his motifs from the landscape, then distilled them to the point where their origins are obscured but not lost."
Helen A Harrison, Art Critic and Historian, New York Times, 2002
"Bell’s art is, in the loosest sense, spiritual. It evokes, or reflects, an idea of some abstract force that exceeds material reality... In this sense, we can see his art as solidly rooted in the values of 1950’s St. Ives, where artists sought to salvage the fantasy of utopian modernism for the post-war world through a re- engagement with nature. The dangers and losses of the modern world would be compensated through the rediscovery of natural order and process, and a renewed sense of individual identity would be established through the exploration of forces larger than ourselves. Bell’s work, one might say, has always derived in one way or another from this new sublime."
Chris Stephens, Head of Displays at Tate Britain, Modern Painters, 2000
“This work is a celebration of life and the act of painting. Walk up close and allow the paintings to fill your peripheral vision - feel the physicality of the experience. Their image sense is potent.”
Lynne Green, Writer, Publisher and former Gallery Director, Trevor Bell : Both Ends of The Stream, 2009
"Art does not make social statements, but contributes to society on a deeper, less tangible level. I feel that what we should get from art is a sense of wonder, of something beyond ourselves, that celebrates our ‘being’ here."
Trevor Bell Modern Painters 2002
Trevor Bell was a British artist, born in Leeds, England in 1930. He passed away in 2017 at his home in west Cornwall.
Bell's creative interest focussed primarily, on painting’s power to evoke sensation, which for him superseded any illusionistic properties that it might have. Ambitious in scale and dynamic in form, the range of work is diverse, Bell’s over is a celebration of mutable energy, elemental forces and a quest for contemplative stillness. He achieved significant critical acclaim and recognition for his direct, abstract forms which emphatically represent the conflicting or harmonious physicality found in the natural world to the spiritual concerns which connect all that surrounds us from the micro to the macro.
Bell was as an important figure within the St Ives post war modernist movement, which achieved international acclaim. He also spent a significant part of his career in the USA, where he became head of art at Tallahassee State University, a role that he approached with zeal alongside the continued production of his expansive paintings and public artworks for which he became known. In 2007 Tate St Ives presented a ‘Beyond Materiality' a solo exhibition of contemporary work shown alongside key works drawn from five decades of painting. Chris Stephens (then head of displays at Tate Britain) said "Bell’s art is, in the loosest sense, spiritual. It evokes, or reflects, an idea of some abstract force that exceeds material reality... The dangers and losses of the modern world would be compensated through the rediscovery of natural order and process, and a renewed sense of individual identity would be established through the exploration of forces larger than ourselves. Bell’s work, one might say, has always derived in one way or another from this new sublime."
In 1955 he was encouraged by a friend and peer, Terry Frost, to travel to St Ives where he would find a place that he could focus on his painting amongst the town’s expanding artistic community. There he joined Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, Barbara Hepworth and Patrick Heron amongst others. Bell’s career was quick to climb. Patrick Heron described Bell as “The best non-figurative painter under 30”. The following year Bell was awarded the honour of the prize for painting at the Paris Biennale. During this year Bell visited the ‘Museum of the Man’ which was to have a profound affect on him. Bells says of this encounter “To see the power of the masks and the actual presence of things, it made me realise that I wanted the work to have an equivalent that would be ‘it’ rather than the ‘illusion of it’, to be the ‘God’ rather than an 'illusion of a God’”. Bell also described an early meeting with Zen monk and teacher Snhunryu Suzuki at the house of Bernard Leach as particularly pivotal. Bell credits Suzuki with describing what he was “feeling" he had to do in painting, these lessons remained with him all his life. Bell stayed in St. Ives for five years constantly developing his technique and painting language, but in 1960 left St Ives and returned to Leeds College of Art as a Gregory Fellow (the youngest to date). It was here the he began to develop his shaped works which began to set him apart from other abstract artists of his generation. John Elderfield (head curator of MOMA New York) said "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.” During the 1960s Bell showed work in major exhibitions in the UK and USA and during this time his work was first bought for the Tate collection. Bells idiosyncratic work continued to develop. In 1970, Patrick Heron stated; “One of the most important painters working anywhere today is Trevor Bell... As far as I am concerned [Bell’s paintings] are far and away the most original and successful shaped canvas paintings - which remain paintings - to have been produced anywhere. But the task of justifying this judgment and of explaining, even to myself, the reasons for their very great power and beauty is daunting in the extreme, because so much about their construction, their literal appearance and colour, is unique and therefore outside existing terms of formal comparison and analysis.” In 1972, while on a visit to Florida State University, Bell witnessed at first hand the night-time launch of the Apollo 17 space mission at Cape Canaveral. It was a spectacle that captured and inspired Bell, and became a captivating source for a number of works which followed. These works were included in his solo exhibition at London's Whitechapel Gallery in 1973, having just taken part in a major exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC. Bell located to the USA in 1975 and in 1976 after being appointed by Florida State University to become Professor for Master painting. Bell viewed his time in Tallahassee fondly, here with the provision of a warehouse sized studio and time to really develop his painting he continued to produce ambitious works. Alongside gallery exhibitions, he worked on public art commissions including 'Florida Queen' for the passenger terminal at Orlando airport made in 1981. Bell was included in the 1983 Tate Gallery ‘St Ives 1939-64’ exhibition and in the inaugural Tate St Ives exhibition when it opened in 1993. When he retired from Florida State University in 1996 he returned to Cornwall which had remained a spiritual home. He converted a farmhouse in to large scale studio’s to continue to make work with notable ambition. Bell was made an honoury academician of the Royal West of England Academy, an Honoury Fellow of Falmouth University and Professor Emeritus as Florida State in recognition of his achievements. Support in the US continued with Florida State University ensuring that Bell’s key American works remained prominent. A monograph published by Sanson & Company in 2009 written by Elizabeth Knowles and Chris Stephens communicated the huge breadth of Bell’s work on both sides of the Atlantic. 14 works were acquired by The Tate in 2014 and an acquisition was made in 2015 by the Perez Art Museum in Florida the most recent major acquisitions in a roster that includes a multitude of important public collections here and abroad. His final body of work ‘Beyond the Edge’ made at the age of 85 was a tour de force of purity, balance and the sublime - which encapsulated his philosophical aims for ‘nothing extra’ to intrude in the work. Bell would sum up his ability to encapsulate and distil natures physical and metaphysical complexity with a graceful rawness and often profound simplicity with typical humility by stating that "He was just in the middle”. Most recently Bell collaborated with choreographer Rodger Belman in the states in an exhibition incorporating painting and dance and in the final months of his life he was focussing on a future public solo exhibition 'Trans-Form’, a celebration of key recent and older works, their energies transformed into sound and contemporary dance. Trevor Bell’s paintings are represented by Anima-Mundi.