Leland Bell at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries
Sweet September, In Town and Out

Two sweet things happened between Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah. Our resident foxes took a nonchalant trot, en famille, down the length of the driveway. In full view. And forty years of Leland Bell’s painting opened at Salander-O’Reilly. Another full, satisfying view.


Morning V
Morning V, Leland Bell, 1985, acrylic on canvas, 71 1/2 x 56 inches

SALANDER-O’REILLY’S SEASON OPENER is a deep and rare pleasure. It is an exhibition for lovers—lovers of paint, of color, drawing, and the subtle wonderments of influences carefully chosen and thoroughly absorbed.

Forty years of Leland Bell’s paintings, from the 1950’s to his death in 1991, are here until the end of the month. If you are not near enough to NYC to see it, call the gallery (212.879.6606) and ask for a catalogue. The reproductions are delicious, the essays worth having. And its free.

If you do not recognize his name, you are not alone. Bell was a painter’s painter in the very best sense of the phrase. Revered by a small circle of artists and students, he lived his painting life askance of established trade routes. While his reputation among other painters grew, he never achieved either the critical or financial success of lesser but trendier artists.

His work was difficult to classify—classical in its reticence but not in its forms or coloration; abstract in its rhythms and hieratic stylizations yet determinedly representational. This, at a time when representation was under heavy fire as not quite creative enough. In the 50’s, the figure was an encumbrance to its own practitioners, an awkward guest to be hastily introduced, handed a drink and steered past the fast crowd on the dance floor.

Looking at Bell’s work today, it is hard for a contemporary audience to recognize the audacity of it. The human figure, as a viable subject for art, had been taking it on the chin since the Armory Show of 1913. By the 1950’s, the fundamental concepts of figuration were under heavy fire from all directions. But Bell held to an unfashionable truth: in the hands of a rightful love, the figure is forever new, responsive and full of grace.

Side-stepping the post-war turn to abstraction with its rhetorical pretensions, he staked everything on the enduring worth of the figurative traditions he loved. He also made himself something of an anomaly. The art market, like any other, feeds on identifiable brands. Like the entertainment industry, it wants artists who flatter its poses and who cultivate the preferred image. Bell did neither.

He had no inhibitions about criticizing the work of other painters. And he spared little energy suffering the attention of collectors he considered . . .well, fools. His long time dealer, Robert Schoelkopf, sat in my Brooklyn studio and told me—half-admiring, half-exasperated—that he had a hard time selling Bell’s work. When he would send a potential client to Bell’s West 16th Street studio, the painter would instigate challenging discussions that, invariably, left the visitor feeling antagonized and grateful to leave.

Figure Group with Bird
Figure Group with Bird, Leland Bell, 1991, acrylic on canvas, 58 1/2 x 91 inches

That day in my studio, not long before his final illness, Schoelkopf said an interesting thing. He admitted to a belief that every serious contemporary figure painter had to work their way through Balthus. At the time, I did not appreciate just how much that conviction owed to Schoelkopf’s admiration for Bell. But now I do. Balthus himself is a summation of sources, each strain a living idea. Here, on view together, are the fruits of Bell’s deep romance with Balthus’ hieratic bedroom scenes, particularly The Dream, 1956, The Moth, 1959, and the Cheshire-like motif of the cat.

Bell paid a price for his choice of traditions and his commitment to it. As Hilton Kramer writes in the New York Observer: "Neither Clement Greenberg nor Harold Rosenberg nor any of the critics nor collectors who followed their lead, ever paid Bell’s work the slightest attention."

A founding member of the Studio School in 1964, Bell was a popular lecturer and teacher. I had heard him speak on his beloved Derain. It was the most mesmerizing talk on art I had ever attended. Bar none. He was eloquent, passionate and thoroughly non-academic. For all the prestige of his teaching experience (at Parsons School of Design, Yale University, Kansas City Art Institute) he was never donnish. He was a gifted, educated—largely self-educated—man who loved his craft and had the fortitude to testify to his own loves.

Andrea Packard, director of Swathmore’s List gallery offers a window onto his working habits: "Bell could not resist reworking even his mosts ambitious and previously published compositions. He repainted works after they were photographed for exhibition announcements. He significantly repainted Morning V after it was featured on the cover of Weber’s monograph."

There is an endearing echo here of Turner, known to have retouched his paintings on the sneak while they were on exhibit. A little more cadmium where the canvas seems to want it? Why not? His loyalty was to the needs of the canvas, not of the audience or the exhibitors.

Bell’s devotion to the process of creating art is somethings quite distinct from concern for the manufacture of a saleable dry good. Pleasure in the act of working is its own Eden. He occupied himself with his own formal discoveries and solutions to problems of his own making. Flattering a market was not one of his worries.

Bell shunned "relevant" motifs, those fashionalbe ones that are more the subject of oratory than of art. Instead, he seized the motifs that moved him, returning again and again to the same sources of emotion and formal challenge. He painted his family, his cymbals and drums, household items, the world in front of him. Blood and bone remained at the heart of his endeavors.

I love the rhythmic pentimenti and undulating chalk lines that mark his progress through an image. His working methods did not yield a large output. Bell was driven more by a passion for reworking, refining and improving previous work than in turning out a product. Bell whited-out whole sections, redrawing and repainting them. His pentimenti do not rise to the surface to embarrass an otherwise polished piece. Rather, they are part of the tapestry of the image, a record of decisions made and abandoned in the service of bringing the painting closer to the aim in view. They trace Bell’s capacity for taking pains. And it is this capacity, more than any particular theme or method, that links him to the traditions and masters that he loved.

Nicholas Fox Weber, in his 1986 monograph on Bell, gave the reason for seeing this work: "His work can provide pleasures of the highest order. It has power; it celebrates life itself; it can nourish us enlessly with the beauty of painting as a craft, and paintings as the relfector of the miracles of our existence.

There is no finer reason for looking at any artist.


MY FOXES ARE A LOVELY COPPER COLOR, flecked with burnt sienna, carmine and mars orange. Like new pennies, they seem brighter in the first season or two. In the older, larger ones—more wary neighbors than this young female and her two pups—the red is hushed, edging toward brown. A cautious red ochre.

Coyotes are here, too. There were enough of them last year to stir the local library to hold a town meeting on "How to Live with Coyotes." (Hint: Don’t let your cat out.) They keep better hidden than foxes but the effects of their presence are visible enough. With more canids about, fewer geese pitched camp on the Duck Pond this summer. Goslings were missing for the first time ever. Did they go the way of a fox lunch? Or did mama geese simply aim farther south for the streams along the Saw Mill and Bronx River Parkways?

Gone, too, is the heron family that had summered on the pond for the past two years. Whatever were these regal, wet-land birds doing on a small pond between two truck routes? Slumming among workaday mallards and Canadian geese? No matter, I miss them. I ache for one more glimpse of them flapping across the water like prehistoric winged reptiles. Ungainly in the air, they stood stately, in sacerdotal patience, at the foot of the little waterfall that drains the pond. Waiting for bass.

Field mice have been summering indoors for the first time. They usually stay outside until the first chill, sometime in October. Not this year. Main dish grub for fox and coyote, they have been hugging the baseboards in my kitchen all season. A mouse a day for three days running! Laced with bait-bits, my house is lethal shelter. Poor blundering beasties.

I’ve only seen one coyote. On a snowy day last winter, a young 'un—dun-colored, like weathered clapboard or the bark of an old oak,—was sledding on its haunches downhill from an apple tree on the lower slope. It picked itself up at the bottom of the rise, turned and trotted to the top, then hunkered down and slid back to the bottom again. It was like watching a child sledding on the nearest garbage can cover.

Late night howls are becoming more familiar. This is our main cue that coyotes really are here. The sound was heart-stopping at first hearing. It is not at all the way I had imagined it from cowboy comics in childhood. ["Eiy-i-ooooo"] The cry rises in a sharp swell that fades in mournful diminuendo, a kind of keening. It could be the wail of a animal who has found her whelp murdered. A female sound. The lamentation of Rachel, inconsolable and beneath my own window.

I love coming home to these sights and nature-noises after a day in the studio. Isabel Bishop commuted all of her adult life from one of the Hudson River towns to a studio on 14th Street. I used to wonder why she bothered. Why not just stay in Union Square and save the train time? Now I know.


©2002 Maureen Mullarkey

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