Shifting Rhythms of Leland Bell

Article excerpt

Byline: Joanna Shaw-Eagle

The art of the late Leland Bell, a D.C. native who spent most of his professional life in New York City, exhilarates and challenges in a solo show opening tomorrow at American University's Watkins Gallery.

Heavy black outlines delineate brilliantly colored figures that work as geometrical patterns and flesh-and-blood humans. Exhibit curators Jonathan Bucci and Ron Haynie divided the long, narrow central gallery into Mr. Bell's sex-and-death-oriented "Morning" series on one side and his more complex life-and-art "Family Groups" and "Butterfly" ones at the far end and to the right.

Mr. Bell (1922-1991) also played jazz drums, and the rhythms and dissonant color planes of his paintings reflected his music. The artist prized pictorial structures as much as he did the ordering of jazz compositions. His close friend, the painter Albert Kresch, wrote: "Bell went for the jugular. He hardly bothered with anything extraneous except perhaps at the beginning of paintings but after that - it was full-fire power. Every color counted or was changed or eliminated."

The main gallery's compressed space helps underline the concentrated and powerful tensions of Mr. Bell's world: pulls between stillness and sound, movement and stasis, abstraction and representation, and universality and individuality. Although the artist learned from the teachings of abstraction, he also wanted to evoke individuals and human character. Mr. Bell explored still life, portraiture and figuration, the usual subjects of Western art, but the curators chose to emphasize the figurative work - especially the ambitious late "figure groups." The organizers also included a nice grouping of the self-portraits.

Critics and the public never accorded the artist the recognition he deserved. The Phillips Collection gave Mr. Bell his only museum retrospective exhibit in 1987. "Changing Rhythms: Works by Leland Bell, 1950s-1991," organized by Swarthmore College's List Gallery and traveling to five university galleries and New York's Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, is long overdue. It comes as a treat for Washingtonians and runs through Feb. 2.

Mr. Bell has been called an idiosyncratic artist and rebel. He painted abstractly in the early 1940s before Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning attempted abstraction. When abstraction became the mode for New York painters in the 1950s, the artist turned to figuration. New York abstract-expressionists cultivated what they called a unique American aesthetic, but Mr. Bell turned to French modernism. The painter lived in Paris for a year, returned often and met artists such as Balthus, Alberto Giacometti and Hans Arp. He definitely did not go with the New York flow.

Abstraction in the 1950s and 1960s was an overwhelming force and tended to put fine realist painters such as Richard Diebenkorn, Philip Pearlstein, Mr. Bell and Fairfield Porter on the back burner. The influx of European surrealists after World War II fueled abstract expressionism, and realism has not had an easy time since.

Mr. Bell's monumental "Morning" works set the scene for his ambiguous, unsettling psychological probing as well as the dissonances of lines, planes and colors. The paintings depict disturbed awakenings. In the exhibit's "Morning II" (1978-81), a nude woman has emerged from bed to see that a cat has brought in a bird. …