Leland Bell - Biography and Legacy
New York, New York, USA
Biography of Leland Bell
Leland Bell was born in Cambridge, Maryland, in 1922, and grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn. As a young boy, he was interested in drawing, often copying Norman Rockwell's illustrations and pictures in cowboy books. He also earned extra money by drawing caricatures for people on the street. Bell's other passion, jazz, led him to frequent New York's jazz clubs. In high school, Bell's Russian-Jewish parents moved the family to Washington, D.C. where he occasionally cut class to copy the works he saw at Phillips Memorial Gallery (now the Philips Collection) and the Library of Congress, and was particularly drawn to works by Paul Klee and Thomas Eakins.
Toward the end of high school, Bell met painter Karl Knaths, who suggested Bell move to Provincetown, Massachusetts. Following a brief stay there, Bell moved to New York in 1941. For a period he lived next door to painter Robert De Niro, Sr., who suggested Bell join him as a guard at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later the Guggenheim). Bell worked there briefly, but was fired for telling a visitor that he could see a better painting at another exhibition. Largely a self-taught artist, Bell did spend a short period in 1942 studying at Hans Hofmann's school where he met Icelandic figurative painter Louisa Matthiasdottir. (In fact, Bell has said that he first attended Hofmann's school because he had heard about the pretty Icelandic women enrolled there.) Bell then spent a brief time in the Pacific with the Merchant Marines, but was back in New York by 1943. In 1944, he married Matthiasdottir, whom he called Ulla, and their daughter Temma was born in 1945. Temma would also later become a painter.
Most of Bell's work from the 1940s no longer exists. Those paintings that remain, particularly from early in that decade, are more abstract than his later artworks, while showing the same energetic sensibility. Bell did not view his work in distinct abstract and figurative phases; rather, he saw fluidity in his style throughout his career. Bell began moving toward a stronger representational and figurative focus just as abstract work became popular among his fellow New York artists. From 1950 to 1951, Bell and his family traveled to Paris, where he absorbed the work of colleagues Jean Helion, Balthus, and Alberto Giacometti. Upon returning to New York, Bell continued painting while also taking on numerous side jobs, such as a deckhand on a tugboat, a waiter, a janitor, and a library stockboy. Following a 1955 exhibition at New York's Hansa Gallery, Bell received numerous solo exhibitions at various galleries in the city. He also began a long relationship with gallery owner Robert Schoelkopf, who gave Bell frequent shows, starting in 1964 and continuing for several decades. Much of Bell's work from this time focused on portraiture, particularly in paintings of himself and of Ulla. Despite Schoelkopf's consistent support, Bell sold few paintings and remained somewhat ignored by the critics, likely due in part to the fact that his work did not fit neatly into any one category. Instead, his style remained independent and distinct from that of his Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist colleagues.
Late Years and Death
In addition to painting, Bell was a well-respected and renowned teacher and lecturer. He was particularly resolute about defending the artists he revered, and was vociferous when disagreeing with others. Bell was a founding faculty member at the New York Studio School, beginning in 1964, and taught painting Parsons School of Design, Yale University, Indiana University, and the Kansas City Art Institute. Over the next decades, he continued refining both his artistic style and his previously created paintings. (For instance, Bell expanded on his Family Group series of the late 1960s to create the Butterfly Group works of the 1970s and 1980s.) Although he created a number of still life paintings, the human figure remained his most consistent subject matter, especially his wife and daughter. His later paintings, such as the Butterfly Group (1968) and Morning series (c. 1970s-80s), demonstrate his most well formed style of movement, sharp delineations of space and plays on light and shadow. Bell died in New York in 1991.
The Legacy of Leland Bell
Shaping his own distinctive style outside the influence of the more popular Abstract Expressionist movement may have prevented Bell from receiving the critical and financial support his contemporaries garnered. Yet, it was precisely this commitment to a less fashionable, figurative focus that made Bell a significant artistic figure and passionate lecturer. Today, Bell's paintings are held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., the Rose Museum of Brandeis University, Massachusetts, and the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, among others.