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Everyday Epic

Life lessons from the ecstatic, Hegelian work of painter Leland Bell.

Some men and women are so gloriously alive that even years after their deaths it is difficult to believe they are no longer with us. That is how I feel about the painter Leland Bell, who died of leukemia in 1991 at the age of 69. Lee’s great theme was vitality, gusto. To make a painting was his way of celebrating the life force. He worked on his canvases incessantly, obsessively, infusing his finest figure compositions with the rhythmic exuberance of chromatic harlequinades.

Lori Bookstein Fine Art in New York has half a dozen of these daring, uncategorizable paintings gathered together in one big, square room until May 21. And they are still as wonderfully strange as they were when I first saw some of them, more than 20 years ago. Nothing goes together, at least not in any predictable way. The subjects are minor domestic dramas. But they are treated grandiosely, mythologically, hieratically, almost abstractly. The excitement is in the dissonance, in the tension between Bell’s strongly shaped figures and his flat planes of high-keyed color. In the greatest painting here—Family Group with Butterfly (1986-90)—three figures gathered around a table gesture at a butterfly that’s entered the room. Bell revels in the long horizontal format. He builds a syncopated rhythm out of unfurling lines and colors. The mood is almost impossible to pin down, at once comic and grave, buoyant and solid, obvious and mysterious. Bell trumps the ordinary story. Nothing is what it appears to be. There is a dialectical profundity about Bell’s children’s book simplifications. Family Group with Butterfly is an everyday epic.

Lee painted self-portraits, portraits, landscapes, and still lifes as well as figure compositions, and the show at Lori Bookstein includes a second room with many smaller works on paper that give a sense of a more saturnine side of the artist’s personality. In portraits and self-portraits he often used a dark-toned palette remote from the candy-box exuberance of the later figure compositions, but this willingness to simultaneously work in several dissimilar chromatic ranges was only one more aspect of Lee’s dialectical imagination. He was a formalist for whom the grand old battles between line and color or classicism and romanticism were not so much matters of artistic tradition as they were world historical dramas, contests that had to be reengaged in the present. I think that at heart Lee was a Hegelian who embraced the materiality of art in order to reach the spirituality of art. When he spoke about the artists he loved—and nobody spoke more beautifully about painting than Lee—he was talking about formal values, of course, but he was also talking about life, about passion. When he discussed the twentieth-century artists he revered but felt others undervalued—Rouault, Dufy, and, especially, Derain—he was a romantic whom some of his contemporaries dismissed as a romantic madman. As for me, I found that Lee’s intensity helped me see things more clearly. He taught me that lines, colors, and forms function as weights, forces, and rhythms. He showed me that a painting is a formalization of the life force.

So long as Lee was alive, it was not always easy to separate the painting from the man, the power of the picture from the power of the voice. His great point, as I understood it, was that art involved a reshaping—a reformulation—of the energies that coursed through the universe. Art was an abstraction of experience that doubled as a re-presentation of experience. Art was the alchemy through which the everyday became an aspect of eternity. As for the 20 years since Lee’s death, in some ways they already feel like an eternity. Time has begun to separate the man from the paintings. And Lee’s paintings are still here, their dissonances as disquieting as ever, maybe more disquieting than before. The man’s life, far from lost, is now deep in his canvases, flesh become form.

Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.

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