October 2022 in New York City: exhibitions by William Bailey at Betty Cunningham Gallery and Leland Bell at the New York Studio School! To have these two magnificent artists’ works still out there on display is a testament to their durability and significance.
Back in the late 1975, Leland Bell was a visiting artist at RISD and that’s when I first heard him speak and give critiques. He spoke with great animation: Played air drums in front of the painting he was looking at, bringing paintings to life…Around the same time is when I first saw one of Bailey’s still life paintings. The ochre-umber painting of eggs on a table hung in a dining room in Guildford, CT. It’s a quiet push-pull emanation…it cast an aura of peace and contemplation. The coloration of the painting was similar to this one, as I recall.
The palette is akin to the earthy tonal world of the Derain painting in Bell’s retrospective at the New York Studio School. Back when I worked at Schoelkopf Gallery on 57th street, Bell would rave about Derain!
The palette of Derain’s early work, the Fauve paintings, relates more to Bell’s colorations though.
In juxtaposing a self portrait and a figure composition, as seen in the 2022 fall retrospective at the New York Studio School, both the earthy tonal palette and the high chromatic palette can be seen. The latter especially plays to the musicality of Bell’s color and his composing.
To stand in front of this near life-size painting gives an entirely new sensation. Bell presents himself as both musician and painter, holding the drumstick where the brush might conventionally be. He gazes down at the abstraction on the floor as if that’s the music score to be played…Behind him on the wall hovers his own painting.
Self Portrait oil on canvas 52 X 37″
By contrast, Bailey’s color world comes out of Albers. He is essentially an abstract/relational kind of painter.
Bailey’s show at Betty Cunningham this fall of 2022, was a moving experience. The drawings and paintings created a shrine-like memorial. The post-humous environment (seen on a rainy day in the quiet afternoon) brought back many memories. The still life drawings, still life paintings, figure studies and group tableaus conduct marvelous orchestrations of volume and color. One curve echoes another, and one object or persona balances the other. Symmetry seems within grasp, and then vanishes. The order is maintained, but only as each exerts its identity as the whole of the work knits an effervescent field.
I especially like the young woman with the phone (at left), how the painting is realized. It is quite open to brushstroke. Apparently the landscapes, like his table-scapes, are inventions. There is no actual horizon like that in Umbria, though it is similar to a road on the other side of the hill from the road where the Baileys used to travel to their house.
The other painting that captured me was the one of two women (adrift in afternoon daydreams) on the grassy knoll. The negative shapes are continental. The blended colors of the field separates from the place where the hills are, the distance, where a warmer palette reigns. The familial females doze in a wispy sharing.
Detail of Woman with Phone
After seeing the Bailey show at Betty Cunningham Gallery, I went to the Whitney Museum and saw the Hopper in NY show. Such lonely paintings, such a sense of light, beautiful strong compositions. Reflecting back, Bailey’s way of painting feels relatively poetic and filtered through his own sensibility. By contrast, Hopper, whose work Bailey admired tremendously, feels more hard and illustrational. There are, however, moments in Hopper’s paintings that have tremendous improvised surfaces, scumbly moments of searching paint.
That is what I like most about Bailey’s late paintings: the seismic brush, the finicky inventiveness, the sense of vulnerability as he tries to compose these pristine moments, tries to figure the gentle, soft, geometric metaphysics of his memory and his imagination.
Bailey and Bell were giants…and their presence is missed. They have joined with the others whom they admired: Giotto, Piero, Carra, de Chirico, Corot, Courbet, Derain, Ingres, and Balthus.
While Bailey and Bell may be championed for their realism or figuration, both are essentially post-Modern, well-founded in Modernism. Their work exists in the twentieth century sense of the picture plane, the color relationships of Abstraction. Their psyches were embedded in what it is to live in the age of industry, electricity, trains, planes, and tele-communications (if not yet the digital age).
Bailey had a deep contemplative nature in his work. In the still life paintings and in the interiors, his color is very much his own, born of the earth colors of early Italian Renaissance paintings, or his own place in Italy, ochres, Paynes greys, Mars reds, umbers burnt and raw.
Detail of Two in Interior
In many ways, in the painting itself and in his being, though professorial, Italianate, and sophisticated, he was like an outsider, his quality that I cherish most.