Family Matters: Fathers and Daughters in Montauk
Fathers and Daughters: Leland Bell, Temma Bell, Albert Kresch, Elizabeth Kresch at BCK Fine Arts Gallery
September 16 – October 8, 2020
87 South Euclid Avenue
Montauk, New York
In Montauk, NY, BCK Fine Arts is no longer the only commercial gallery in town: Chase Contemporary and South Etna, new COVID-era ouposts of Manhattan dealers, , opened their doors in July. . Out on the tip of Long Island, masks and outdoor receptions are the new norm, but at least the art is on view, in the flesh.
BCK’s recent offering, “Fathers and Daughters”, presents an especially appealing picture of the close relationships and shared enthusiasms of four painters. As recounted by one of the daughters, Elizabeth Kresch, the connections originated one fateful day in the early 1940s, when a stranger – Leland Bell — stopped her father, Al Kresch, as he carried a canvas along a Greenwich Village street. The two men struck up conversation, and from ensuing shared passions for painting and jazz sprang a lifelong comraderie. Over the years, friendship swelled to include wives and daughters that were (or were to become) accomplished artists in their own right.
The wives, as the exhibition title suggests, are not included in the exhibition. But this still leaves many paintings to savor by fathers Albert Kresch (b. 1922) and Leland Bell (1922 -1911), and daughters Elizabeth Kresch (b. 1971) and Temma Bell (b. 1945).
Each is represented in BCK’s light-filled space by several works ranging in subject matter from figure studies to landscape and still life. An aesthetic of painterly modernism prevails, with energized colors pacing abstracted compositions. One can detect the influences of Hans Hofmann (with whom Albert Kresch and Temma Bell’s mother Louisa Matthiasdottir studied) and Jean Hélion (a much-admired friend of the two fathers).
What does the selection tell us about paternal influences or generational differences? Arguably, the fathers, especially in their most abstracted work, show signs of being driven to define the historic moment: What does our time demand? What’s the most cogent use of tradition?. How to honor what nature presents to the eye? But the overall tenor of the show is of intergenerational fervor, fueled by independent encounters with forms and colors. Considering the shifting terrain of the art world during the decades these paintings were produced, they reveal a poignant faith in a particular kind of observation-based modernism.
At a glance, differences between the four painters stand out. Temma Bell’s brushy naturalism differs strikingly from her father’s outlined, planar attack; Elizabeth Kresch’s earthy renderings of light contrast with the feathery, atmospheric depth of her father’s more recent work.
But variations within each artist’s work are also evident. Except for the youngest painter, Elizabeth Kresch, the work on view of each artist spans decades – a full 65 years in the case of her father – and this allows intriguing glimpses of personal evolutions of thought. Several luminous Al Kresch landscapes from the last two decades suggest, with their layered darks and lights, the moody radiance of Georges Rouault. By contrast, a crisply geometric still life from 1998 recalls Hélion – a connection more than superficial, thanks to its animated journey through color, from a plate’s deep ultramarine rim, to a pitcher’s mild cobalt blue, to the jewel-like cerulean glow of shadowed fabric.
The thick, robust paint strokes of Temma Bell’s 1970 self-portrait become thinner in her more recent works, yet the impulse of color remain just as strong – and indeed, achieve a kind of austere grandness in an Icelandic landscape from 1981, in which a mountain range, carved by light into delicate gray-purples and deep blues, separates pulses of clouds and shimmers of sea.
Leland Bell’s predilection for black outlines, which are liable to dominate any first impression of his work, are barely evident in a small landscape from 1975, in which colors alone prove capable of locating, feelingly, every element.
And while Elizabeth Kresch’s work spans fewer years, it too reflects shifts of perception. Her small shoreline scene from 2016, with clouds rolling brightly above a wharf’s dark horizontal, contrasts strikingly with a five-foot-tall painting from 2020 of a young woman, clad in a radiant red dress, stretching lithely before a brilliant white wall.
Exiting the gallery, and absorbing once more the ocean air and low skyline of Montauk bungalows, one is reminded of life’s continuity, even in these strange times. With a last glimpse, through the gallery window, of Leland Bell’s “Family Group with Teapot” (1980) – its figures rising with startling gravity, their hands resolving the movements of arms in wondrous, articulated dances – one may believe that life is not simply continuous, it’s unstoppable.