I can thank DeWitt Cheng and Jerry Barrish for introducing me to the work of Arthur Bell. I first saw Bell’s work at the Sanchez Art Center early in 2013. DeWitt produced a fine color catalog for the show—Originalitude
: The Amazing Paintings of Arthur Bell
And they are amazing. As DeWitt writes, “In 2006, I happened to wander into City Hall in South San Francisco where I was delightfully thunderstruck by Arthur Bell’s wonderful painting, Waterskiing Monkeys
(1977). Who was this brilliantly funny, weird artist, and why had I not seen the work before?”
Shortly afterwards, DeWitt met the artist at a group exhibit. Since then, he’s gotten to know the artist well.
Bell had suffered from two strokes and was living in Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco when Cheng first saw his work. In the years since, Bell has been slowly regaining his ability to paint and has moved into an assisted-living facility.
In his essay for an exhibit of Bell’s work at the Garage Gallery in Berkeley in 2010, DeWitt writes, “In James Ensor’s huge 1889 painting, The Entry of Christ into Brussels
, at the Getty Museum, the earthly return of Jesus (who resembles the artist) goes unnoticed by the teeming Flemish carnival crowds. It’s a fitting metaphor for the sidelining of the eccentric visionary artist in the materialistic, industrial nineteenth century; artists like William Blake and Samuel Palmer in England and David Gilmour Blythe and William Rimmer in America worked unseen and unheard amid the hubbub and din (although Ensor and Albert Pinkham Ryder found audiences). Blake said, ‘I am laid by in a corner as if I did not exist.’ Today’s pluralistic, post-industrial art world has unfortunately followed Victorian precedent in missing a talent just as anarchic and comical as its predecessors.
Arthur Bell is a San Francisco painter who exhibited in the 1970s and 80s, but rarely since then. The Garage Gallery’s retrospective of eighty paintings spanning forty years is, consequently, a treat for connoisseurs of the strange and marvelous—and genuinely imaginative, as opposed to the overwrought confections of bad pop surrealism.”
Not long after the Sanchez Art Center exhibit in 2013, DeWitt and I talked about Arthur. I wanted to learn more about the artist.
“Do you think we could interview him?” I asked.
“It might be pushing it, but we could give it a try.”
Here’s an excerpt from the interview we did at the artist’s assisted living unit in S.F. in 2013. I’d just asked Arthur for the title of one of his paintings. —R. Whittaker
Arthur Bell: It’s called Dusk on Shit Creek
DeWitt Cheng: And there’s no paddle, right?
Arthur: No paddle. Here’s the boat and here’s the lady and over there is the guy. His dog is over here, but I’m not finished. I don’t like the dog too much.
DeWitt: Arthur, your title could certainly be taken as a political comment, because you have strong political beliefs. But…
Arthur: But I don’t worry about it, because nobody is going to do what I say, anyway.
DeWitt: Well, that’s true. Was that one done last year, Arthur? [pointing to another painting on Arthur’s bed]
Arthur: Yes. That’s called Remains To Be Seen
Richard Whittaker: That’s another great title.
Arthur: I thought that up when I was in the hospital.
RW: Arthur, can I ask you a little bit about this painting right here?
Arthur: This is one of my most beautiful paintings. Those trees, those bells go on the trees.
RW: Do you remember when you painted that?
Arthur: I think it’s 1994.
RW: How long would it have taken you? Do you remember at all?
Arthur: A long time because I have to paint those... those people are growing out of trees.
RW: Did you see those people in your mind first, or did all that just appear piece-by-piece on the canvas?
Arthur: I made it up on the canvas. I don’t draw any pictures first.
RW: So where did you start? I mean, what did you start with on that painting? Do you remember?
Arthur: The trees with the bells growing on them.
RW: And that just came into your mind out of nowhere?
Arthur: Well, it’s Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “The Bells.”
DeWitt: But there are no trees in Poe’s poem. I mean, it’s just about the sound of the bells. It’s a very musical poem, right?
Arthur: Yeah. It’s all sound. But the whole thing is like he used the tintinabulation—it’s the way the words sound. It’s kind of a weird poem.
RW: What happens when you start painting?
Arthur: I don’t know. Painting a picture is called "composing." You have to put pieces together.
RW: Do you draw first or do you just start painting?
Arthur: On some I draw first. Some I just paint. This one I just started to paint this, because it’s a simple thing. We only need a boat, a couple of figures and the shit creek is going by right there. I like the creek.
RW: When you start painting, do you just sort of forget time? Does time change?
Arthur: Yes. I spend a lot of time painting. Time goes fast when you paint pictures.
RW: Tell me about this painting, The Bells
Arthur: Up there is the clothesline. You know, in San Francisco they have a lot of places where they have like a pulley on one building. It goes to the other building. And they just have a rope and you pull it and your clothes come around in a circle. You take them off when they’re dry.
RW: With your paintings, each is like its own world.
Arthur: Well, they’re narrative paintings.
RW: So you started out with the bells and the trees, you said. Then what about that little girl here?
Arthur: You have to have something, too, down below. So I draw a wall there and then there’s a little girl. And then I think it’s better to have—there’s her brother playing in the sandbox with his shovel.
RW: Is it like a story in your mind that starts happening?
Arthur: Yeah. Sort of like that.
RW: So you start painting and you think, "well, there ought to be—the composition needs to have something here." And then an idea just pops up in your head?
Arthur: I don’t know. It’s different every time. It’s just like everyday is different.
RW: Is it a pleasure to paint?
Arthur: It’s difficult. See, it’s easy to start a picture, but sometimes it’s very hard to end it. Sometimes a painting just gets better and better until you’re done. Sometimes it looks like it doesn’t ever want to finish.
RW: How can you tell when it’s finished?
Arthur: When it looks right; when all the badness is out and everything is all right.
DeWitt: But sometimes you go back to things two or three times over the years.
Arthur: Well, that’s the way. The worst one was the Coming of the Lord.
I started that painting in about 1990 and I worked on it for 10 years. It’s because I drank too much and I lost my ability to think anymore. Now it’s been 10 years since I quit drinking, eight years since I had a stroke.
RW: In this painting here, Shit Creek
—what is Shit Creek?
Arthur: It’s a creek that runs down any place.
RW: Why did you call it Shit Creek
Arthur: You say, “You’re up shit creek without a paddle.”
RW: You mean that’s how our society is right now?
Arthur: I don’t know about the society, but I think it’s kind of going to be a problem. I’m glad that I was born in 1948, because it’s almost the end. People don’t realize how close it is to the end. And worldwide, they’re producing tens of millions of cars every year. In Beijing they can’t even breathe now. It’s that way in Mexico City, too. It’s already too late. It’s already just too late to stop global warming, because even if they stop making cars today it’s too late. It takes 100 years for this stuff to go back to normal. And every place they are burning coal.
RW: Can I ask you a couple of questions about this painting here?
Arthur: That is one of my most beautifulest paintings.
RW: I agree. At the Sanchez Art Center a little while ago you talked about how you painted this one. You started here [pointing to an area in the painting] then you went down and painted that [pointing]. And then you thought you needed a little fire in there [pointing]. Does that ring a bell?
Arthur: Well, I just started painting that dark part. I just started there. And then I decided to stop that black part. It looks like right here is a waterfall that comes down. The ocean falls down below. Over here are some nice trees, but then I painted a town right there. A little town, and there’s a wharf out there. It looks like they set off the fireworks out on the pier.
RW: It’s almost like a movie developing, or a little story.
Arthur: Yes, because there are houses down below. There is an ambulance. There are all these things, but I don’t get to see this because I sold it.
RW: When you’re working on your painting is it like something you’re living inside of?
Arthur: No. I’m not like one of those, what do they call those actors? The method actors. They get into the part. No, I had a lot of other stuff to do.
RW: What do you mean?
Arthur: I had to go to work. I had to get up from the hangover and get my breakfast and walk down to the BART station.
DeWitt: Are you talking about when you were living in your apartment before your stroke?
Arthur: Yes. I painted this picture. I hung it on my bed. I had a Murphy bed. When you put it up, when you turn it around, it’s just like a blank piece of plywood. And I just put some nails in the bottom and put my picture on it. So my bed is my easel.
[looking at the painting again]
I’m like the guy who is playing the saxophone. I remember my aunt came over to see me and I was working on this picture.
RW: Do you laugh sometimes when you’ve painted something?
Arthur: Yes. I like those trees; one of my best forests.
RW: Do you love your paintings, some of them?
Arthur: Yes. They are my favorites. When you are a Bachelor of Fine Arts, you don’t have any other children. Did you ever read a book called Pincher Martin
DeWitt: I’ve never read it, William Golding.
Arthur: Yeah. It’s a hallucination. It’s about this guy who is shipwrecked on an island on this little—it’s like a little piece of land sticking up out of the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And as it goes on you realize that—it’s like An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
. In the end, he is dead. He crashed on a ship or something.
DeWitt: So is this all going through his mind as he’s dying? Or is this –
Arthur: Yeah. It’s like An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
. The whole story goes through his mind while he is dropping under the bridge to get hanged. It’s Shit Creek, after all. This is one of my most favorite pictures. This is The Expulsion from the Mystery Dance.
I painted this.
RW: What is it you like about it?
Arthur: I had this idea for a picture, but when you have an idea for a picture, you have some kind of an image in your mind. But as soon as you start to paint anything, what’s there takes over what you think. So it changes. So what I did is I had this idea and I just thought about it. For six weeks, I didn’t do anything and there is no drawing for this either. I just made it up as I went along.
RW: That’s interesting what you said about how once you start painting, then whatever you’ve painted starts to take over.
Arthur: It does. That’s why you have to try as hard as you can to get it. This is my ashtray. I had an ashtray like they have in the lobby of a hotel, like a stand where it’s made out of metal. It was in two or three pictures.
DeWitt: Yeah, there’s one in your Okay God
picture, isn’t there?
Arthur: Yeah, and there’s the prostitute lady from—she’s like the underwater lady.
RW: Would you say that these paintings are like an escape from life, or are they a picture of life? Does that question make sense?
Arthur: Yeah, I don’t like realitude.
DeWitt: Oh, I love that.
Arthur: It says on the back what year this was [points to a painting]—1979 I think it was. That’s my radiator [in the painting]. I lived in the residents’ hotel for two years.
DeWitt: It’s the old Ansonia.
AB: Yeah, the Ansonia Residents Club. I lived there for four years. I’m a very lucky person. Everything has been all right for me. Even now. You know the grasshopper and the ant? I’m the guy who didn’t save anything. I didn’t put away anything, but I ended up with all my stuff anyway.
DeWitt: Well, you didn’t fiddle. You were working.
Arthur: Well, the hardest part about being an alcoholic is you have to get up when you feel like homemade shit, everyday. If you can make it to work, the battle is half done.
RW: You’ve also lived a life with your art and you’ve been true to that. Don’t you think?
Arthur: That’s what I wanted to do is paint pictures that I hadn’t seen before. When I was a kid, we had a big art book. I liked the pictures. Sometimes I would say that’s nice. I wish I could see more pictures like that. So I was going to draw one myself.
RW: So you started early?
Arthur: Yeah, I have a painting in my drawer. It’s the second drawer. I painted it in August of 1963. That’s three months before Kennedy was assassinated. I went to New York in 1962.
[DeWitt gets the painting and we look at it.]
DeWitt: Arthur, that’s a very sophisticated painting, especially for a 15-year-old.
RW: You were in high school when you painted this?
Arthur: I started high school in September of 1962. I was a sophomore when Kennedy was assassinated. I painted at home. I didn’t like high school. But my teacher, he let me do whatever I wanted to do. [pointing to another painting] You see this is how hard it is to paint. This is after I had a stroke. I had to work my way back. This one is back in 2009. In 2006 or ’07, I couldn’t paint hardly at all. Now I’m almost back to normal. And these don’t look good to me anymore. This is—he’s a devil. See, he has a big tail.
RW: When you don’t know what to do, what happens?
Arthur: Sometimes you just put it in the basement and don’t look at it for a year or so. Then maybe it will start again. You see, I had a lot of trouble painting. My best year was when I was about 40 years old. That was in 1988. I painted a lot of pictures. As I get older I paint less pictures every year.
RW: There’s an artist named Agnes Martin. She said an artist has to know when something is good.
Arthur: Yeah, you have to know shit from shineola.
RW: Right, but she put it a little differently.
Arthur: It’s a matter of taste.
DeWitt: She put it more minimally.
RW: So how can you tell the difference?
Arthur: It’s instinct. It’s all—what do they call that word?
Arthur: Intuition. I have a nice rock ‘n’ roll song. It’s called “Masculine intuition.”
DeWitt: This is a joke between my wife and me, because she will be telling me something and then very clearly I say, “Okay, my masculine intuition has got it now.”
Arthur: Well, this is what Van Gogh had. Van Gogh didn’t hardly take any lessons. He drew different because that’s the only way he could draw.
RW: You said at the Sanchez Art Center that you’ve made a lot of bad paintings.
Arthur: I’ve made a lot, but they’re not there anymore.
RW: Because you didn’t keep them?
Arthur: I painted over them again.
RW: Yes. Agnes Martin also said that to be an artist is to have a life of suffering. The suffering comes from not being able to get the painting to have magic in it.
Arthur: Magic. That’s what painting is. It’s magic.
RW: That wouldn’t be a bad description for your work. All of these paintings are like magic.
Arthur: Well, that’s what art is like. It’s like magic. It’s real magic, not like the card tricks. [points to another painting] This is sort of like King Thermos The Fifth
, because you don’t know which is the real one. You see, here you have this guy. Is this guy real or is he just painted on the backdrop? Well, when they tear a hole in it, is it going to hell or is the hell fake?
RW: So is the artist involved in searching and sort of trying to answer these kinds of questions?
Arthur: Yes. It’s sort of like what the Surrealists say: what is the real part and what is the fake part?