It has been said that a single incident can change a life. For Larry Bell, that moment was, on its surface, quite ordinary. During a break from his studies at Chouinard, the fledgling artist found work at a framing shop in the San Fernando Valley. One day, as he was tooling around with scrap materials in the shop to pass the time, he noticed what might easily be overlooked: an ordinary piece of glass lying on the table. For most, the moment would have passed without much regard. However, it wasn’t just the glass that captured Bell’s attention, rather it was what the glass did. “It reflected light,” Bell explains, “and it transmitted light, and it absorbed light, all at the same time.” Inspiration struck, and an afternoon that may have passed like any other instead marked the beginning of a life-long preoccupation with, and exploration of, the interaction between the surface of material objects and the ephemeral qualities of light.
Of course, it’s not quite so simple as that. During a recent studio visit, the Chicago-born, California-raised artist, and longtime Taos resident, broke down the sequence of events that shaped his career from its beginnings, with what has been termed “California Minimalism,” to his latest sculptural experiments in Mylar, which he calls “Light Knots.” The artist has long been associated with Taos since moving to the Southwest in 1972 from Venice after a sojourn in New York, following his friend, and fellow Ferus artist, Ken Price. It was in Taos that he set up his nine-ton vacuum chamber, described as “a combination warehouse and space station” by photographer, writer and former collaborator Douglas Kent Hall for a 1997 exhibit at The Albuquerque Museum. Bell returned to SoCal 12 years ago and has maintained an alternating schedule between his two studios ever since.
Bell’s Venice-based studio, just blocks from his original Market Street workspace, resides in what was once the location of a Sunday school, originally built over a hundred years ago. The building’s interior is wonderfully spacious: dark wood floors echo with the artist’s footsteps as he gives a tour of his latest works, natural light floods in through lightly stained glass windows while studio lighting bounces off the tray ceiling accented with gold leaf frame-style crown molding. Suspended from the framing, about a half dozen of Bell’s Light Knots sway slowly in the cool Venice breeze, slowly twisting as reflections of light travel over the sensual iridescent twisting forms; competing for attention, gaudily gilded-capped columns and pilasters around the perimeter not so subtly hint at the building’s former purpose.
Larry Bell is undoubtedly best known for his enigmatic glass cube sculptures. Perhaps less widely identified is the avenue through which he came to makes these works. He recalls the early influence of the whimsical drawings of Punch cartoonist Rowland Emett. When later confronted with the inevitable post-high school choices of “work, school or the army,” he wryly explains, “school seemed like the only credible option.” Bell originally enrolled at Chouinard due to its affiliation with Disney studios, but soon thereafter changed his course of study from animation to fine art. “I knew what animation was,” he explains, “making those cartoons seem like they were alive. Art was a little more complicated, but the vagueness was very interesting to me.”
During the years at and after Chouinard (1957-59), Bell came to know many of the artists who, along with Bell, shaped what would later be known as Light and Space and Finish Fetish schools—labels routinely spurned by the artists themselves—including Robert Irwin, Billy Al Bengston, and Ken Price. Collectively, these artists are often grouped together for their interest in alternative materials, associated with the then-flourishing SoCal aerospace industry. Stephanie Hanor, director of the Mills College Art Museum wrote about their innovations and shared outlooks in her essay, “The Material of Immateriality” in the 2011 catalogue for the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time “Phenomenal” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego: “Using materials as a means to an end, rather than as an end in themselves, demonstrates [their] indifference to more traditional aesthetic attitudes of revealing the intrinsic nature of material.” For Bell, the materials were chosen for their capacity for transmitting, absorbing and reflecting light, and the fascination has lasted for over 50 years.
When asked what set Bell apart from his peers, Hanor replies, “While many of the Light and Space artists were technical innovators, Bell was unique in his use of optical coatings.” Instead of the resins, fiberglass and industrial materials used by many associated with the Light and Space crowd, Bell was attracted to more accessible materials, such as glass, mirror and chrome. Hanor continues, “He was primarily interested in light and surface, and the tinted film of chemicals on glass sheets allowed him to achieve a complexity of color and space… The optical coatings take the inherent transparency and reflectiveness of the glass and push the experience for the viewer into a realm of materiality and immateriality.”
While Bell embraces the mundane quality of his primary material of these works, he also emphasizes how his treatment fundamentally alters its character. “I was coating the glass with a film of metal.” Bell explains. “The interesting thing to me about this procedure was that you couldn’t tell that anything had been done to the material. It changed the way the light interfaced with the surface but it didn’t change the quality of the surface. It was still a piece of glass, but what it did was different than what it had been made to do… It really wasn’t until later in the work that I realized my media was the interface between the light and glass.”
The glass cubes, along with his earlier two-dimensional multi-media paintings, were part of his first exhibitions in Los Angeles, at the legendary Huysman and Ferus Galleries, and also landed him his first solo show in New York. The 1965 show at PACE was not only the source of Bell’s first sale, but completely sold out. Not long after, Bell moved to New York. Though short-lived, his time in New York introduced him first-hand to the work of his East Coast contemporaries. Among the artists he connected with, perhaps not surprisingly, was minimalist Donald Judd—another artist known to refute the nomenclature he is invariably allied with—who became a lifelong supporter and friend of the artist.
Marianne Stockebrand, Judd’s partner at his death in 1994 and director emeritus of the Chinati Foundation, recently guest curated the current exhibition “Larry Bell: 6 x 6 An Installation” at the foundation (on view through the end of July 2015). In a recent phone interview from New York, Stockebrand recalls of Bell’s early career, “He had developed the cubes in LA, and he brought them here to New York, it was very well received… they had a killer reception.” But for the installation at Marfa, the German curator explains that she sought to show the larger scale “Standing Walls” from Bell’s oeuvre that she felt had been overlooked. “It was in my thoughts to do a show with Larry for quite a while.” Stockebrand explains. “It had to do with Judd’s interest in his work. He had an early painting of Larry’s that is on exhibit at the foundation, two cubes, and” she pauses, “he was a real friend. My position as director of Chinati was to follow [Judd’s] interests. It was time to show the work.”
Stockebrand’s inspiration led to some challenges, as both artist and curator were reluctant to cull the fragile glass “walls” from either private or institutional collections. Instead, they excavated available pieces from Bell’s Taos studio, and he fabricated additional six-foot-square panels for the installation. As Bell explained in a conversation with Stockebrand at the Chinati’s Crowley Theater last fall, the final installation was comprised of “leftovers from different experiments and I made up some clear ones and gray ones … for whatever was going to happen.”
In total, 32 individual panels joined together to create 16 units joined at 90-degree angles, transforming the Chinati’s U-shaped gallery. “Having them fill an entire space was a real revelation,” Stockebrand explains. “I must say, what I loved about this exhibition is how he stuck to this one configuration, just one angle after another… He plays with light in such a wonderful way, that you have to think about what is now reality and what is the illusion of it.”
The simple 90-degree angle emphasized at the Chinati exhibition emphasizes a crucial aspect of Bell’s transition from the cube to the freestanding works: an emphasis on the corner. Which, in the artist’s words, was all he was really interested in to begin with. “When you look at these pieces and see reflections of the space, the floor lines, the ceilings, the windows in the back, you don’t know where you are anymore,” Stockebrand explains with palpable enthusiasm. “Your whole sense of the space is suddenly upside down, or back-and- forward. And the glass is the vehicle that makes that happen.”
The transition to working with such architecturally scaled installations first began in 1970. Soon thereafter, the then-recently married artist relocated to Taos. Here, as noted by Los Angeles critic, Peter Frank, in his 1997 essay, “Understanding the Percept,” the “brilliant light and emphatic spaciousness of the high desert encouraged a more expansive approach, in terms both of size and formal elaboration.” Among the earliest works created in his new studio, The Iceberg and Its Shadow (1974), consisted of 56 panels, which due in part to its sheer size was never fully assembled in a single location.
In contrast to the exhibition at Chinati, a recent solo exhibition at Peter Blake Gallery in Laguna Beach focused on his work from the past decade. In 22 years, it was the first time a single artist filled Blake’s 2,500 square-foot gallery space, bringing together a trio of glass cubes, “Small Figure” collage series, a mirage painting, multiple light knots, and his most recent incarnation of the knots, encased in acrylic trapezoidal prisms. These recent works, smaller in scale than the hanging knots, are delicately coated so the resulting tones range from silvery translucent to delicate blush and lilacs. The acrylic enclosures, slightly smaller at the base, put an emphasis on the negative spaces and the movement of light across the surface of the sensuous, curvilinear forms. As Douglas Kent Hall noted in his essay, “In Bell’s hands, common industrial elements—glass and paper, mirror and chrome, fabric and Mylar—take on noble qualities.”
A balance between focus, spontaneous adaptation, and continuous experimentation has been a driving factor in Bell’s practice. His more recent experiments continue a technique he first discovered in 1978, experimenting with metallic coatings deposited on paper instead of glass, and cutting figurative shapes into materials which are then formed into his collaged Vapor Drawings. “After being in the studio for a really long time, I’m still not sure what the responsibilities are,” he admits. “You follow the work, wherever the work takes you is where you have to go. The stuff you make is nothing more or less than evidence of your activities. Whether it’s art or not is another story.”
These days, the coating of the materials continues to take place in the “space-ship” vacuum in Taos, while the manipulation of the materials is largely accomplished in Venice. After demonstrating the process through which he transforms flat film-coated sheets into physically complex forms, Bell motions towards the Knots suspended from the ceiling to explain the prismatic illusion. “It’s exactly the same phenomenon as if you go to a filling station and you see a little gas in a puddle of water,” he begins. “Those rainbow colors are caused by a varying thickness of the gasoline, where you see blue on the water is thicker than where you see red.” Breaking down the scientific jargon of vaporizing metals in an oxygen-deprived environment into simpler terms, he continues: “the aluminum acts like the water, raises the reflectivity, the quartz acts like the gasoline, it interferes with the light reflected off at wave lengths equivalent to the thickness of the deposit.” Referring back to the gasoline analogy, he concludes, “It’s the same story.”
In addition to the show wrapping up at Marfa, the recent solo in Laguna, and participation in the minimalist group show, “Land, Air, See,” at LA’s Kohn Gallery, the Taos/Venice-based artist continues to maintain a continuous schedule of exhibitions and installations. A commission of his prismatic Light Knots was recently installed at Denver’s newly opened Art Hotel, located across the street from the Denver Art Museum with a collection curated by Dianne Vanderlip, who served as DAM’s curator of modern and contemporary art for nearly 30 years. Up next, “2D-3D: Glass & Vapor” opens July 17 at the Mason’s Yard location of London’s prestigious White Cube gallery. The artist’s fourth solo show with the gallery looks at the entirety of his career, with works such as Gone but not Forgotten (1969) among the earliest examples of his glass plating process, three new Vapor Drawings, and 6 x 8 An Improvisation a direct reference to the Marfa-based installation.
When asked if he ever wondered what would have happened had he not worked in that frame shop, and that pivotal moment had not been noticed, he answered a thoughtful “No,” then adds, “I have no idea of where I would be without that experience.” Asked whether he imagined the kind of spontaneity related to these current works would emerge from the strict geometry of his early career, he begins with the same reply, “No,” and continued with thoughtful consideration, “the first one I did was such a revelation to me, that I could hardly talk. Here I had been making these components for the collages for years, but it never occurred to me that they had more potential than just what I was using them for… All of a sudden, the work presented another aspect of itself… and it was redemption of all things new again. I got a chill running up my back. That’s a great feeling.”