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The Bearable Lightness of Being

Light and Reflection in the Work of Larry Bell

By Lyn Bleiler | photos by kate russell

Larry Bell caught the Los Angeles art wave in the late 1950s and has been successfully navigating those often turbulent waters ever since. Instead of looking to art history for guidance like their New York counterparts, Bell and a handful of renegade Southern California artists found inspiration in their immediate surroundings—lackluster architecture, tacky billboards, and the prevalent hot-rod and surf cultures of their day.
“There is a tendency out here to not care about art history because we’re a young city,” conceptual artist John Baldessari told filmmaker Morgan Neville in the 2008 film The Cool School: How L.A. Learned to Love Modern Art. “We don’t have to deal with our past because there is no past.” Employing nontraditional methods and materials—from assemblage of found objects to spray paint and techniques used in surfboard construction—the L.A. artists were making a significant splash. And for Bell, this approach was a perfect fit.

Left: Bell with two of his loves: his constant companion, Pinky, and one of several Borsalino fedoras that make up his collection. Long recognized for his sense of style and flair, which early on prompted buddy Billy Al Bengston to nickname him Dr. Lux, Bell is also a cigar connoisseur and collector of H.G. Wells memorabilia and 12-string guitars. Right: The vaporized metals are then blown out into the vacuum, where they naturally float to adhere to the surface of the Mylar form hanging inside.

A light knot in progress inside Bell’s nine-ton thermal evaporative vacuum tank. Bell creates his light knots using a process similar to the thin-film deposition technique used to coat the insides of potato chip bags. Reflective metals and silicon monoxide are set on heating terminals, shown in top photo.

Bell was born in Chicago but raised in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, in an environment virtually bereft of a modern art culture. At 17, a brief but pivotal stint at Chouinard Art Institute starting in 1957 would change the trajectory of his life. In Bell’s day, the school was known as “the mouse house” because of its reputation as a training ground for Walt Disney Studios. “I went off to art school with the intention of learning to be an animator,” Bell says. “But I liked the painting instructors better than the technical ones, so I changed my whole focus to fine art.”

At Chouinard, Bell was impressed as much by the forward-thinking and unconventional lifestyles of his peers and instructors—especially early installation art pioneer Robert Irwin—as he was by their work. “Larry was thrilled by the racial and social mix of the student body, as was I,” classmate Dean Cushman recalls. “It was truly exciting to be around so many different lifestyles, opinions, and talents.” Mere miles from the white-bread values of the then-ultraconservative San Fernando Valley of his youth, 19-year-old Bell was suddenly immersed in a tidal wave of cultural upheaval.

Initially influenced by the Abstract Expressionists, particularly Willem de Kooning, Bell began by painting on canvas but quickly became interested in hard-edged shapes. A part-time job at a framing shop further shifted his focus. Working around glass gave him the idea to stick a piece onto one of his canvases. “It looked great,” he says, “and I eventually decided that I was just making illustrations of volumes when what I really wanted to do was make the volumes themselves.” Thus began the creation of glass cubes and large glass installations—and the lifelong fascination with light, reflection, and surface that would define Bell’s career.

As early as 1961, Bell’s work was shown at L.A.’s Huysman Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard, along with Ed Bereal, Joe Goode, and Ron Miyashiro, in a group exhibition titled War Babies: 1937–1961. One year later his first solo show opened across the street at the legendary Ferus Gallery. Bell soon joined John Altoon, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Ed Kienholz, Ed Moses, Ken Price, and others as the youngest member of Ferus’ stable of rock star–style artists. Their sweeping significance is illustrated in The Cool School documentary. Almost overnight, it seemed, L.A.’s once bland, conservative cultural landscape had transformed into a vital art scene thanks to Bell and his fellow artists.
In 1964 gallery owner Sidney Janis noticed Bell’s work and included the glass cubes in a group show at his gallery in New York City. This, in turn, led to a sold-out solo show at the Pace Gallery in 1965 and a brief move to New York. But, missing friends and the West Coast lifestyle, Bell moved back to California in 1966, settling into a studio in what was then Venice’s low-rent artist district.

In The Cool School documentary, art critic Peter Plagens recalls, “In those days in L.A., there were two kinds of artists: those of us who were teaching, who were basically wusses because we wanted a salary and security and stuff like that . . . and the real artists, guys who were living by their wits and renting storefronts down in Venice.”

Curator Hal Glickman adds, “Wallace Berman was the one who said you could be an artist, a real artist, in Los Angeles, and that there you could live a life of poetic poverty.”

Bell’s Taos studio occupies half of what was once a commercial laundry catering to hotels and restaurants—large enough to hold rows of his light knots, his vacuum tank, and assorted other laboratory-like equipment. The setup once inspired late writer/photographer Douglas Kent Hall to call it a “combination warehouse and space station,” while Taos author John Nichols once likened it to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Light Knot 7 (2012), polyester film vacuum-coated with aluminum and silicon monoxide, fishing line, and hardware, from the Weightless exhibition at Larry Bell Venice Studio Annex, 77 Market Street, Venice. Opposite: Leaning Room (2011), environmental light installation with leaning walls, black lights, and florescent paint, from the exhibition Larry Bell in Perspective, Carré d’Art, Musee d’Art Contemporain (Nimes, France).

As the 1960s morphed into the 1970s, Bell worked in the thick of an increasingly exciting time to be a young artist in L.A. Along with a range of cultural icons, he was chosen to be included on the legendary album cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, designed by Peter Blake. And Bell’s 1971 acting debut was documented for posterity in a lead role in one of Ed Ruscha’s obscure art films, Premium, a 24-minute, 16-mm romp featuring model Léon Bing, comedian Tommy Smothers, and designer Rudi Gernreich.

But the art scene was also notoriously social, and the demands to see and be seen, however enjoyable, were taking their toll. Thinking a change of pace would benefit his art, in 1973 Bell followed longtime friend Ken Price to Taos, New Mexico. “I’m a party guy,” Bell says, with a boyish grin. “If I allow myself to be distracted by poker and hanging out at the bars, it breaks my concentration. In Taos there is much less temptation. It’s easier to control one’s distractions here.”

In Taos, Bell continued to gain international recognition for his early explorations in light and illusion, from glass cubes and large glass sculptural installations to applying similar surface techniques to paper and canvas in the Vapor Drawings and Mirage Paintings series. He even made a foray into furniture design in the early ’80s. Asked by longtime friend Frank Gehry to collaborate on a commission for Cleveland client Peter B. Lewis in the late ’90s, Bell developed a series of calligraphic stickmen, some of which have been transformed into large bronze figures he calls Sumer Figures. Like his furniture making, these stickmen seem to have no parallel in either Bell’s earlier work or his current explorations into light and surface, until one learns that he had a talent for drawing cartoonlike characters in high school.

Still, the series Fractions (small collage compositions made from pieces of previous works on paper) that followed was in keeping with Bell’s earlier passion. As the late Douglas Kent Hall observes in an essay titled “Strange Days: Conversations with the Doctor,” “No matter what new material he explores, Bell keeps coming back to glass. He attempts to translate the qualities he achieves on glass to other surfaces, other materials. For example, his series of elegant vapor drawings on paper, their thin coatings identical to those he lays onto glass, assume a mysterious other-worldliness.”

Although he was enamored with the life and career he had built in Taos, in 2004 Bell found he was once again missing his West Coast friends and lifestyle. By an odd twist of fate, the same studio he had back in the day was available for rent. The current owners had made improvements, and though the rent had increased a bit from the $75/month Bell once paid, he nonetheless jumped at the chance to lease it. Some artists might find the duality of keeping two studios unsettling, but for Bell the arrangement is grounding—and each location has its advantages. “Taos is much more livable than Venice, but Venice has a unique creative energy and magic,” he says. “In the studio I have there, I have been incredibly productive. It may have less to do with the places themselves than with my focusing and not being distracted. Sometimes I just sit and look at stuff. Or just not think about working until the muse comes around and kicks me out of my chair.” But these days, whether in his Taos studio or Venice space, Bell says, “I’m there to work.”

As for the commute, the 74-year-old Bell enjoys the road time as a chance to unplug, with his American bulldog, Pinky, in tow as copilot. “I turn off the radio, take out my hearing aids, and just drive. It is as close to a religious experience as I get—16 to 17 hours of meditation and random thoughts. I get some great ideas on the road, but I usually forget them,” he says, grinning. “The only distraction is my CB radio because when you are out there, the only important news is what’s happening a mile ahead of you.”

It’s easy to trace the evolution of much of Bell’s work. Pieces are sequentially numbered, and materials from one series tend to show up differently configured in new work. Bell’s most recent series, Light Knots, are three-dimensional kinetic forms made of Mylar film that Bell cuts, folds, and coats with vaporized metallic particles in a nine-ton vacuum tank in his Taos studio. “Light Knots came right out of these things,” Bell explains, gesturing toward a piece from his Mirage Works series. “Those have 50 or so layers of Mylar, but I began manipulating individual sheets making sculptural forms. [The light knots] just fell out of the work. In a strange way the work makes itself—and it is always honest. [A kernel of future art] is always locked inside the [present] work . . . you just somehow have to find it. But the next thing is always there.”

As Bell points out in an interview for a recent show in Southern California, the light knots reward the patient viewer, revealing themselves over time as they revolve elegantly with the slightest air current and display infinite gradations of color, opacity, and reflection as well as myriad variations of form. Bell’s son, videographer Oliver Bell, documented the knots’ undisturbed reaction to natural light. “It was wonderful!” Bell enthuses. “Ollie set up his camera in the studio one evening and let it run all night. The next day he came running in and said, ‘You’ve got to see this.’ Holy cow! I hadn’t seen the light play on them that way. It was a gift from the work to me.”

Over the years, writers and critics have lumped Bell’s work into various camps, calling him, among other things, a Perceptualist, Abstract Expressionist, and member of the Light and Space movement. “I’ve never really thought of myself as a Minimalist either, but I’ve been included in that, too,” he says. “I just appreciate the fact that anyone considers my work in any way. I have always just trusted the work. I have been included in a lot of different movements, and in most cases I never even thought about the intellect of a movement regarding what I am doing. Everyone’s perception of a trip is different, and I see my trip in a different way than most people.”

However Bell’s trip is perceived, his work continues to garner worldwide respect and is included in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, the Tate Modern Gallery in London, Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The Taos studio brims with activity this year, as Bell’s long-standing personal assistant and loyal friend, Lois Rodin, juggles many calendars and time zones. Artwork from exhibits in France and Southern California are returning to Taos, while other shows are being organized. The London gallery White Cube Bermondsey will exhibit Bell’s work in mid-October. Obviously pleased, Bell says, “They want to show works on paper and my collage work, which no major gallery has ever been interested in before. Collages, vapor drawings, and the light knots.”

Meanwhile, Bell and veteran studio assistant, artist Cody Riddle, are busy inventorying various glass pieces in storage to create a composition for a possible yearlong installation at the Chinati Foundation contemporary art museum in Marfa, Texas. “One thought being considered [for the Marfa show] is to tie the glass sculptures into the light knots in some manner because the knots reflect, absorb, and transmit light, just like the glass. But in the glass it is all based on right-angle relationships, whereas there are no right angles in the knots,” Bell explains.

In the midst of yet another exciting run with the Light Knots series—and with national and international exhibitions on the calendar—Bell is still successfully riding that wave he caught decades ago in Los Angeles. When asked about highlights of the ride so far, he assumes a reflective tone. “My life is filled with highlights. Just getting up in the morning is a highlight. Having work where the energy is self-propagating, where the energy you put out creates even more energy, is a highlight, as is a good work run that lasts six to seven months. Stumbling over accidental things and finding that the thing I stumbled across is actually the next step is always exciting.” Pausing thoughtfully, Bell adds, “My trip has been full of these things.”

From the Fall 2013 issue

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