Progression of Art
Lil' Orphan Annie
Lil' Orphan Annie exemplifies the post-expressionist stage of Larry Bell's development as a painter. Throughout these works, the young artist employed a minimal color palette with hard-edge geometric forms on shaped canvases. The large, flat areas of unmodulated color reinforce the flatness of the picture plane, while the inscribed geometric shapes, often set at a diagonal, create a sensation of depth. As Rachel Rivenc describes in her book, Made in Los Angeles (2016), Bell "depicted planes and actual shapes to suggest volumes nested one into the other and viewed in skewed perspective."
Bell is believed to be the first artist on the West Coast to exploit the use of shaped canvases, and shows a nearly simultaneous exploration of this format with renowned Minimalist painter Frank Stella's own experiments in this direction. Despite the similar strategy, there is a stark difference in the conceptual underpinnings taken by each artist. For New York-based Stella, the break with the traditional rectangle was a means to further emphasize the object-hood of the painting and flatness of the picture plane. For the West Coast artist, however, the objective was to create overlapping shapes that result in the illusion of depth on the flat surface, what the artist has described as variations of "cubic volume as dictated by the shape of the canvas."
The series of shaped canvases mark the final series of "pure" paintings by the artist. Another work in the series, titled Little Blank Riding Hood, was similarly based on a six-sided polygon. Melissa Wortz describes, "Bell has explained that the inspiration for this particular painting came from a specific architectural element, the skylight of his Marine Street studio in Venice, although he has also said that recognizing the similarity of this approach to Ellsworth Kelly's paintings is part of what encouraged him to make a change."
Soon after, he began to push the notions of volume further by incorporating glass and mirror fragments onto the surface of the canvas, complicating the eye's ability to read the flatness of the picture plane. Both series suggest the continued influence of Irwin's theories of Perceptualism on Bell, a concept of art focused on exploring the variability of the viewer's perception and optical experience while engaging with the work of art.
Bell's earliest sculptural works echo the shaped paintings. The front and the back were cube-like shapes with opposite corners cut at a 45-degree angle, similar to the canvases. Additionally, these works were not true cubes as the width was much thinner, about 1/4 of the square dimensions of the front and back. In a way, they exaggerate the proportions of the painted tesserae forms, removing them from the wall and placing them upon a pedestal. Like the paintings, The Aquarium both incorporates and departs from artistic convention. Bell follows tradition by placing the sculpture on a pedestal, while decidedly moving in a new direction with the incorporation of everyday materials and employing a modernist geometric aesthetic. Paradoxically, the sculptures were still utilizing the vocabulary the artist used in his paintings, a motif the artist would later describe as volumetric illustrations of volume.
Mirror, paint, glass and silver leaf
The earliest cube sculptures Bell created were conceived in similar materials as the shaped boxes, primarily cut mirror and clear glass, edged in metal. These works were visually complex, with patterns such as diagonal ellipses, layering illusions of volume onto the sculptural form itself. In this example from the Norton Simon Museum of Art, an elegant ellipse is inscribed within a perfect circle on each pane of glass creating a nearly cosmological chart when the reflections begin to play on one another ."When I think of an ellipse shape, I think of the galaxy of Andromeda," Bell explains. "It pulls on us from a roughly 40-degree angle, and that's a 40-degree ellipse. It's a huge volume." Thus, what first appears as a simple geometric pattern may also be read as a distortion of scale and perspective. By inscribing the universal form within the panels of the cube, a form the artist describes as small and intimate, he inherently distorts scale as another means to disrupt the viewer's perception.
Adrian Kohn notes the difficulty in summarizing the visual experience of these works in his essay, 'Work and Words,' for the exhibition catalogue, Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface, "Real space vies with reflected space here; elsewhere the shapes' apparent withdrawal into the cube's interior amounts to pictorial space rivaling real; and finally, since the shiny glass surfaces consist of ellipses and other discrete shapes, reflected space clashes with pictorial. Needless to say, a cube's insides can appear startlingly disjointed." Just as the earlier paintings had both reinforced and disrupted the viewer's reception of the flat picture plane, these early experiments with volumetric sculptural works both satisfy and frustrate the viewer's ability to see into the space defined by the cube. Thus, Bell continues to explore the eye's ability to perceive space and volume through the use of reflected and ambient light.
Vacuum coated glass and chrome cube with spherical shapes on six sides, 12-1/4 x 12-1/4 x 12-1/4 in - Norton Simon Museum, Museum Purchase with funds donated by the members of the 1967-68 Blum/Coplans Class, Pasadena Art Museum
There is a quiet monumentality to Larry Bell's iconic glass cube sculptures. As solemn as the monoliths of Stonehenge and futuristic as the famous rectangular slab of Stanley Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), an air of mystery beckons the viewer closer to the totemic works where the true aura of the sculpture can be appreciated. With each step, the appearance of the sculpture changes as light reflects both outward and through the interior of the cube. The viewer may find their reflection in the smoky glass from one angle, only to see their shadowy image dissolve upon taking another step. Set upon a pedestal of Plexiglas, the cubes almost appear to be floating, as light enters from all sides. The artist describes the interaction of light and surface as his true medium, and it seems the visceral engagement between the viewer and object is the true subject.
The industrial nature of Bell's materials and the geometric form of the cube seemingly align the artist with the Minimalist aesthetic, but the Los Angeles artist's interests were quite distinct from his New York peers. Where Minimalists explore issues of fabrication, repetition, and reinforce the notion of the object, Bell's works are handled directly by the artist, individually conceived, and ephemeral, due to microscopic variations in the metallic film altering the translucency and reflective quality of the glass. Where Minimalist objects were often set directly on the floor, Bell maintained the tradition of the pedestal, albeit his use of Plexiglas provides an innovative twist.
"The environmental space seen through and reflected by the glass, optically merges with the piece and becomes an intrinsic part of it," wrote art historian and curator Barbara Haskell for a 1972 solo exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum. "In addition to providing a vehicle for his color, glass in Bell's work serves as an agent for the dematerialization of the object." The results ranged from smoky charcoals to a subtle prism of reflected light. The artist used no pigments, any color seen on the cubes were the result of light passing through the metallic particles adhered to the surface of the glass.
The works bridge the Southern California Light and Space explorations with alternative materials and conceptual use of light as an artistic medium with the geometric precision and immaculate surfaces associated with the concurrent Finish/Fetish aesthetic, also dominant in the Los Angeles art scene. Moreover, there is a decidedly kinetic aspect to the sculptures, as the reflections, shadows, and shapes created continually morph as the viewer approaches and circumambulates around the work. As curator Michele D. De Angelus notes, "The qualities of the space in Bell's cubes, though visually perceived, are kinesthetically sensed. They are significant not only in their transportation of the realm of painterly concerns to three dimensions."
Courtesy the artist and Peter Blake Gallery - Glass and chrome-plated brass
6 x 6: An Improvisation
The series of Standing Wall installations created by Bell beginning in the late 1960s is a clear reflection of the modernist impulse for simplification. After the artist perfected his technique of assembling his glass cubes without the need of a metal frame he began to explore the light and prisms of color as they met and reflected at the corners, thus becoming a new point of interest for the artist to explore. It was no longer necessary to create the entire cube. Instead, the artist theorized that two panes of glass placed at a 90-degree angle could produce the desired affect. However, because his first vacuum-coating machine chamber could only treat 20-inch panels of glass, he began to construct these larger works with untreated pieces of glass. In order to increase the scale of his vision, for both his cubes and standing walls, Bell commissioned a new vacuum chamber that would allow him to coat glass panels up to six-by-ten feet. The new machine, completed in 1969, also allowed for greater control and flexibility to adjust the thickness of particles deposited on the glass surface.
The new works, collecting known as Standing Walls, provided an immersive experience. The new direction, consisting of a five-panel installation, made its debut in his 1972 solo retrospective exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum, curated by Barbara Haskell. Whereas the viewer would typically stand over the cube, the experience of viewing the standing walls is truly immersive. "There is no perceptual separation between the actual sheets of glass and their illusory reflections - both are perceived as equal physical realities," wrote Haskell. She continues, "Removal of the pedestal and metal edge eliminates any visual defining frame of reference and enhances the elusiveness of the space. The completely architectural scale of the walls contributes to transcending the 'object' by engaging the major portion of the viewer's field of vision."
In the 2014 installation at the Chinati Foundation, titled 6 x 6: An Improvisation, the artist brought together 32 new and previously treated glass panels to create a procession of 16 units joined at 90-degree angles, each panel measuring six-by-six feet. The surface of the glass panels varied from clear to light coatings of Inconel, a nickel-chromium alloy often used by the artist. The various treatments alter the way light passes through or reflects from the surface of the glass. As a result, walking around and through the installation becomes a game of cat-and-mouse with one's own reflection and visibility to others in the room. "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," curator and director emeritus of the Chinati Foundation Marianne Stockebrand explained in a 2015 interview. "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 emphasis on disorienting the viewer's perception through a controlled manipulation of light and reflection is a defining characteristic of the Light and Space movement.
Clear and metalized glass, 16 pairs of 6-foot square glass panels joined at right angles
SF 6.20 11A (Small Figure)
In 1978, Bell started to experiment with coating paper with the same metallic deposits he had previously used on glass. Initially discovered by accident, he went on to produce multiple series, the earliest known as Vapor Drawings, incorporating the same geometric vocabulary found in his early cube sculptures. Because the paper absorbed and reflected light when combined with the metallic film, it created a prismatic effect in a gradient across the surface.
Whereas the cube sculptures grew increasingly refined over time, the works on paper became progressively complex. Deceptively simple, these works at first appear to be dimensional; they are perfectly flat while also incorporating numerous sheets of paper. In a multi-step process, Bell first masks the paper with strips of Mylar leaving areas exposed in the vacuum chamber. After processing, multiple sheets of cut paper are put together with a laminating process and sealed onto canvas for additional support. In the later Mirage and Small Figure series, the knife replaces the brush as the artist cuts into the paper with long sweeping gestures, creating abstract shapes inspired by the sensual form of a female torso or the curved body of an acoustic guitar, the latter inspired by his vast collection of 12-strings. The layering of shapes and nuanced gradients create, in much the same way as his early geometric paintings, a push-and-pull illusion of depth and volume on the flat picture plane.
Mixed Media on Black Arches Paper
Lyrical and evanescent, Larry Bell's Light Knots represent the culmination of the artist's previous experience with materials and technology. Like glass, the translucent Mylar of the Knots transmit, reflect, and absorb light, continuing the artist's lifelong investigation with the subject. Similar to the Vapor Drawings, the hanging sculptures are built from materials the artist had previously used to process his other work. "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," he described in a 2015 studio visit, "All of a sudden, the work presented another aspect of itself... and it was a redemption of all things new again."
Each of the hanging sculptures are unique, made from a single sheet of Mylar film, which the artist improvisationally cuts, then folds the Mylar and processes the material in the vacuum chamber so it receives a microscopic thin layer of vaporized metallic particles. After processing, the artist pulls the Mylar sheet through the slices he previously made, allowing gravity to pull the translucent material into a seemingly random array of curvilinear shapes. The kinetic sculptures, hung with nearly invisible microfilament, slowly twist in space and reflect ambient light from the surrounding environment. The reflective quality is aided by the vaporized metals, much like the prismatic effect of gas in a puddle of water. "The aluminum acts like water, it raises the reflectivity," Bell explains, "the quartz acts like the gasoline, it interferes with the light reflected off, at wavelengths equivalent to the thickness of the deposit. It's the same story."
Aluminum and silicon monoxide on polyester film
Pacific Red II
Pacific Red II is a striking installation consisting of a series of six nested chevrons, built from two pieces of six-foot-square red glass panels meeting at right angles. The vibrant red hues that first attract our attention soon dissolve to other concerns. Although not immediately apparent, slight variations in the opacity of the red metallic film distorts the viewer's perception; reflections, shadows, and objects alternately disappear and reappear as one walks through the seemingly simple installation.
In his most recent work, Bell has re-imagined his architecturally scaled, immersive installations while pushing his exploration of light in a radical new direction. Instead of translucent shapes that seem to physically dissolve the distinction between object and environment, the brightly colored works radiate a distinct sense of their volume and mass. Varying in color from bright orange, cool blues, frosty whites and blood red, Bell has departed from the metalizing process to laminate large planes of glass in varying shades of film ranging in translucency. The initial assumption concludes that Bell has ventured into a more truly Minimalist vocabulary, with repetitive forms emphasizing notions of space between the units. However, the varying degrees of reflection and transmission of light through the different pieces of glass makes such distinctions impossible to visually detect.
installation view - Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University