American Painter and Sculptor
Summary of Larry Bell
"You need light to see, you need space to work," Larry Bell has wryly stated on more than one occasion when asked for his thoughts on the Light and Space movement with which the celebrated artist has been associated since its inception in the mid-1960s. More of a loosely affiliated group of artists than a cohesive movement, Light and Space is a distinctly Southern California style, concurrent with the Finish/Fetish trend, said to reflect the influence of the distinct light of the region and the inclination to use non-traditional, often industrial, materials to explore this phenomenon. For Bell, the singular concern with light, or rather the visual properties of light on a surface, remains a lifelong subject of exploration. His iconic glass cube sculptures, for which the artist is best known today, are mesmerizing examples of this investigation. The translucent cubes, at first stoic and austere, slowly reveal poignant experiences to the faithful viewer. The minimalist geometric sculptures offer a kinesthetic experience, as illusory shapes appear and evaporate within the cubic volume as one moves around the work.
Bell's desire to toy with the viewer's perception is a trait shared with other artists affiliated with Light and Space, most notably Robert Irwin and James Turrell. The legacy of Bell, however, is not only material but also conceptual. For the pursuit of industrial materials represented a rejection of art as an object, a dominant theoretical underpinning of Minimalism, in pursuit of art as experience. The use of glass, mirror, metallic films, paper and leftover scraps of Mylar were, for the artist, a means to an end, not the end itself. There were materials through which Bell interacted with his primary medium, light, and was able to transmit that experience to the viewer.
- Larry Bell is among the first generation of artists to shape the contemporary avant-garde art scene in Los Angeles, the youngest artist to join the roster of the legendary Ferus Gallery with a solo exhibition in 1962. The gallery's artists were later bestowed the title of "The Cool School" in a 1964 essay by Philip Leider, critic and managing editor of Art Forum, who defined the group as having a "collective hatred of the superfluous" and concluded that "a construction of Larry Bell's, for example, cries 'Hand's off!' (This quality of distance, coldness, austerity has become the trademark of Ferus Gallery installations.)"
- Bell's cube sculptures exemplify the hard-edged appearance of Post-Painterly Abstraction and Minimalism, but create a markedly different experience. Instead of creating a distinctly defined, and inherently neutral object, Bell's glass sculptures appear ephemeral, constantly changing in response to their surroundings as well as the viewer's movement around the work. Therefore, the true subject is not the art object, per se, but the transformation of light in response to it.
- The artist is sometimes associated with a style of art known as Finish/Fetish. This movement, also known as the "LA Look," is characterized by immaculate surfaces, use of fabrication techniques, and use of new materials (industrial paints, resins, plastics) inspired by Southern California popular culture (i.e., cars, surf and sun) and the aerospace industry. Bell's use of metallic vacuum-coating technologies serves a prime example of this inclination.
Biography of Larry Bell
Larry Bell was born in Chicago in 1939. The family moved to California in 1945 when Larry was five years old. His father was an insurance salesman and his mother would later re-enroll in community college to study art. The family resided in what was then the rural community of Van Nuys located in the San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles. He recalls being the first family on his street to own a television set, which became a strong influence during his youth.
Important Art by Larry Bell
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.
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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Larry Bell
- Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960sOur PickAuthor: Hunter Drohojowska-Philps / Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (2011)
- Made in Los Angeles: Materials, Processes, and the Birth of West Coast MinimalismOur PickBy Rachel Rivenc
- Zones of Experience: The Art of Larry BellOur PickBy Larry Bell, Dean Cushman, Douglas Kent Hall, Peter Frank, Ellen Landis, James Moore / Albuquerque Museum of Art (1997)
- Phenomenal: California Light, Space, SurfaceBy Robin Clark / University of California Press (2011)
- "Larry Bell" art ltd. MagazineOur PickBy Molly Enholm / July 2015
- "Larry Bell's Architectonic Light: Early Cubes and Improvisations" East of BorneoBy Robert C. Morgan / February 28, 2012
- Portrait of an Artist: Larry BellBy Maryam Eisler / March 18, 2018
- A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: 1967-1971
- Oral history interview with Larry Stuart Bell, 1980 May 25-June 30.Our PickArchives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
- "Larry Bell" Trend Magazine
- "Larry Bell Talks Spontaneous Improvisation," OculaBy Anna Dickie and Stephanie Bailey / July 2017