Larry Bell made his first paintings in the late 1950s while an art student at Chouniard. His early paintings were in the abstract expressionist style, as were many of his peers’ at the time. Robert Irwin was among his first painting teachers; friends and fellow students included Ed Ruscha, Kenny Price, Billy Al Bengston and Ed Moses. Among these fiercely independent young artists, Bell found creative motivation in the spirit of good humored competition and, in an attempt to develop a unique artistic style, he began making large geometric paintings using flat monochromatic color fields and shaped canvases that suggested three-dimensional forms. In 1959 he began adding glass to the paintings.
The Constructions were a concurrent continuation of the investigations Larry Bell began with the shaped paintings of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. He found that the illusion of a volume had become a limitation for him, so he began to construct the volumes themselves. Composed variously of painted wood, metal and glass, these hard-edged objects stood away from the wall but still relied primarily on frontal viewing. These works led to Bell’s growing fascination with glass and his use of it as a primary material in the sculptures to come. As with the paintings, the constructions became increasingly minimal, until all that was left was the glass and the elemental form for which he is best known, the cube.
Larry Bell became interested in glass in the early 1960s. As a medium, it had three properties that interested: it could transmit, absorb and reflect light, and with specific treatment, it could do all three at the same time. He found the cube to be an ideal form with which to investigate the phenomena of light on surface. The first cubes were made using household mirrors from which he would scratch away parts of the reflective material. Later he discovered a plating process that would make the glass reflective on both sides. With the early cubes, he incorporated geometric imagery, including the ellipse, adding visual complexity and depth to the simple forms. Eventually he eliminated the imagery. With a technology that deposited exquisitely thin films of various metallic and non-metallic substances to the glass. The resulting visual spectrum of colors is in fact light reflected in different wavelengths off the surface of the glass. Bell has continued to revisit the cubes throughout his career.
By the late 1960s, Larry Bell found that the most interesting part of the cubes was where the corners came together. The next logical step was to focus on making big corners, resulting in the Standing Walls. Simpler constructions allowed for a larger scale, and required larger equipment. The vacuum coating machine that he commissioned to be built was completed in 1969. This machine, affectionately called “The Tank,” a cylinder ten feel long and seven feet in diameter, was used to coat the first large panels, and later a variety of other materials. Scale of the glass panels that composed the Standing Walls was primarily based on the practical proportions of Bell’s own body: not much wider than he could reach, higher than he could jump, or heavier than he could lift with the help of one other person.
The Furniture de Lux is based on the design of an old chair Bell found in a thrift store in 1965. The chair’s profile appeared to be exactly one quarter of the forty-degree ellipse that he had worked with in the early cubes. Conceived of as part of a larger environment including his Corner Lamps and Standing Walls, the series of furniture was designed by Bell and built in the early 1980s by woodworker Ed Paul and upholsterer David Steiner. All Furniture de Lux combine Carpathian elm burl and cotton velvet.
The Vapor Drawings, began in 1978, are a series of works on paper created with the same technology Larry Bell used to deposit the thin films on the glass works. While the concurrent glass works and furniture was labor intensive and slow, the Vapor Drawings allowed Bell to work quickly, intuitively, with spontaneity and improvisation. Because paper has different surface qualities than glass, more tooth, it accepted the thin films in unique ways, yielding a multitude of effects and vibrant spectrum of colors. These works on paper served as a vehicle for Bell to better learn the vacuum coating technology, lessons that came into play in later works with a variety of materials. He has continued to the vacuum coating process throughout his career.
The Mirage works represent a dramatic departure from the minimal imagery that Larry Bell had been known for until the mid 1980s. At 46-years old, he learned that he had a profound congenital hearing deficiency which had never been diagnosed. His new hearing aids revealed an altered experience of the world around him, tapping a wave of memories, depression and distraction. Hearing changed the nature of his work; the work became a way to channel the anger and rage that accompanied memories. He began to make collages using the materials and equipment he had on hand, building upon the intuitive process he cultivated with the Vapor Drawings. The process was so spontaneous that the resulting works were often a surprise to the artist himself, and he named them according to his first thoughts upon seeing them. Processes and techniques Bell used in the Mirage works recurs in the later Fractions and Church Studies series.
Larry Bell conceived of the large scale, abstractly figurative bronze sculptures in the series known as Sumer quite by accident. In order to learn some painting software he had purchased as a tool for the development of an early 1990s collaboration with friend and architect Frank Gehry, Bell created a collection of gestural figurative drawings that became the vehicle for the only vaguely representational works in Bell’s oeuvre. The curious drawings led Bell to develop a narrative for the humanoid characters that was based on the epic of Gilgamesh and the ancient civilization of Sumer, an enterprising people who invented cuneiform writing before vanishing into posterity.
The Fractions are a large body of small works on paper that Larry Bell made using collaged pieces of discarded Mirage works. Each Fraction is composed of one or more 3×3” shards of the larger compositions fused to a 10×10” substrate. The process involves a laminate press; heat and pressure loosen deposits of paint and thin-film coating, resulting in unpredictable wispy gestural lines and flowing forms. Bell began the series in 1996, setting out to make ten thousand Fractions. In five years he had completed 12,000.
Larry Bell’s Church studies are made using processes similar to those involved in the Mirage Works and Fractions, but are so named because they were made in Bell’s current Venice studio, which happens to be housed in a building that used to be a church. The curvilinear imagery in certain compositions suggest his fondness for acoustic guitars. This body of large works incorporate an unusually shaped frame, which is deeper on the top edge, shallower at the bottom. A number of the Church Studies incorporate a red Kozo paper that is hand-made in Japan to Bell’s specifications.
In terms of material weight and mass, the light knots are by far the most minimal works in Larry Bell’s oeuvre. They also may be seen as products of Bell’s most improvisational decision-making and technique, an accumulation of lessons in responding to his materials with spontaneity and intuition gleaned in nearly 60 years in the studio. Composed of thin sheets of polyester coated with aluminum and silicon monoxide, which Bell then twists into a knot. Each hanging form retains or changes its shape through gravity acting upon the object’s own surface tension.
The 3DVDs are Light Knots which have been suspended in a specially made plexi-glass vitrine.