The rooftop bar of the Hotel Erwin in Venice has intimate nooks made up of seductive couches, flaming torches, an ocean view — and a million stars as its nighttime ceiling.
A back stairway leading from the roof has an entirely different vibe. It's a required exit, the kind found in hotels across America, rarely entered by guests, frequently traveled by hotel staff. This one feels like a rabbit hole, one with concrete steps.
Half a flight down, however, on a small landing between the fifth and sixth floors, the space comes alive. Sashed across the wall are two intersecting swaths, an art piece consisting of a fast-moving collage of metalized Mylar pieces at play with light.
A similar mural pops up on the next landing.
Larry Bell was here. Indeed, the artist has been here a long time.
Bell first entered the art world's consciousness in 1962 via Ferus, L.A.'s most influential gallery. He went on to a distinguished career. Today, the Hotel Erwin looks like a trail of his work.
A series of his pieces fills guest rooms and suites; larger works line a conference room; and he curated a collection of photographs by artists Thomas P. Vinetz, Douglas Paul and Gus Foster that turns the hotel's hallways into galleries.
While it has become de rigueur for swank hotels to use trendy art to market themselves, often hiring art consultants, this is different.
Bell hangs his hat at the hotel, literally, and has done so for decades. He first stayed at the Erwin 36 years ago, when it was known as the Marina Pacific Hotel. That was 1974. Venice was crime-ridden and dangerous, and the hotel was operating under the somewhat-less glamorous Best Western system.
Though Bell lived in New Mexico, he needed a base for L.A. operations because he had just lost his Venice studio space. For 35 years, he slipped in and out of the hotel, commuting from Taos. While other artists edged their cribs inland, Bell stayed put. To him, the boardwalk was the place.
"You have the energy of land's end, and the ionized air from the ocean," he explains. "And the millions of people who pound the boardwalk just for the joy of being in the place."
Sometimes Bell would bring his kids for a vacation. Sometimes the trip was more than an average tourist jaunt.
"If I did a show in L.A. I'd bring my crew, and everybody stayed there. I even assembled some cube sculptures in Room 427," he says, referencing the series often described as his signature work, collected by museums such as New York's Museum of Modern Art.
In the late 1990s, a man Bell had seen around the hotel for years introduced himself: Erwin Sokol, the hotel's owner. Sokol had plans to renovate and had engaged a management company with credentials in turning modest hotels into boutique-style ventures. He wanted the help of his longtime regular tenant.
"He told me that they were planning to do some changes to the hotel, spiff it up ... and would I consider helping them with some ideas," Bell recalls.
"We didn't make a 'deal.' It was just was my host asking me to help him.
"I didn't think any more of it than that. I could put my work in all of the rooms — I had plenty of stuff. And I became the artist-in-residence," he chuckles.
Bell became a fixture at meetings strategizing the renovation. In addition to consulting on and providing art, he conjured up an incandescent, twilight-like ceiling on the fifth floor through the installation of light and paint. He suggested renaming the hotel for its owner, which Erwin did. He set lighting on the art in the halls.
The mural on the staircase evolved after Bell slipped into the stairwell during renovations. He told himself he had to work fast. "It was an improvisation. I just took a big, long folder of Mylar and paper and stuff like that and made it up." He finished in an hour.
That artwork and the renovated hotel debuted in 2009. But a year later, Bell still walks the halls, checking lighting. "I'm sort of an anonymous figure around there," he says, one of his ubiquitous Borsalino hats tucked down low. "But when I go to my room, there are people in the hallways, stopping, looking at the work."
When Bell checks in these days, a credit card is no longer required and hotel staff know the room he prefers, an airy suite overlooking the street. But don't go looking for him there during the day.
About the time he was invited to be the Hotel Erwin's in-house art consultant, Bell's old Venice studio, lost to him 26 years earlier, became available again. During waking hours, you'll find the artist-in-residence there.