The Light and Space veteran rolls out Venice Fog in Hauser & Wirth's retrospective of glass-cube sculptures going back to the beginning of his career.
When Larry Bell was a young artist freshly graduated from Chouinard Art Institute (now California Institute for the Arts) in 1959, his paintings were mostly of cubes, a motif that has continued to intrigue him to this day. “It’s just a symmetrical shape that seems to satisfy all my needs for a structural format to hang my ideas on,” he tells L.A. Weekly, when asked why a cube and not, say, a pyramid. The question almost seems to confuse him as he sits over breakfast in the courtyard at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles. A few steps away, his first solo show at the gallery is about to open. “Complete Cubes” contains more than 20 glass-cube sculptures ranging from 2 inches to more than 40, and dating to the beginning of his career.
The earliest piece included in the survey, an untitled 2-inch cube bound at the edges with chrome, is an example of what he calls “heartbreakers,” on account of how fragile they are and how many have been lost during transport or due to less than optimal storage conditions or just plain clumsiness. “That little one was made in 1963 but only assembled two months ago,” he says of the work, also the smallest on view, which he recently found in storage.
Absorption, transmission and reflection are properties of glass activated by Bell’s master manipulation through a process called “vacuum deposition,” by which surfaces are coated, usually with aluminum or whatever it takes to stimulate the interplay between light and the space, both inside and outside the enclosed cube.
“If there’s no light, you can’t see what you’re doing. And if there’s no space, then there’s no place to put something down,” he says, cheekily articulating the concept behind California’s Light and Space movement. Begun in the 1960s and typified by Bell and others like Robert Irwin (his professor at Chouinard), James Turrell and Craig Kauffman, the movement was a confluence of thoughts on the phenomenology of optical perception and intrigue with new “futuristic” materials created for the aerospace industry then taking hold in this region.
“In my younger times, I met a lot of hot gals in museums,” he jokes about the old days. “I still see Bob Irwin, he lives in San Diego. Sadly, (Ed) Moses is gone. There’s not too many of us left.” They were all part of the so-called Cool School, a crew of quasi–bad-boy artists who exhibited at the famed Ferus Gallery in West Hollywood in the early 1960s.
It was around that time Bell abandoned painting and moved into sculpture. “I essentially decided that too many artists could paint much better than I could,” he explains. “The best thing I could do for myself was get out of the painting business and make the volumes that I was trying to paint and see where that led me.”
The 78-year-old artist had been constructing glass boxes since his days at Chouinard when, while working in a Burbank framing store, he experimented with glass shards inside a wooden shadow box. The vacuum deposition–treated sculptures in the Arts District show first began to appear around 1963. Two years later, his sold-out show at New York’s Pace Gallery put Bell on the art world’s radar at the tender age of 26.
“Some of the pieces have patterns that are reflective and suggest certain kinds of relationships that change when you move around it,” he says of mid-’60s cubes featuring ornamental curved metal patterns or checkerboards, made before he narrowed his focus to treated glass. Vacuum deposition is an expensive process that needed to be outsourced. So, while living for a year in New York, Bell purchased a vacuum-coating chamber from a decorative metalizer named Ben Koenig from the Bronx, giving him greater control over the process. From then on, the chrome frames and geometric patterns began to disappear, and the cubes got bigger.
In recent years, Pacific Red, a series of large-scale crimson cubes inside cubes, signaled Bell’s first full-on foray into color — and found themselves featured to stunning outdoor plaza effect at the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York City. For the Hauser & Wirth show, the new works he calls Venice Fog extend the exploration. A trio of large-scale frosted cubes housing smaller colored cubes — a red, a white and a blue — Venice Fog is mesmerizing, floating like a three-dimensional Rothko.
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“Just about all work is an extension of the work done before. You finish one thing and the next piece arrives in your brain,” Bells says when asked what’s next. “The Venice Fog works, the three beauties here, it’s just the newest viable extension of what’s happened before. It’s just another flavor of it all. The direction I want to pursue now, how long I’ll be interested in doing that, I don’t know.”
901 E. Third St., downtown; (213) 943-1620, hauserwirth.com. Tue.-Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m., through Sept. 23; free.