Almost all you need to know about artist Larry Bell is written on a wall at Larry's, the recently-opened restaurant that bears his name, literally, in neon lights, in Venice. But, hey, we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Many artists have been drawn to Venice for its (initially) low rents, modicum of surf and artists community. Bell has stayed because he loves the energy of the Boardwalk, the ionized air of the ocean and the powerful forces of living at lands end — what happens when you have no place else to go.
He dates his Venice days to 1966 and his on-again-off-again-on again studio is just a short walk to the restaurant that now flies his name. But around 1974, he began splitting his time between Taos, New Mexico, and the beach. He's used a local hotel since then, becoming friends with its owners — first Erwin Sokol, then later on Erwin's son Mark. When the hotel was to be renamed after a renovation, Larry recommended Erwin's name and it was dubbed Hotel Erwin. When it came to their new restaurant near the hotel, the Sokols astutely returned the favor and named it Larry's.
Though the new eatery received a soft-opening about a month ago, technically you couldn't really call it official till it officially became a Venice artists' spot. And so Bell and the Sokols hosted a breezily-warm and relaxed party for Bell's friends in the art-realm last week. Or at least an opening is how the invitation pegged it.
What you found was less of one of those Los Angeles soulless launch parties — free food, bold-faced names and everyone thinking about their next engagement — and more a mini-gala for Pacific Standard Time, the about-to-begin retrospective on postwar L.A. art that takes place across dozens of museum in the area.
Bell — whose transparent cubes of specially-coated glass broke through the alpha-male competitive scene of California's Light and Space movement — invited such contemporaries as Billy Al Bengston, a leader of the legendary Ferus Gallery who, when he used to lend friends money would make it a stipulation that they had to keep talking to him if they didn't pay him back. Also there was Ed Moses, who has more bad moods than paintings, and the man's been prolific.
Others included Peter Alexander, Guy Dill, Laddie John Dill, Doug Edge, Charles Hill and Peter Shelton and the Getty Museum's vivacious and smart Rani Singh.
But the event's atmosphere of lose congeniality was more than free wine and old friends. A lot had to do with Bell's personality, Venice's still-sputtering notion of community and the restaurant itself. Or maybe the Sokols' and restaurant designer Kristofer Keith's understanding of and ability to intertwine the three. Bell refuses credit.
Though Keith and his design company Spacecraft are the in fashion restaurant-design group right now, putting together a slew of nightlife spots across the city, to understand how smart Keith and his clients were in pulling off this job, you have to understand where the restaurant is placed.
It's a tough little lot located in the chaos that occurs at the entry point to the Venice Boardwalk. To the restaurant's west is a heavily-trafficked alley. To it's north — Windward Avenue, a-mob-scene-of-street, a key walking and parking-fiasco artery. While other clients might have instructed their designers to cut their eatery off from the Hoi polloi, the Sokols didn't, and that's perfect for Bell's identity, as the artist thrives on walking the Boardwalk, mixing it up with those who come just for the love of the place, and buying from unknown artists who set up shop along the walk.
The flow of Larry's is open to the surrounding atmosphere while still offering locals a place of their own amidst the madness.
Keith cuts a large rectangular shape out of the building's alley-facing wall to reveal the warm, yet elegant bar to passersby. But those dropping-in for a glass of wine or beer face towards the kitchen, away from Windward Avenue. It's a nice touch of privacy and intimacy.
Keith pulls off the same sense of refuge and openness in the L-shaped courtyard, which lies between the building and the parameter half-wall and houses all of the restaurants tables. The transparency of the walls offer connection to the street, but at the same time, provides a buffer.
From the outside it looks like what you'd think would be a Mexican beach bar — inside, it's a hang out for friends. Depending on the season, the courtyard is either fully open to the sky, shaded or protected from the rain. A fireplace is set in brightly-colored, irregularly- patterned tile towards the back. Though the juxtaposition of colored tile posts, and the restaurant's name painted on its exterior walls gives the spot a touch of clutter, the eatery's design isn't about winning awards, but welcoming locals.
Tired of corporate signage, Mark Sokol searched out a Highland Park artist to produce a neon version of the restaurant's logo — an easy-going self-portrait of Bell with his ubiquitous hat and stogy. Local artist Juan Carlos Munoz Hernandez — who worked for the late Robert Graham whose home was on the same street — was commissioned to do several murals on walls surrounding the property.
The restaurant also features the names of other artists who have moved through Venice painted in white on the ash-gray walls of its building. Ed Ruscha, Raymond Pettibon, Vija Celimins, Dennis Hopper — sure — names you'd expect. But what makes the wall so Bell is the other names. Names you might know if you're educated in California artists: Doug Edge, Ned Evans, Peter Lodato, Marvin Rand. And names, in all probability you won't know: Mb Boissonault or Kate Savage.
Already they occupy the better part of the bar's frontage. Still, Bell says neither his list, which began in scrawled handwriting on lined paper in his studio, nor its translation to the eatery's locale, is complete. Consider it a work-in-progress.
Still, in an era in which Venice's city council representative Bill Rosendahl backed by Abbot Kinney property owners and merchants thought a handful of parking spots was more valuable than having the globally recognized painter Ed Ruscha in the hood, Larry's authentically integrates Venice artists with commerce, a feat that hasn't been pulled off locally for quite some time.
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