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Larry Bell

Larry Bell is a contemporary American artist and sculptor who lives and works in Taos, New Mexico, and maintains a studio in Venice, California. From 1957 to 1959 he studied at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles as a student of Robert Irwin, Richards Ruben, Robert Chuey and Emerson Woelffer. He is a grant recipient from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, and his artworks are found in the collections of many major cultural institutions. The works of Larry Bell have been shown at museums and in public spaces in the United States and abroad over the course of his 40-year career.

The art of Larry Bell addresses the relationship between the art object and its environment through the sculptural and reflective properties of his work. He is often associated with Light and Space, a group of mostly West Coast artists whose work is primarily concerned with perceptual experience stemming from the viewer’s interaction with their work. This group also includes, among others, artists James Turrell, John McCracken, Peter Alexander, Robert Irwin and Craig Kauffman. On the occasion of the Tate Gallery’s exhibit Three Artists from Los Angeles: Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler, Michael Compton wrote the following to describe the effect of the artwork of Larry Bell:

“At various times and particularly in the 1960s some artists have worked near what could be called the upper limits of perceptions, that is, where the eye is on the point of being overwhelmed by a superabundance of stimulation and is in danger of losing its power to control it… These artists sometimes produce the effect that the threat to our power to resolve what is seen heightens our awareness of the process of seeing… However, the three artists in this show… operate in various ways near the lowest thresholds of visual discrimination. The effect of this is again to cause one to make a considerable effort to discern and so to become conscious of the process of seeing.”

The earliest pieces by Larry Bell are paintings in the Abstract Expressionist tradition. He began incorporating fragments and shards of clear and mirrored glass into his compositions. At the same time, he began in his painting to produce angular geometric compositions that alluded to or represented three-dimensional forms. These works frequently depicted rectilinear forms with truncated corners. Next there came a series of shadow boxes or “ghost boxes”, three-dimensional cases whose surfaces often featured shapes reminiscent of those in the preceding paintings. Of this transition, critic Peter Frank has observed:

“The surfaces of the work of Larry Bell acts as both mirrors and windows, sometimes simultaneously. In viewing the cubes, their suspension at torso height on clear pedestals designed by Larry Bell allows the viewer to look up through them from underneath, as well as perceiving them from all four sides and from above. The sculptures of Larry Bell have the effect of reading as self-contained objects while simultaneously drawing in their surroundings and proactively changing their environment. For these reasons, the sculptures’ effects depend heavily on their lighting and setting.”

Larry Bell has explored the opportunities afforded by thin film deposition along other avenues. He began creating large, freestanding glass walls that can be arranged in an infinite number of configurations. These larger installations feature panes that extend from the floor or that reach above eye level. In 1968, Larry Bell made the following comments on the perceptual and environmental aspects of this body of work, and on the leap from the cubes to the larger configurations:

“Larry Bell continues his work with the cube to this day; more recent ones are made only of glass and have beveled edges, as opposed to plates that sit within a metal frame. The glass is typically covered with a film that has been treated using a technique called thin film deposition of metallic particles. This process takes place in a vacuum chamber, and involves vaporizing metal alloys that then settle on the glass surface. The concentration of the coating on the glass determines the variation in its reflective properties, and Larry Bell uses this gradation to enhance the transparent and reflective properties of the glass.”

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