The Radical Luminescence of Larry Bell

The titan of the Light and Space movement is refreshingly down to earth and continues to be inspired. A new survey at the Phoenix Art Museum solidifies his legacy.

Larry Bell, Yellow System #1, 2023.Larry Bell Studio. Photo by Desiree Manville.

On an unseasonably mild day last month, Larry Bell was overseeing the final stages of the installation of his sweeping survey at the Phoenix Art Museum. Dapper in a madras-plaid blazer and his signature fedora, the 84-year-old artist put his hand on my back and nudged me to squat down and peer deeply into a 1969 cube sculpture. I was already wowed by its retro-futuristic, sci-fi Zen austerity, but by positioning and angling my head a certain way, it unlocked a prism of colors.

“You see that glow of blue and violet?” Bell asked. “Because of the treatment of the surface, I can shape the way the color feels. It’s the same phenomena as seeing a little gas on a puddle at a filling station. The rainbow is determined by the gasoline floating on the water.”

portrait of larry bell within one of his blue glass sculptures

The artist Larry Bell. Courtesy of the artist and Anthony Meier, Mill Valley. Photo: Matthew Millman.

Larry Bell: Improvisations” runs through January 5, and it’s a serene curation of luminous color and gleaming glass and metallics. It’s a welcome respite of analog high-tech wonder to the tumultuous squall of today’s news cycle. It’s also a good primer on Bell, one of the forerunners of the Light and Space movement alongside peers like James Turrell and Robert Irwin.

Bell looked deeply into the cube. “I can’t do much about shaping the light with these things,” he said. “Only with the ones that have heavier coating, then I can shape the way the light transmits. Once it goes into ‘The Tank,’ you can control it—the same way that a guy who’s riding a bucking bronco is controlling it.”

photograph of different glass sculptures on pedestals

Installation view of Larry Bell: Improvisations, (2024). Phoenix Art Museum. Photo: Airi Katsuta

“The Tank” Bell is referring to is the vacuum deposition chamber he uses to plate glass for his art. It weighs 14 tons and is housed in his Taos, New Mexico studio. Bell started making cubes in the early ’60s and they’re a cornerstone to his practice today—along with “The Tank.”

“There are things that can be done in a room that doesn’t have air that you can’t do in the presence of air,” Bell explained. “One of them is evaporate metals.” He combines this treatment with a technique called “sputtering” which alters the molecular change in the vacuum. Bell tried to simplify his highly complex methods:

“After the air is removed, a gas, it could be argon, oxygen, nitrogen, or so on is put into the chamber and a high voltage discharge, and as the energy goes through it, it rips molecules off of that metal inside the tube and slams it under the surface. Eventually the surface builds up and the crystalline structure goes back together. So first we coat the glass in the vacuum system, and then we recoat the glass in the sputtering system. There is a lot of weird shit going on.”

photograph of larry bell glass sculpture on a white pedestal

Larry Bell, Deconstructed Cube SS C (Blizzard/Sea Salt/Lagoon) (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Anthony Meier, Mill Valley.

Mistakes, discovery, and serendipity are part of the process. “The three most important tools in any artist’s studio are improvisation, spontaneity, and intuition,” Bell said. “You have to trust yourself and flow with the work and make a decision and just see what happens. Don’t fight it. Just go. Making a piece of work is something like signing your name.” Bell was intimately involved with the install.

“Every moment was a teaching moment,” said Rachel Sadvary Zebro, the museum’s associate curator. “Every step of the way, I was learning something new. He commands a space. He knows where he would like things to go and he has a vision, but he’s collaborative and listens. He has a certain minimal aesthetic, but he also pays attention to how things make you feel. He asks, ‘Do you feel good when you walk into this space? Does it feel good in your soul?’”

The works range from the 1960s until the present day, but their era isn’t clear. They’re all elemental and timeless. Many of the abstract wall works, such as the “Vapor Drawings” and collages, incorporate materials for sculptures.

image of iridescent ripples

Larry Bell, Austin (2023). Photo: Desiree Manville. Courtesy of Larry Bell Studio.

We pass a powerful 2023 collage; the aluminum and silicon monoxide gleam is swarmed with swooshes of matte black. “The imagery that we got out of the piece was a complete surprise to me,” he said. “It reminded me of a bridge in the city of Austin that has about 20 million bats that live underneath it. And they all leave at a certain time of day and that’s what the sky looks like when all of the bats fly out, so I named the piece Austin.” With his peculiar and very personal nomenclature, Bell can easily recount a piece’s title and narrative no matter the decade.

As we pass multiple smaller sculptures, which double as maquettes for proposed large-scale works, Bell said, “Look, I’m not sure any of this is art. But this is what I did, this is the evidence of what my life was.” We stand in front of The Cat, a majestic smoked glass assemblage perched atop an expanse of beige carpet. Our images are reflected in the mirror-like facade and become part of the sculpture.

photograph of different colored glass cube sculptures

Installation view of Larry Bell: Improvisations (2024). Photo: Airi Katsuta. Courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum.

Of everything in the show, Bell is most proud of this 1981 piece. “If I had never seen this before and walked into a room with it,” he said, “I would have to take my hat off to the artist as making a very clear statement about something. It needs nothing. That’s the key and in this show, the only other piece that I have that feeling about is one of those large cubes out there, the pink one.”

The cube in question is part of 2024’s Triptych in Glass. It’s paired with two brethren, one metallic green, the other yellow. “There are no things in it that I see that could be changed,” Bell explained. “The other ones maybe could be a little darker here or more transmissive. But I’ve ganged them together and consider it one piece. The feeling I get from the three makes me feel good.”

portrait of larry bell with a cigar

Portrait of Larry Bell (1975) Photo: Doug Metzler. Courtesy of the artist.

After viewing the show together, we found ourselves making an unexpected detour. “I didn’t just decide to go buy a new car,” Bell groused. “It was decided for me.” Bell’s truck broke down after driving from Robert Irwin’s memorial service in Los Angeles to Phoenix (the artist was Bell’s former teacher and dear friend, and they’d later show together). Bell has resided in Taos since 1973 and needs to return the next day. We are in the back of an Uber cruising by the Phoenix Mountains on the way to a car dealership. Lionel Richie’s classic “Hello” is wafting on the radio. Bell will purchase his latest in a decades-long series of white Suburbans (his first was a 1968 model). “They’re perfect for carrying glass and my family,” Bell said. His new iteration will look like an airport shuttle/ambulance hybrid.

As we head into the suburban sprawl I inquire about Light and Space. Did he feel like he was part of a movement, a brotherhood? Or was this just a media blip? Was it liberating when this finite period ended? “I was part of a group of people that were investigating stuff that was more ephemeral than painting and granite sculptures,” he said. “I never thought of myself as being a Light and Space artist because the evidence of my light and space where it can, it has weight and mass, so it’s not just light and space. It’s light, weight, and space. And then there are artists that only work with light in that they can contain it like Turrell or Doug Wheeler. Each one does their own experimenting. All I ever wanted to do is what I’m doing. I’m celebrating my 64th anniversary of unemployment. I just do what I want.”

black and white photograph of artist larry bell gluing a glass cube

Larry Bell gluing an early cube. Courtesy of the artist.

Before embracing the allure of glass, Bell had a short-lived career as a more traditional abstract minimal painter. “My artist heroes were de Kooning, Pollock, and Klein,” Bell said. “I was never going to be capable of doing a better painting than that. And I knew that when I was 18. It was all garnered by people that really had mastered it through their lifetime’s work.”

Bell is dismissive about this period of his work, but he did achieve a striking Carmen Herreralike verve with paintings like Lil Orphan Annie (1960). “I named it that because the paint is the color of Annie’s hair,” he explained.

geometric painting by larry bell in organge

Larry Bell, Lil Orphan Annie (1960). Courtesy of the artist.

“I just didn’t feel there was any reason to chase after the same thing that’s already been resolved by others,” he explained. “And so, I decided I wanted to find a medium that nobody was using. Glass was available, you can buy it anywhere. It was not very expensive and there were people that knew how to fabricate it. Plus, it has a shelf life of 3 million years. It’s part of our environment. It’s just everywhere we look and every day we use it all the time.”

At the time, Bell was working in a frame shop, and he found inspiration not in what he was framing or the frames, but the treated glass. “With the leftover glass shards, that’s how I learned to cut glass,” he said, and recalled an early failed experiment that shifted his trajectory. “A miracle happened,” Bell said. “The crack caused a shadow on the paper and a reflected line from the crack appeared. So, there were three lines that went through the piece, the reflection, the crack and the shadow, and it looked fantastic. There was nothing I could dispute about how perfect the composition was, and I realized, shit, I’m responsible for all of that. Everything that’s there is because I did that. I have to allow myself to let spontaneity happen and trust it.”

black and white photograph of larry bell cube installation

Installation view of Cube at Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, circa 1960s. Photo by Frank Thomas.

Bell decamped to New York for two years in the 1960s. “I met all kinds of great people that sadly, I’m losing right and left,” Bell said. “Frank Stella was a good friend of mine. Donald Judd was a good friend. I met them all during that time. Barney Newman, William Copley. Marcel Duchamp came to my studio. I didn’t know who he was. I was just a kid; I was like 22.”

Bell continued, “I showed him the work I was doing. Marcel invited me to come and have tea at his house in the village. He probably had a better sense of humor than most of my friends.”

black and white photograph of glass panels installed in a gallery

“Sculptors: The Industrial Edge,” Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1969). Courtesy of the artist.

His New York debut was the 1964 show “Seven New Artists” at the Sidney Janis Gallery. With his CV and peer group, Bell’s trajectory reads like the history of modern art in America. His work is in the permanent collection of institutions like New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and he showed with Ferus Gallery in the ’60s, Ace Gallery in the ’70s, and he’s now with Hauser & Wirth. “I try and sell the evidence of my investigations,” Bell said. “I’m not a very good salesperson, so I try and associate with people that know how to do that.”

Bell acquired his first vacuum chamber in 1965 for $2,500. Some work that had been shipped from California was damaged, and the commercial plater he booked to repair it offered to sell him his machine. Bell’s art was forever changed. “He gave me a book on how to do the process,” Bell said. “’Start on page one.’ I still refer to that same book now.” The one-two punch of the 1966 blackout and blizzard inspired his return to Venice Beach, California. “I realized I was not a New Yorker,” he said.

photograph of artist larry bell in black in white sitting

Larry Bell at his Market Street studio circa 1970. Courtesy of the artist.

There is so much science involved in Bell’s oeuvre that it isn’t surprising that a firm basis in science fiction underlies both. H.G. Wells is his favorite writer, and there are Wells Easter eggs in some of his artwork titles, such as the sculpture The Dilemma of Griffin’s Cat, which was derived from a passage in The Invisible Man. “Griffin was a student of science who had come up with the idea for a potion that if you ingested it, you would become invisible,” Bell explained. “He was roundly ridiculed by his teachers and by his fellow students, but he persevered and tried it out on his landlady’s cat. It made the creature invisible except for the pupils of his eyes walking around. When I made a big sculpture, my daughter, who was six at the time, walked inside, and all I could truly see were her eyes.”

Larry Bell, L. Bell’s House III (Death Hollow) (1962–1963). Courtesy of the artist.

We’re back at the museum and it’s closed but there is cacophony from a college graduation taking place on the grounds. Larry bounds up the stairs to the second story for the final stage of the install, hanging three delicate sculptures in the vitrine facing the busy street.

“Improvisations” tells Bell’s story. It is a show about light, beauty, and life, science and heart. Permanence and ephemerality. There are sculptures with a shelf life of 3 million years and there are these suspended ones that are falling apart by design. Their death is part of their journey. These mylar Light Knots, lovely amorphous blobs, slowly rip as they dangle from wires. “That’s just in the life of the work,” Bell said. “They’ll do their thing no matter what.”

portrait of larry bell within one of his glass sculptures

Portrait of Larry Bell. Courtesy of Anthony Meier, Mill Valley. Photography by Chris Grunder.

They began as collage components. “If one imparts a certain amount of energy to a composition of some kind, whether it’s two-dimensional or three-dimensional, and it doesn’t satisfy the feeling that you want to get out of it,” Bell said sagely, “it does not mean that the energy isn’t still trapped in the parts you used. It just means that your feeling at the moment doesn’t want to use that. So, I’ve re-released the energy trapped in earlier pieces by either dissecting them or using them in another, completely different manner.”

The pieces work on different levels, defined here by their path to obsolescence, there by the purity of their beauty. But for Bell, the real show is the light bouncing off of them. He calls this phenomenon “fairies” and sees it as pure spontaneity and improvisation. “That’s what they’re all about,” he said, staring rapt as the light danced on the wall. “Reflected, transmitted, and absorbed light.”

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