Larry Bell 6 x 6 An Improvisation 1989-2014 (medium res)

Larry Bell, “6 x 6 An Improvisation” (1989–2014), clear glass, gray glass, and glass coated with Inconel (Nickel/chrome alloy), forty panels, each: 72 x 72 x 0 1/2 in. (all images © Larry Bell, courtesy White Cube)

LONDON — To note that Larry Bell was a player in the California-based movement Light and Space does not prepare you for his latest show in London. Sure, there is light; there is every color in the spectrum. But his drawings and sculptures mute the rainbow effects. Blacks and browns smoke into the mix, so that more light and space might be found in some nightclubs.

Bell’s Vapor Drawings, for example, are at once concentrated and prismatic, dark and imposing. It’s not exactly clear what lies in view, but some drawings, with their insistent horizon lines, could be dawn on any number of unvisited planets. Other drawings, mirror-like, have an oily luster, and recall the dreamlike landscapes of surrealist Yves Tanguy. Though that comparison is quite at odds with the spirit of technical adventure currently on display at White Cube Mason’s Yard.

In 2D-3D: Glass & Vapor, the sculpture is airier. In his 3D VD series, Bell loops polyester film coated with aluminum and silicon monoxide. The sculptural forms hang, delicate as soap bubbles, in their Perspex cabinets. You have to step back and forth to catch the refraction, becoming as sensitive to the available light as a plant.

In the gallery basement, “6 x 8: An Improvisation” conjures us away altogether. The 1994 work uses eight large panels of glass, coated with nichrome, to perform an age-old vanishing trick with a quite new technique. Look back at this slender maze in search of your reflection, and you will see a wraith. This causes such angst that many viewers circumnavigate the installation two or three times, recording multiple sightings of their ghost on a cell phone. Certainly Bell moves you, in a physical way.

In the following conversation with the artist, via email while he was in London for the show, Bell spoke about falling into fine art, building his own vacuum chamber, and the enduring influence of an ancient civilization.

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Mark Sheerin: What were the formative experiences which led to a career in art and in particular the art of visual trickery and experimentation?

Larry Bell NVD28 2004 (medium res)

Larry Bell “NVD#28” (2004), black Arches Paper coated with aluminum and silicon monoxide 59 x 48 13/16 x 4 15/16 in. (photo by George Darrell) (click to enlarge)

Larry Bell: I went to art school with the intention of becoming an animator for Disney, the school was a training ground for his people. Painting and drawing and perspective etc. were part of the beginning classes. I found the painting teachers more interesting than the other people so I changed my direction and went into fine art rather than commercial work.

MS: What natural phenomena have inspired the optical effects of your sculptures and paintings?

LB: The interface of light and surface.

MS: Your works have been described as disorienting. Is that the desired effect and if so could you tell me why?

LB: I do not think that is correct.  My work is very obvious, as Frank Stella once said: “What you see is what you see!”

MS: As an artist with a lifelong interest in perception, what room do your artworks leave for your own personal expression or emotional connection with the viewer?

LB: My work is the making of evidence of my investigations. In each example are all the feelings and prejudice I have about everything. I believe it’s the same for every artist.

Larry Bell Gone but not Forgotten 1969 (medium res)

Larry Bell, “Gone but not Forgotten” (1969), glass shelves coated with inconel 4 shelves, each: 110 x 2 x 3/8 in. (photo by Ben Westoby)

MS: At an early stage in your career you built a vacuum chamber. That must have been a significant outlay and statement of commitment to a new process. Can you tell me how and why that came about?

LB: I decided that I needed a tool that would change the way glass worked. The equipment I had built did exactly that. It had the ability to change the way glass reflected, transmitted, or absorbed light but not change the surface quality — it still looked like a piece of glass but what the glass did was altered.

MS: Work in this show stretches back some 45 years. What, for you, has been the most fruitful period of this long and pioneering career?

LB: My preference is the Vapor Drawings. I learned more from that work, which started in 1978, about light and surface than all the years of work done before that.

MS: Despite your embrace of new technologies, you appear to be inspired by the ancient world. Can you tell me a bit more about your interest in the Sumerians?

Larry Bell NVD26 2004 (medium res)

Larry Bell, “NVD#26” (2004), black Arches Paper, coated with aluminum and silicon monoxide, 61 x 42 3/4 x 4 15/16 in. (photo by George Darrell) (click to enlarge)

LB: They were a culture lost to civilization for thousands of years. It was not until the late 19th century that archaeologists rediscovered the group by complete accident. It was discovered that they had invented just about everything from the written language to the invention of bronze, bringing mankind out of the Neolithic period into the Bronze Age. All these things were ascribed to other cultures.

MS: You work in Taos, New Mexico and Venice, CA. That’s quite remote from the cities in which you’ve shown and sold work. Has it been important for you to keep the art world, or at least the metropolis, at arm’s length?

LB: I can control my distractions in Taos.

MS: There can be few artists whose work is more reliant on first hand viewing. Do you feel hampered by the rise of the internet and the artwork as jpeg?

LB: No, I like every kind of creative act and media. I am thrilled to be part of such an exciting time.

Larry Bell: 2D-3D: Glass & Vapor continues at White Cube Mason’s Yard (25–26 Mason’s Yard London) through September 26. 

Mark Sheerin is an art writer from the UK. He also contributes to Culture24 and Frame & Reference, together with his own blog Criticismism. In 2012 he appeared in Nature, a volume in the series Documents...