Larry Bell
Cubes and Works on Canvas

Every fortnight for years Larry Bell makes the twelve-hour drive between his studios in Taos, New Mexico and Venice Beach, Los Angeles. The landscape between these destinations affords some of the most spectacular scenery in America and it is impossible to imagine such a regular commute without this natural beauty embedding itself deep in the artist?s psyche. The contrast with the neon lights, freeways, shops and parking lots of LA ? a city where it never really gets dark and the stars are rarely seen ? could not be greater. The work, however, is about light not place: a sunrise in New Mexico or the neon glow of LA is not the point of the work, it is the source.

The underlying process in Bell?s work is derived from a career long investigation into the laws of physics and matter and how they relate to the natural phenomena of light ? that most fundamental and primeval source of energy ? how it works and how we experience it.

But how do we respond to an artist who views department store windows as being at least as influential on high art as the other way around? Bell lives in the real world, not in some rarefied atmosphere of intellectual propositions. He views the process of making art as a response to the external stimuli around him. The vast majority of us don?t live on mountaintops communing with nature but in vast cities, in freeways and in cars, bombarded by information and media. Bell draws nature and city culture into focus, searches for balance and allows us to make more sense of both. He does not judge how or where we live but rather asks us to celebrate with him the miracle of light ? and therefore life - however we may find it.

The cubes, which are the centrepiece of the Annandale show have been labeled minimalist icons in the history of art, having been widely exhibited and influential on the work of other artists as far back as 1965 when the first solo show at the famous Pace Gallery in NYC sold out immediately. However, the works are too engaging and interactive to sit comfortably with the minimalist label for long. Mathematics and technology appear to determine the cubes form but the art is too emotionally involving. The pieces both absorb and radiate light and their surroundings therefore become part of the work. The viewer is inevitably drawn in, as where one stands or moves; even what one is wearing is reflected in and becomes part of the illusion. The space between the viewer and the cubes is detonated and bridged.
The cubes remind us of cool culture and yet stand above it. Sometimes they look like highly finished design or high tech architecture, (which they are) and yet I find myself continually rethinking the place and function of high art in their presence. In a world and art world best described as chaotic and entropic the sheer clarity and proven staying power of the cubes stand as beacons.

Since the 1960?s the size and shape and to some degree the construction of the cubes process has remained similar. However the form, colour and effect has progressed enormously according to the artist?s own journey and emotional disposition. They have a playful aspect to them, a little like Miro. There are no evident anthropomorphic references and yet as Miro once said ?nothing is truly abstract.? Everything comes from an emotion or an idea and the cubes, like Miro?s figures, take on a personality with time. Little by little we get to know them. Sharing a space, we watch them come alive until finally, we find them as surprised as we are delighted to find themselves in our presence.

Being reluctant to talk about the work itself, Bell is more forthcoming about techniques. The vacuum coating process he uses was originally discovered in a factory in NYC that used the method to coat plastic toys and involves the depositing of thin layers of metal or minerals such as aluminum or quartz on objects placed in a vacuum chamber. The piece of coating equipment in Bell?s Taos, New Mexico studio weighs nine tons, costs a few hundred thousand dollars and is large enough to enter upright. It was originally employed by Bell as a way of making glass reflective from both sides and allowing the cubes to be viewed from the ?inside out? as well as conventionally. Reflected and refracted light changes the colour according to the light source. Bell describes the outcome as ?like the effect of the illusory colour observed when gasoline floats on a puddle of water.? He regards the process in the simplest terms as being ?just like a light bulb? - he places objects inside, hits a switch, heats and removes them. The process is simple but the results are highly complex. The glass in the cubes become not so much supports but rather screens, which diffuse light, define space and evoke emotion.

Larry Bell?s art is an art of surprise. Engagement with his work continually leads us into unexpected territory. Bell?s works on canvas, like the cubes resist categorization. They may be thought of as paintings at the outset but the randomness of the techniques evoke an expressionist rather than minimalist way of working and are a long way from minimalism or even conventional painting. On a recent trip to Paris I visited a gallery on the Left Bank with Bell so he could give some background to a work that had come into the hands of a well-known dealer. At the gallery the painting, a colorful work from the mid-nineties, was brought out and displayed for comment. Imagine the surprise of the dealer to learn that his ?painting? was not sensitive to fading, as it in fact contained no pigment. It was not even a painting but rather a collage. The colours had been created through refractions of light.

The ?fractions? also belay the word minimalist and in these colourful collage works Bell in fact displays a maximalist tendency. They are an ongoing exploration which date back to the ?mirage? works of the early nineties. The ?fractions? begin with ?chips? from discarded mirage works. The chips are placed on sheets of watercolour paper or pieces of vapour drawings and laminating film and heated against a press in the vacuum chamber, 36 sheets at a time, to a temperature of 270 degrees and cooked. The heat sometimes exposes buried colours and after cooking, removing and cooling, they are checked for imperfections, and organized by Bell?s academic sense of aesthetics, a sense that often disregards conventional pictorial logic with spectacular results.

What is the real quarry in the art of Larry Bell? The cubes are profoundly original and there is nothing truly comparable in the history of 20th century art. They can appear so resolved they may have sprung to life fully found. Nobody showed Bell how to make these objects, nobody was doing anything similar and the learning curve must have been a lonely, if often exhilarating road. Only Bell could have made them and they have had ? and continue to have ? an enormous influence on other artists; the yardstick by which the importance of an art is ultimately judged. He need not be concerned about his place in the art historical continuum as this was assured forty years ago. He looks now not to other art but primarily back at his own oeuvre for guidance; such is the breadth of his opus that he is able to do this without compromise. Bell has been in the public eye too long to harbour many illusions. He is aware that art is a game to some degree, a game that all artists must play and play well if they are to be heard above the din. He is part of his time; the alternative of sinking into obscurity while perhaps hanging on to some ultimately fruitless posturing is not for him. His art is about reaching out and communicating and sharing what he has learned and to become intimate with Bell?s art is to be aware of the scale of his accomplishment.

Larry Bell has made the work and we complete the cycle for him through viewing. He does not judge our feelings because he doesn?t have to ? he need only encourage us to look and in his own words, ?the art releases its power whenever a viewer becomes a dreamer.? The epiphany I have experienced in front of Brancusi?s soaring birds comes to mind, as does the contrasting deadpan adage by Bell?s friend Frank Stella that simply states ?what you see is what you see.? His process may be likened to alchemy in that simple materials are transformed, or in Bell?s case, metamorphosised via the viewer into something substantial and lasting, not simply illusory. He need not explain his work but intuitively grasps the fact that the possibilities for response are as varied as the mental and emotional baggage of the viewers. Where light is the subject in an artwork, matters of the spirit can never be far away. Not for him to tell us how to feel but rather to give us a vehicle through which we may indulge our responses and put more spirit into our lives.

Once experienced this art packs a punch and is not easily forgotten. As in so much other great art the work of Larry Bell, while giving us fresh perspective on the external world, is ultimately about making the internal life manifest and visible.

Bill Gregory, Sydney April 2006


Larry Bell
Cubes and Works on Canvas
Selected works from this exhibition on display until July 15

In association with Bernard Jacobson London, from the USA
17 May - 3 June 2006

Exhibition features:

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Please note, works in previous exhibitions may no longer be available, please visit our stockroom for available works