PRINT Summer 1965

Larry Bell

Born, Chicago, 1939.
Attended Chouinard Art Institute, Los Angeles, 1957–59.
William and Noma Coply Award, 1963.
Lives in Venice, California.

THE FORMATIVE BACKGROUND OF LARRY BELL’S ART has been the unique quality of achievement of the major Abstract Expressionist painters. Ranging in style from Pollock’s fluid efflorescences to Barnett New-man’s passionate spatial declarations, pervasively idiosyncratic and subjective in character, this new art has created a climate emancipated from the absolutes of the past. Like many younger American artists, Bell first absorbed the style and then intuitively extrapolated his own implications from the expressive range of ideas contained within this new approach to painting. As a result, very early on in his career, he deployed acute spatial ideas within a highly formal framework. Thus his work neither refers to, nor draws inspiration from, Constructivist principles or theories.

Bell’s first one-man exhibition in 1962 (of paintings completed during the previous two years) revealed not only an exceptional assurance, but, in addition, sharp inferences of the sensate yet logical modality of structure that now characterizes his three-dimensional work. Generally, these paintings consisted of very large non-rectilinear shaped canvases with the two opposing corners diagonally cut away. The implication of this configuration is a crystallographic form or an isometric projection of a three-dimensional solid. An essentially flat canvas surface was maintained with a highly redundant,bilaterally symmetrical imagery. The rigidity of the format was dissolved and thrown into ambiguity not by the deployment of optical flux or coloristic bounce, but by the interaction of the shaped canvas and the internal image, which induced an acute turning movement. In this manner, very early in his development, Bell introduced a tautly reduced schema, carried step by step to a high degree of fulfillment.

A similar organizational principle characterizes Bell’s constructions, excepting that this more recent work is the product of technology. However, despite the switch from the hand to the machine, this work is on an extremely sensual and deceptive plane. Bell transforms a complex geometry of hard, intractable and brittle glass enclosed within a framework of sleekly machined and chromed metal into an intimate, luminous and fragile object. Within the limits of these very rigid components he compresses an extraordinary range of form, first by the purity of definition of the overall configuration (a cube), second by framing within this setting a complex range of well defined shapes (ellipses, parallelograms, checker and hexagonal arrangements) and finally by tracing an extraordinary variety of transistory overtones and embellishments of highly reflective materials, sometimes with transparent coloration. These final touches induce a whole range of changing,evanescent perceptual qualities that enrich the whole harmony, yet act at the same time to dissolve the construction into shimmering intangibility.

An additional quality of Bell’s constructions is the manner in which the physiological and psychological interpenetrate within the eye and the mind of the observer. Close viewing, especially of the interior, sets into motion a series of endlessly multiplying and constantly shifting images of the observer and the observed. This phantasmagoria, in turn, creates a spatial continuum which magnifies the scale to an indeterminate degree.

There is a remarkable degree of finish to Bell’s work; he does not permit imperfections of technique to detract from the sensuousness of surface. His approach to the advantages of technology is uniquely clear and level headed; he is interested in a subtle extension of expression that derives, not from the exoticness of the material, but from the refinement of surface, an inhuman perfection of polishing and coating that technology has to offer. Integral to each construction is a transparent stand, fabricated either of glass or clear plastic. Its function (quite apart from that of positioning the work at a suitable level for viewing) is to permit the entry of light through the bottom surface. Thus, although the construction is a physical object, weighty, and bound by gravity, in terms of light, it is free in space.

John Coplans