PRINT Summer 1967

Larry Bell

MOST YOUNGER WEST COAST ARTISTS began their careers in the late fifties under the influence of one or another of the prevailing New York School styles. Larry Bell describes his student work as inspired by Pollock, but through much reworking the charged gesture and atomized field were finally fused with a geometric approach. In the first stage, never exhibited illusionistic renderings of cubes are found to be linked inseparably to the isometric projections he favored in the early sixties and remain at the core of his present concerns. A move of prime import caused the actual pictorial format to directly assume the flat silhouette of his geometry in lozenge-shaped, single-color canvases. Shown in his first one-man exhibition in 1962, the warm monotones and bare canvas appeared as a startling, lightweight version of the Hard Edge painting familiar to the West Coast. The more radical extension to a rectangle with two diagonally severed corners was more inexplicable until his increasing concentration upon the ambiguous fluctuation of isometry became public.

A constant interest in the visual properties of glass led to experiments in the incorporation of this material. Cracked glass assembled within shadow boxes seemed too arbitrary, and placing glass in conjunction with a shaped surface bracketed by color he also rejected as not successful. Thickening the canvas to panel proportions to accommodate the spatial maneuvering of glass and mirrors set into the center indicated his first move out into space. The shift from glass panes to mirrored surfaces, while predicated on a similarity of materials, introduced an entirely new set of visual potentials and technical problems. There also appeared an accompanying shift in the increased dimension, visual weight, and concentration upon a value range of black, white, and the silvers of a reflective surface. Resembling most the aristocratic, graphic brittleness of jewelry-store windows, they parallel the luxurious elegance of Vasarely (despite differences in optical intent and without the latter’s European background in a post-Cubist style).

Extending one possibility into another led to the realization that it was a waste of materials, energy, and time to continue diagramming a solid on a flattish surface when a solid could actually be constructed. This move into space, timidly initiated, precipitated his reliance on the superior craft of contemporary technology most closely matching his own immaculate mode and his desire for perfection. Wishing to incorporate his own geometry upon a mirrored surface in a contrast of clear and reflective he turned to a commercial mirroring service out of direct necessity. In effect, he did not surrender qualitative or esthetic control, which is the usual suspicion when an artist procures assistance outside traditional art crafts, but rather proceeded to the only and obvious means open to him.

In the thirty-five year old mirroring process utilized, the glass is locked into a removable rack and inverted in a cylindrical vacuum chamber. Immediately below the glass are electrode points attached to a container or “boat” of metal to be applied. The chamber is secured, an air pump run (for some two hours), to produce a partial (nearly complete) vacuum. The electrodes are triggered and in ten seconds the metal is evaporated, the vapor rising upward, coating the surface. This coating is so gauzily delicate, though permanent, that it is measured in hundreds of angstrom units (an angstrom equals one tenth of a millimicron).

Any design to appear clear is masked off and cut before the glass is treated. The richness of the color and thickness of the layer are controlled by the amount of metal put in the boat. Nickel produces a blackish silvering, copper and gold their characteristic tones, and aluminum a truer silver than silver itself. Blended effects of transition from dense to more transparent areas are controlled by the relationship or distance between the glass and the vaporizing source while in the chamber. Under certain conditions another color may be transmitted through the glass (in addition to the metallic reflecting surface); for example aluminum may transmit a bluish hue and gold a greenish. These coloristic conditions have been explored by Bell and the range also includes the use of colored glass and coatings of blended and variegated hues not metallic in color. The number of reflections viewed within a cube can also be controlled; a dichroic surfacing produces an infinite number, whereas a “partial,” because of the greater absorption of light, reduces the reflections to a series of five or less.

The arrangement of panels also permits effects found in no previous work of art. Two parallel sides can, for instance, vary in color or density from the others. Viewing into a corner (the two planes meeting at a right angle) will correct the reversing effect found in a normal, flat mirror, and a view into three planes meeting in a true corner involves one in a trihedral effect where light is reflected immediately back into the eye.

The size of the constructions has varied between one and two feet square. These limitations may be imposed by the size of the vacuum chamber and by the fragility of the material. The glass, approximately one quarter inch thick commercial plate, can withstand compression and tension to a certain degree but little shock of impact or abrupt temperature change. That it be arrayed in six directions in space is an obviously daring act. The metal molding is a requirement of construction for the glass panes simply cannot be mitered together, for it is technically impossible to maintain a consistent ground edge of forty five degrees for any appreciable length. Butting squared edges in an overlapped manner would produce an unwanted hierarchy to the sides and certainly to the corners regardless of the method of jointing. The metal channel not only serves as a medium of attaching the panes, but picks up its own reflections, and its color is coordinated with the color of the mirroring. This stripping is predominantly a visual frame of reference outlining what must usually be a three-dimensional illustration, and is only rarely experienced as a two-dimensional frame.

The logical progression in conception and technique found fuller realization (1962) in the absolute of mirrored boxes, then cubes, the first of which possessed two, then six, equal, opposed planes including both mirrored surfaces and transparent design elements. The initial narrower and smaller pieces seemed determined to provoke a dimensional illusion with perspectively stretched circles, a diagonally arcing set of ellipses. The width of the molding, and of the clear cut ellipse and the use of plate glass with its inherent, variable, icy greenish hue produced an almost burdensome heaviness or density. Quite opposed, a large cube from this period also anticipated more directly the visual piercing of the closed solid. The mirroring was masked in an alternating checkerboard pattern of reflective and clear squares. The endless fracture and multiplication of diminishing images exploded the interior and resulted in an overwhelming viewer vertigo. Three entirely disparate focuses emerge as required. An oblique view in line with a vertical corner yields a pristine abstract apartness, the box as an immensely attractive glittering or glowing object. Moving directly opposite a plane introduces the viewer’s visage as an inevitable part of the composition on a pictorial plane. A closer inspection of the “empty” interior dazzles by its incomprehensible complexities of optics.

The view can be held that the cube is an ultimate dimensional concept attaining a rare, stable purity and ultimate finality through equality of tensions. It can also be thought of as an an axial form created by an interrelated series of six framed, two-dimensional (and therefore pictorial) square formats. Though each face may be treated to a similar coating the viewer can never observe more than three reflecting surfaces at any one station point, and these are normally bound to appear of differing sizes and shapes in perspective. Additionally the effects of color, light, and environment reflected will always vary upon the surface as well as within, causing the viewer to continue a constant, multi-focusing movement. It is as an idealized concept, and through a series of altered viewings of the actual object, that the dimensional qualities of the cube may be experienced. That this impression or group of impressions is difficult to achieve and diffused by optical illusions and fraught with mystery point up Bell’s lack of interest in categorizing terminology as “sculptor” and “sculpture.”

He has stated that dealing with one single element or visual quality, and learning along the way, leads to a new concept, which permits him to leap to a new variant completely renovating the statement. While such growth or change is the expectation rather than the exception today, Bell has ardently striven for such modifications and will undoubtedly continue to do so. In 1965 he abruptly discarded all conscious manipulation on the surface in favor of totally metallic scrims of precious and integral color. Transitory optical qualities based upon the action of angle and light crowded in to replace the missing design elements. He also perfected the presentation, deciding upon a neutrally transparent plastic stand, for light must come up through the bottom to achieve the maximum degree of liveliness. As with the previous pieces, the top of a work is placed no higher than sixty inches (otherwise the idea of shape is lost) and never placed entirely below eye level (or it becomes too much like a room accessory). He has effectively located it in space so that one is unlikely to come upon one’s own reflection accidentally. The audience is not a narcissistic part of these cool works. To use a reference to the root source of the word “mirror,” we are forced to find ourselves intruders and must “wonder at” and “admire” only Bell’s precise yet multivalent accomplishments.

Factors in the very latest works have again altered, not the least of which is that the artist is now operating his own coating equipment. The size is more critical; he feels (for the first time) that a scale larger than twelve inches is absolutely necessary to the visual stability and impact. In the newest cubes little light is transmitted, the reflective quality is almost lost. They just absorb light and the pale color variation, seemingly transparent, the vaguest of a blush, causes a softened distortion of the shape itself. Radically reductive, they are now distilled essences of an atmospheric allusion.

Fidel A. Danieli



I wish to record my thanks to Chuck Prentiss and Gordon B. Keim of Keim Precision Mirrors Corporation for their assistance in preparing this article.