PRINT October 1972

Larry Bell Reassessed

FIVE YEARS AGO FIDEL Danieli wrote the definitive essay on Larry Bell (“Bell’s Progress,” Artforum, Summer, 1967) which characterized Bell’s work as a precise but poetic progression from clean but confined illusion, to clear but gossamer physical reality. Bell’s recent exhibition at the Pasa dena Art Museum delineates that ascent again, and adds another leg: from the “clear” boxes to the big, open configurations of glass “walls.” The decidedly unretrospective show raises two sizeable questions: 1) exactly what perceptual trail has Bell blazed (or, more venally, what ter ritory has he staked)? and, 2) how good and/or important an artist is he? Previously, I’ve found his work elusive; I’ve written three pieces, but found myself, in writing this one, starting once more at zero, looking for a handle-on the boxes. The PAM exhibition goes about as far as possible in providing answers.

Larry Bell is an archetype of the successful Los Angeles artist. He made his first splash in New York (“Seven New Artists,” Sidney Janis Gallery, 1964) at 24, and has remained something of an ingenue: confident, affluent (as Curator Barbara Haskell observes, “His studio, with its huge vacuum-coating equipment, resembles and is operated like a factory”), and as our next-door neighbor, showbiz, would have it, possessed of a certain “personal magnetism”; moreover, the Bell box is purer “L.A. I ook” than any work of Peter Alexander, Billy Al Bengston, Kenneth Price, Edward Ruscha, or Dewain Valentine. Although his press has been generally favorable, Bell has been tarred frequently with several brushes: anything that aerospacey isn’t serious art; anything that unabashedly pretty must be a California disease; anything that intrinsically desirable to own must be hardcore merchandising. When the debacle of the recent Pace “California Color” show was laid to sweet, atmospheric color, it was clear who was the ringleader; when another New York writer spoke broadly about “dropout types hanging around Venice making baubles for the rich,” it was clear who Fagin was. Overall, pro or con, the impression rests that Bell is a sharp, talented purveyor of visual delights, but a little short on theory, a little light on dialectical purpose. This show, however, reveals new length and depth to the lineage first documented by Danieli, and, while no free pass to the Pantheon, it should dispel! any remaining nigglings about Bell’s legitimacy compared to Anthony Caro, Mark di Suvero, Don Judd, or Robert Morris, for example.

The line of development on display (with concision, but no flair) is from the early paintings to the current glass walls. It can be divided into the following constituent parts.

1) Simple, “shaped-canvas” paintings, like Little Orphan Annie, 1962. Bell dices off the corners of the physical canvas with resultant intimations of an isometric box, then fills the “inside” of the painting with flip-flopped, depicted images of the same shape. More important than their coinciding with, or predating other shaped canvases is their early concern with a straight, powerful, contradictory recitation of the same 2-D versus 3-D problem which has, in other ways, occupied for years artists like Ron Davis, Richard Smith, and Frank Stella.

2) Paintings with glass, like Conrad Hawk, 1963, in which “the distinct separation between the viewer and the object begins to break down as the viewer’s image is subtly reflected by the glass and becomes a visual element of the piece” (Haskell). Thus Bell, not content with mere exploitation of the conundrum, throws in a third element, reflection, and questions further not only the nature but the presence of the object itself. Bell is always sophisticated, too, in his vision: “By combining both mirrored and transparent design elements in the glass construction paintings and by recessing one glass sheet behind the other, unexpected spatial ambiguities are created which would not occur were Bell to have used only mirrored glass ” (Haskell).

3) Cubes—mirrored, with thick chrome edges and almost heavy-handed graphic surface compositions, using the “illusions” of isometric cubes and ellipses, stripes and checkerboards, like Bell’s House, Part II, 1963. After their historical impact is appreciated (how far along were those other Minimalist boxes only one year after Pop broke?) and their seminal leap is noted, the pieces come up a little lacking, overloaded with too many mirror/glass tricks, see-through’s, black and white jumps, chrome shinies, and Art Deco overtones for such modest sculpture. But the. viewer’s space is now the piece’s space: Bell has brought the outside inside, and he commences to play with it like a kitty with a lizard.

4) Cubes—“clear” (the glass coated with electrons of faint, halating rainbow color, or, more accurately, a chemical which bends the traversing light to such effects), thinner edged, and carefully deployed. “He also perfected the presentation, deciding upon a neutrally transparent plastic stand, for the light must come up through the bottom to achieve the maximum liveliness . . . the top of a work is placed no higher than 60 inches (otherwise the idea of shape is lost) and never placed entirely below eye level (too much like a room accessory)”[Danieli]. These cubes were begun in 1964 and continued into 1967–68; Bell’s own vacuum machine enabled him to jump to a couple of feet on a side. More emphatically than the mirrored boxes, these cubes reach out and suck the surroundings in through an ambivalent space (enclosed because of the hard glass sides, open because of transparency), and return them (through reflections) to the viewer. At this point, Bell is in hard fact, if not passion, at least three steps ahead of the concurrent painting issues, like “literal” and “depicted” shape, and two steps ahead of the orthodox Minimalists’ borrowed gestalts.

5) Cubes—direct unadorned glass-to-glass edges, darker, “uniform” coating, and slightly larger size, c. 1968–69. Bell has now refined his concerns to the point where, clearly seen in retrospect, the “break” to the walls is natural.

6) The walls—variable configurations of standing, perpendicular, “life-size” sheets of thick, darkly coated glass, ranging gradually through degrees of reflectivity. Bell at once boasts and confesses that this total process (materials and basic juxtapositions) will, given a little handling, “work almost anywhere,” in almost any configuration; but this ease is due as much to Bell’s now valuing almost complete subjectivity and flux as it is to the inherent glamor of the demi-object. With the fascinating dance of appearance-disappearance-reappearance, forward-backward, something-nothing, the viewer performs with his own reflections in the pieces, Bell has reached, if not a resolution, at least an impeccably sensitive statement of the issues first set forth in the 1962 paintings.

Bell’s seriousness and development do not, however, lift every critical curtain; the veils of “fantastic object,” merchandising, and mysticism have hung, albeit softly, between many viewers and the work. The first term has been applied to Bell, Alexander, Price, and Valentine along with Robert Irwin and John McCracken; it usually means that the art-object demonstrates the extremes of craft, intrinsic worth, optical gymnastics, technical exoticism, or all of the above, at the expense of “art-quality.” With Bell the impression is merely a by-product of obtaining the desired primary perceptual effects; it is no more exulted than the palette knife is in Josef Alber’s paintings. The slick, industrial finish of Bell’s boxes, together with their potential for repetition and reproduction cause the critical nose to sniff at suspected fumes of commercialism; avoiding, for the moment, the question of whether “baubles for the rich” is in itself an artistic detriment (I think it is, but I’m undergoing a political “restructuring,” and my catharses shouldn’t be everybody’s), it can be offered that Bell, after a fashion, admits it. “If it weren’t for some of this merchandising, and the art boom of the ’60s,” he says, “I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do some of this stuff. And, since I like doing what I do, I don’t regret it.” The tangential mysticism (connections with “twoness becoming oneness and yet equally seen as two,” Zen, voids, emptying-out-of-self, etc.) is a little harder to jettison, partly because Bell doesn’t reject such begging interpretations (“I’m happy that she looked at the pieces that long”) and partly because the effort, in the end, may not be worth it. Who is to say that such is not at the bottom of Bell’s self-amusement with visual games, that it is not at the bottom of nearly everything?

In coming to a tentative conclusion about the questions posed in the opening of this article, it must be noted that the PAM show makes emphatic omissions: the 1969 “shelves” made when Bell was trying to “squeeze my visual acuteness into another realm” (i.e. out of the boxes), and the recipient of generally bad reviews, are not present; and neither is the coated glass “strip” piece from the Ace Gallery group show, 1971 (a disaster, which Bell jerked from the show before it traveled to Canada). The main thrust of the show, and Bell’s importance, are not mitigated by these exclusions. Based on the evidence of the Pasadena show, plus a little peripheral knowledge, I think the following are fair conclusions.

First, Larry Bell has been, in recent history, subtly ahead of the times. He’s part of a broad “opening” of art by art objects (recent Mother-wells and some of the “soft” people in painting, some unbombastic earthworks, low-lying sculpture, and several environmental pieces like Barbara Munger’s and Connie Zehr’s) and, it can be seen now, he was actually about it when most everyone else was tightening up clean, ’60s objects and trying to freeze the perceptual flow.

Second, Bell is also part of a gradual slide from the object to the non-object within formalist art (the Conceptualists and neo-neo-Dadaists are after something else). As it stands, Bell’s etymology, while fuller, because of his technological dependence is more conservative than, for instance, Robert Irwin’s, Jim Turrell’s, or Michael Asher’s.

Third, given the realities of the greater art world, it is now apparent that if Bell were ever to make the jump from brilliant “minor” (or regional) artist, he would have to cease being a “table-top” sculptor; he would have to make “major” statements to groups in public spaces. That he has managed such an evolution (the walls) without ditching either sincerity or visual cohesiveness is the pride of this exhibition.