Larry Bell

Larry Bell has been making glass cubes for over forty years, continually refining and adjusting an already classic, pristine form. His work has come to embody a summa of West Coast Minimalism—crisp and rigorous, spartan and geometric, yet touched with a subtle ambient light and color that makes it a platform for surprisingly delicate and emotive nuances. Bell’s cubes, along with the work of California colleagues including Robert Irwin and James Turrell, offer softer gradations than Minimalism’s seemingly inflexible profile, deploying natural light to inject perceptual poetics into what otherwise might be sterner stuff.

Bell’s methodology has long involved a kind of alchemy in which complex machinery is used for transubstantiation. His procedure involves placing a small pellet of Inconel, an alloy of nickel and chrome, into a vacuum chamber with a thin glass plate. Under these conditions, the application of heat causes the Inconel to become an extremely fine mist that adheres to the glass surfaces. Bell then selects six sheets with which to form a cube, Inconel-coated sides facing inward, and places the result atop a tall, clear Plexiglas base. While in his earlier work (the exhibition included two examples from 1967) Bell used clear glass and chrome strips to seal the edges of his cubes, today he usually employs lightly tinted glass and UV curing cement. This all sounds a great deal more clinical than it actually appears: At the heart of the enterprise is the infinite variety that Bell is able to coax from repetition, the uniqueness of each cube.

The plates’ coating causes them to seem to impede and transfer light simultaneously, to appear as both substance and void, and to offer an infinity of smoky tones as the viewer circles around each cube. The Inconel is subtly iridescent, its distinctive sheen seeming to appear and disappear unpredictably. The cube itself, depending on the viewer’s position in relation to it, may appear planar or volumetric, and seems to shift from stasis to apparent motion. The twelve edges of each cube, literally framing the six panes, create a site where everything is suddenly intensified, the cube tethered by crisp lines that reinforce its geometric structure amid the amorphous atmospherics.

Bell’s palette here ranged from pale blue to gray to green to amber, but isolated color is far from the artist’s be-all and end-all. Rather, he coaxes the invisible into plain sight in ethereal tones that hint at the proximity of form to spirit. Bell’s is an art of tinges, a disciplined exercise that exults in the ineffable.

James Yood