New York

Larry Bell, The Aquarium, 1962–63, mirror, glass, paint, silver leaf, 24 × 24 × 8".

Larry Bell, The Aquarium, 1962–63, mirror, glass, paint, silver leaf, 24 × 24 × 8".

Larry Bell

Hauser & Wirth | West 18th Street

Larry Bell, The Aquarium, 1962–63, mirror, glass, paint, silver leaf, 24 × 24 × 8".

To hear Larry Bell tell it, it was all so simple: In the early 1960s, he stopped painting geometric forms on shaped canvases, what he calls “illustrations of volume,” and began to “make the volumes themselves.” This move from painting to scultpure—which is to say, the move from the representation of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface to the production of those three-dimensional objects—was, he claims, the obvious next step. “From the ’60s,” Bell’s first exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, succinctly presented this transition with three monumental paintings (the stacked squares of the three-part Homage to Baby Judy, 1960, are particularly compelling), two smaller shaped canvases edged with mirrors (the well-known Ghost Box and its stunning untitled double, both 1962), and a few early boxes (including a distinctly unpolished 1959 assemblage with cracked glass and gold paint).

Based on this selection of works—many of which were included in Bell’s earliest exhibition, with Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles—however, Bell’s path seems neither obvious nor simple. There was in these paintings and reliefs little more than a stubborn fascination with the form of the cube to presage the sculptures for which the artist would become known. Even Ghost Box, with its thick black lines rendering the shape in two-point perspective, only hints at the move to object. The painted mirror at the work’s center connects what should be the front and rear planes, thereby canceling the illusion of depth and creating depth through reflection instead. But the faint image of a cube painted on the mirror’s surface makes plain that Bell is not ready to give up illusion altogether. And when he does begin to build boxes, what results are objects more concerned with the representation of depth than with its literal presentation—instead of a cube, the shape is a three-dimensional extrapolation of a cube in perspective. In The Aquarium, 1962–63, one of his first all-glass constructions, a two-foot-wide off-kilter hexagonal shape is granted only eight inches of depth, and its surfaces are scored with vertical lines.

The inevitable march toward the freestanding cube was complicated as well by its unexpected, even conspicuous, absence from the exhibition. “From the ’60s” was at pains to show examples of everything but the piece we most anticipated. At times, this led to a revelation of just how strongly the urge for illusion would shape Bell’s move from perspectival rendition to thing itself. Hung in a darkened room on the second floor and lit with spots so that their mineral coating produced a spectrum of shimmering color, three beveled glass plates, made between 1968 and 1970, were subsumed by a complex play of reflection and transparency and reduced to pure theater. Yet the inclusion of two later freestanding pieces—an amber trapezoid from the ’80s and a newly fabricated pink and blue box conceived in 1992, installed in the low-ceilinged carpeted rooms on the third floor—felt like an afterthought. Those early works, however, are strong enough and strange enough to suggest the untaken paths of Bell’s trajectory and to encourage a more nuanced understanding of just how one could make “volumes themselves.”

Rachel Churner