Installation view: "Larry Bell: Time Machines," 2018. Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen Studio. 

Making an Appearance: Larry Bell at the ICA, Miami

 

By Robert Stalker

Employed in a frame shop near his family’s San Fernando Valley home while in art school, Larry Bell, who’d begun his artistic career as a painter, began integrating scraps of glass and mirror from around the shop into his canvases, having been drawn to glass because, he has said, it “transmits, reflects and absorbs light all at the same time.” An early work such as Conrad Hawk (1961) incorporated acrylic and glass into its canvas, its reflective surfaces blurring the distance between observer and object. Another of these early works, Untitled #7 (1961), included in Bell’s first show at Los Angeles’ Ferus Gallery whose artists typically rejected what the sculptor Craig Kauffman has called “messy fifties painting,” is comprised of wood, paint, mirror, and glass. Soon enough, Bell would abandon the canvas altogether, making glass his primary material.

 

Explaining his transition to sculpture, Bell has said: “I painted modifications of the space in that shape on shaped canvas and pretty soon I realized that I was doing illustrations of volumes. I decided to stop painting illustrations of volumes and go ahead and make the volumes themselves. That was the point at which I became a sculptor.” Working with vacuum chambers to fuse metallic mists to glass, paper, and canvas, Bell began constructing the glass cubes with which he would become identified, developing an artistic project whose subtle negotiation of the relations among surface, light, and perception amounts to nothing less than what Peter Plagens has dubbed Bell’s “ethereal phenomenology.”

 Installation view: "Larry Bell: Time Machines," 2018. Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen Studio. 

Bell’s cubes would become synonymous with what has variously been called “West Coast hard-edge” (Lawrence Alloway), “the L.A. Look” (Peter Plagens), or “Finish Fetish” (John Coplans). For Los Angeles artists such as Kauffman, Billy Al Bengston, and John McCracken, the polished chrome, gleaming enamels, and satiny polymers of hot rods, motorcycle tanks, and surfboards proved particularly seductive. The techniques and materials of indigenous California pinstripers and car customizers such as Von Dutch (born Kenneth Howard) and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth—“trick paints” with crushed glass or sea shells, high-gloss lacquers, and specialized procedures such as automotive spray painting—now found their way into the artists’ studios and into the gallery space. The geometric and impersonal imagery of Bengston’s chevrons or Joe Goode’s milk bottles, for example, played off lush, seductive surfaces, creating sugar-coated eye candy whose distance from the surface allure of consumer products was sometimes difficult to gauge. One need only recall the bromide from Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967)—“Just one word—‘Plastics!’”—to see how these late-capitalist surfaces quickly became fetishized.

 Installation view: "Larry Bell: Time Machines," 2018 

Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen Studio

The ICA exhibit cordons the early cubes together under the collective name “Time Cubes.“ These Time Cubes are the earliest works on display in the exhibit—hard-edge but delicate works that play with ideas of volume, illusion, and the dematerialization of the art object. Particularly striking is the way in which the pieces, both translucent and reflective, tantalize viewers to peer inside the cubes, to visually search their mysterious depths, even as their reflective surfaces turn the viewer’s experience back on itself, reflecting the gallery space and the presence of other patrons. The delicate semi-reflective surfaces offer a tantalizing exchange between the dematerialization of the object and the materiality and corporeality of the gallery space. Untitled (1964), for example, uses vacuum coated etched glass and chrome-plated metal while Untitled (1965) uses etched glass, both offering a faultless surface resonate of the airy translucence of the windshield and entrancing metallic “street effects” of SoCal car culture. The interplay of light and surface, reflection and translucence, evokes the fetishized surfaces of industrially produced commodities, creating an indeterminate sense of volume and depth. Bell’s “Time Cubes” suggest that the Time Machine of the exhibit’s title may not be a future trip or a “way back machine,” but rather a device to carry us to a heightened awareness of the ubiquitous, seductive play of surface, void, and illusionistic depth characteristic of our own cultural moment.

 Installation view: "Larry Bell: Time Machines," 2018

Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen Studio

By the 1970s, Bell moved toward larger scale installation pieces and quasi-conceptual endeavors. One of the more exciting works in this vein on display in the exhibit is his Black Room (1970), exhibited here for the first time since MoMA’s exhibit in 1970. A radical attenuation of the visible, the room is built to reduce light to horizon, as the viewer enters into this totally immersive and totally darkened space, twisting through blackened corridors, forced to gain bearing only through touch. The blackness of the room has the effect of creating a hyper-awareness of the body as the viewer is obliged to feel around the room in utter visual deprivation. Black Room compels the viewer (hardly the right word) to engage quite intimately with the surfaces of the corridor walls, upending the role of the visual in aesthetic experience and complicating the surface/appearance dialectic.

 

Also quite striking is Bell’s Hydrolux (1986), restored for the first time in 30 years. A water-based sculpture with video projection, the piece interpellates the viewer in eerie ways, as alternating video of a nude women apparently interviewing herself plays across a misty wall. (The work was inspired in part by Bell’s acquaintance with Harold Eugene Edgerton, inventor of the strobe light.) Tricky, fleeting projections of the viewer on the back wall combined with intermittent shadows and reflections create a mesmerizing experience, furthering Bell’s exploration of the interplay of light and surface.

 

A beguiling crossfire of light and reflection, vitreous materiality and illusionistic depth, the eroticized minimalism of Larry Bell: Time Machines offers a provocative meditation on the interplay of volume, appearance, and illusion.

Robert Stalker is an Atlanta-based freelance arts writer.