“I am in the process of celebrating my 49th year of unemployment,” quips Larry Bell while lighting a cigar in his Venice, California studio. Currently, Bell also lives and works in Taos, New Mexico.
Classified as one Southern California’s Light and Space artists, he first gained acclaim at the pioneering Ferus Gallery, where he distinguished himself by eschewing canvas and paint, utilizing glass in a novel way instead. To capture or reflect light, he coated sheets of glass with layers of silicon monoxide and other chemical compounds and then formed them into cubes and rectangles, larger freeform compositions or incorporated them into shaped canvasses. Consequently, he has been associated with Minimalism as well as the Finish Fetish movement.
Today, his body of work includes painting, collages, abstract and still (somewhat) recognizable figurative sculptures, furniture and works on paper that echo his most iconic glass works. Here, he applies chemical and heat fusion processes that allow for the transfer of luminous abstract shapes onto large sheets of paper.
Always ready to test new frontiers, Bell is open about his artistic process. “From the very beginning, my work was based on intuition, spontaneity, improvisation and trust,” he says.
As for his glass plating and laminating skills, he got those from a glass coater in The Bronx from whom he also bought the plating equipment that he brought to Venice. “I moved to Venice in 1965/66, when the place was still gang-infested and dangerous,” he recalls. “But, being an artist is a little like being a migrant fruit picker—you take what you can get.”
Today, if any project requires scientific know-how, it’s not a problem. For example, he recalls making a glass cube in his high-altitude Taos studio and then assembling and packing it to withstand the sea-level pressure of its Venice destination by allowing air to quickly enter the piece.
In his latest body of work, he has placed images onto canvas, glass or paper, making them appear voluminous and multi-dimensional. Large works on heavy Japanese paper feature lush ribbons of color that reflect and absorb light, often suggesting outlines of male or female torsos or sexy, Rorschach-inspired silhouettes.
Another ongoing series consists of collage elements fused into small, abstract compositions on roughly ten-inch squares of paper. He achieves his signature luminosity by laminating pieces of Mylar onto paper or coating paper with light-reflective materials, a technique he perfected together with fellow artist Eric Orr, he says. He has also fused bits of paper and canvas onto paper, achieving visual effects that are open to countless interpretations. Again, the interplay of light and dark mimics the play of light and shadow found in his larger pieces.
Born in 1939 in Chicago and raised in the San Fernando Valley, Bell had no clear career plans past high school. “I liked to doodle as a kid and later decided to go to the Chouinard Art Institute to learn animation but got hooked on painting,” he recalls.
He also considered a music career but, thwarted by a labyrinthine promotion system, he kept making art. “By 26, I was a successful artist,” he says.
He received National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Guggenheim grants, and museums and galleries spanning the globe have exhibited his work either solo or within a group. Yet, one major goal has eluded him thus far. “I would love to have a major retrospective of my work here in Los Angeles, either at LACMA or MOCA,” he reveals.