Bell was an early bloomer in art, already securing international cult status by his thirties (in 1962 Marcel Duchamp paid a visit to his studio; in 1967, he appeared on The Beatles’ iconic album cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ). He soon became one of the key figures associated with the Light and Space movement, a group of predominantly California-based artists – including James Turrell, Helen Pashgian and Robert Irwin (Bell studied under the latter at what was then the Chouinard Art Institute) – who sought to change, and challenge, human perception. This futuristic wave of art was characterised by light experiments, science-infused optical manipulations and the reimagining of environments and utilised the new array of materials and technologies that emerged in the mid-20th century.
‘Larry Bell: New Work’ At Hauser & Wirth London is part of a transatlantic moment for the octogenarian artist. At Dia Beacon, New York, Bell is presenting seminal early sculptures presented alongside a new diptych conceived for Dia. It’s also part of a larger moment for the Light and Space movement (most recently at a seminal survey show in Copenhagen), and its legacy in the contemporary demand for experiential, so-called ‘immersive art’.
Bell is an artist who operates on the cusp of what the eye can take, and what the mind can accept as physicality. His output since the 1960s has been nothing short of prolific, traversing everything from works on paper to furniture design. But occupying the cutting edge of optical perception has required a career-long dedication to technological refinement, and a heady dose of science. Since 1969, Bell has worked with a machine he refers to as ‘The Tank,’. It has allowed him to alter the properties of glass through thermal evaporation technology developed for aeronautics and optics. In essence, the process deposits films of vaporised metallic and non-metallic substances onto glass panes without interfering with the glass’ fundamental characteristics.
The show at Hauser & Wirth features Bell’s Deconstructed Cube and Open Box series, which position glass not only as a material but as an active force that can simultaneously transmit, reflect, and absorb light; a mirror and a window. At odds with the tropes of austere minimalism, there is something alive in Bell’s works. The experience is sensory saturation, a collision of right angles, colours and planes through maze-like, translucent, unpredictable and spectral constructions. It’s overwhelming, certainly, but endlessly intriguing.
The smaller works in this show, elevated on head-height pedestals, are no less confrontational. Despite their vacant innards, they occupy their space and stand their ground. They are not to be looked at, but looked in, and walked around – they require your body, your eyes, and your open mind.
Two larger works are placed on a raised carpeted bed, not unlike the sort that might elevate a church altar. Perhaps sanctity isn’t too far from the equation here. These pieces exist in-between worlds; their currency in their illusion; how volume can be so heavily implied, without needing to exist.
Bell’s major show at Dia Beacon, New York will be on view until March 2024. diaart.org (opens in new tab)
Harriet Lloyd-Smith is the Arts Editor of Wallpaper*, responsible for the art pages across digital and print, including profiles, exhibition reviews, and contemporary art collaborations. She started at Wallpaper* in 2017 and has written for leading contemporary art publications, auction houses and arts charities, and lectured on review writing and art journalism. When she’s not writing about art, she’s making her own.
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