Monday, June 11, 2018

“Larry Bell, Artist & Alchemist”

“Larry Bell: Hocus, Focus and 12” 
on view at the Harwood Museum of Art, Taos June 9 - October 7, 2018
Entering the Ribak/Mandleman Gallery

Larry Bell Luncheon Interview at his studio, Taos, NM June 8, 2018
At the Harwood Museum of Art

Larry Bell is the most famous 'celebrity' artist to walk among us here in Taos. Often you’ll see him out for a stroll in downtown Taos with his thirteen year old American Bulldog named Pinky. Larry Bell’s artworks are in most major museum collections around the world. He is at the peak of his career and is absolutely basking in every moment. Recently I’d run into Mr. Bell while walking through Taos Plaza. I stopped to introduce myself, thanking him for answering a few questions for an article I was writing for Taos News Tempo. He graciously asked if he’d given me enough material to work with and invited me to visit his studio anytime. Not wanting to impose on him I soon excused myself, he flashed me a peace sign and told me “Peace man.” 
Curator Gus Foster, Artist Larry Bell, Editor of Tempo Rick Romancito, Writer of Taostyle Lynne Robinson

As a local journalist, historian, blogger, and part time freelance writer (for Taos News Tempo), I was invited to join other journalists on the morning of June 8 for a visit to the studio of Larry Bell. First we met Bell’s longtime friend Gus Foster at the Harwood Museum to give us a tour of the exhibit which he curated. Foster walked us through each room with generous insight into his selections. There are 92 (originally there were 91, one vapor drawing was added which was donated to the Museum recently),  works of art along with twelve guitars included in the exhibition. Afterwards we walked over to Bell’s studio where we were invited to an informal lunch. As Bell loosened up a bit with all these strangers in his domain he began to talk. After lunch we entered the actual working studio where the vacuum chamber resides. While standing by the great machine (it looks like the fuselage of a small airplane) we were given time to ask questions. Most of the interview here is from questions I asked, noted by my initials ‘RC’. Other questions are as noted by other journalists in attendance as well. All questions are italicized.
My reflection in the porthole

I’ll start by pointing out that in my view Larry Bell is an alchemist. Turning lead into gold is a classic example of the term alchemist. Bell through the use of glass is able to change his material into sculptures that reflect light much the way a pearl creates a pearlescent glow, or the way a diamond refracts light and color, or that of an opal creating layers of color within the stone itself.  
Curator Gus Foster with "Gus' Berg"

“The intellect of the wise is like glass: it admits the light of heaven 
and reflects it.” Augustus Hare
My reflection in one of the "Cubes"

Gus Foster speaking about the “Time Machine” states: 
“It’s a type of lense that reflects back all visible light and lets infrared light go through the glass. Scientists use it to try to focus a laser.” Bell adds: “To me the “Time Machine” clarifies what the title ‘Hocus’ refers to.” The oval disk of the “Time Machine” was purchased from a salvage yard at Los Alamos, NM known as the Black Hole.
Holly Sievers and I in the "Time Machine"

“You use a glass mirror to see your face, you use works of art to 
see your soul.” George Bernard Shaw
Visitors to the "Time Machine"

Bell sees exhibitions as extensions of his studio. In this case through the exhibit “Hocus Focus and 12” at the Harwood Museum, Bell’s studio, literally across the street from the museum, has spilled out and into the Harwood. The exhibition is considered a small survey of his work in Taos since 1975. Some of the sculptures presented here are only a few months old. The Harwood collection now includes 158 artworks by Larry Bell, the largest collection of his art anywhere in the world.

Mr. Bell begins to speak about his work:
In referring to his collection of 156 mostly twelve string guitars he tells us: “When I was young, (he turns 79 this December) I liked the idea of being a singing troubadour.” 
To the right is the same type of his first guitar Bell had purchased at a price of $35.

“…Improvisation and trusting your intuition. Ultimately the the biggest tool that one has in whatever your doing is trusting yourself to do it, so that’s the bottom line.”
Bell in his element

What is this machine?
“High vacuum thermal evaporators, that’s what these devices are. I had to have that one made for me. We made this one here out of scrap parts from various surplus parts including Los Alamos.”
Bell with the vacuum chamber

“Simple brut force thermal evaporation that takes place in a vacuum. Attached to the outside of these, are big pumps that move the air around. The pressure is low enough inside there, I can heat up whatever I want on a…  …those metal filaments they load in there. I can heat them up until they reach a temperature that the aluminum will melt and reach a vapor pressure and evaporate.” 
“It’s (the vacuum chamber machine) twelve foot between the bulkheads and 7 foot diameter this tank. From this end this is where all the electricity that has to be taken into the tank to do the process goes and keeps the vacuum sealed. This is the drivers seat is here on the side. I sit here and watch stuff happen through that window.”
Samples in the studio

What is your process all about?
“Light has been altered considerably even though the materials are unaltered completely, physically.”
A sampling of elements used in Bell's process

“Filaments that do the evaporations (of nichrome & silicon monoxide) cool so that when we dump the air back into the tank the thermal shock doesn’t cause the glass to break, waiting a little bit I can save two bucks each time for each filament.”
A small early work tucked into a corner of the studio

“Well, I watch it, it’s not any guess work. I set up the tank and do the evaporations and look at the stuff through the windows that are around the tank and when I think the stuff is usable… Remember all I’m doing is making components. I’m not making any finished artworks or anything here. All I’m doing is coloring paper or mylar or laminate film or whatever, with the intention of taking it someplace else and making images out of it. So this is where we prepare the surfaces that we’ll work with. I would do all that stuff here if I had the room but I don’t. But it’s nice to have a change of scenery, and I mean I like it all. I even like the drive. (He drives back and forth from Taos to LA) I drive every three weeks. Pinky and I are on the road going to Venice or coming home and there’s something very nice about that routine. Mountains and the sea, I mean it’s nice. It’s great, it’s expensive, besides from the gas, just having to be in Los Angeles is outrageously expensive. Standing on the ground it costs a lot of money. There’s something really… To me Venice is a very nice place, I like Venice. I don’t mind being there at all. I don’t like Los Angeles that much, it’s too hard to get anywhere, it’s too frustrating, and dangerous.”

At some point Bell also spoke about the first time he'd loaded up the truck to take glass works from Taos to LA. The altitude in Taos is 7,000 feet above sea level. LA is basically at sea level. As pressure changed, a high percentage of the glass boxes broke. Bell figured out why some did not break and from then on always followed a formula of packing in order to keep any works from breaking. In the years since this occurred he has not had problems with shipping. It should be said that what he figured out, needs to be on record. Perhaps it is through the Getty Museum's "Getty Conservation Institute" & their "Modern and Contemporary Art Research Initiative" where they research contemporary artists, artworks and materials and how to approach restoration issues on such works.
Bell's faithful companion 'Pinky'

RC: And Taos, How do you feel about Taos? 
“I’m neither frustrated, nor am I afraid of anything so… I didn’t want to go back to New York City and Janet didn’t want to go to Los Angeles.”
Recent acquisition "Melin, Medium Eclipse Insert, 34" vapor drawing

“This morning I’m totally bummed out about Anthony Bourdain.”
(a brief moment of silence, no words)
View of the studio

RC: How often are you working here?
“Yes, every working day I use this thing. There are times when it’s ‘showtime’ (referring to gallery and museum openings that he attends of his work around the world) and I’m not working.”
Somewhere under the rainbow with Larry Bell at the Harwood Museum, Taos 

RC: Yes, of course.
“When I’m on the road, I’m not working.”

RC: Are you taking notes in your head or on paper, for ideas that come to you, what sort of shapes you’re looking for? 
“No I’m not good at that, no, I tried. I kept a journal for years and years and just… I run on current memory. I don’t have to dig too far back to find stimulation and ideas and creative energy.”
A toast to Gus Foster and Larry Bell, (and Pinky)

RC: Are you pretty happy with the way the exhibition has turned out here at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos?
“Yeah, I think it’s fine. It’s a nice taste of a very in depth life.”
View through the doorway at the Harwood Museum

RC: For people who don’t really get it and walk in, and ask what is this, what should they be looking for?
“Well, I think, they should look for enough freedom within themselves… they’ll come to grips with things that they don’t know what they are. Then they might not be afraid to check in to what they might (find), you know I mean I don’t think… (Willem) De Kooning once said, that the great value of modern painting was in it’s total uselessness. …and I always liked the feeling of that.”

“In my opinion all artwork is stored energy. The art releases its power whenever a viewer becomes a dreamer.” Bell “Zones of Experience, The Art of Larry Bell” 1997 The Albuquerque Museum.
Jennifer Villela, Janet Webb, Ann Landi & Larry Bell

RC: Are you doing more installations outside, outdoors? 
“Yeah we are, I just put one up in Aspen (Colorado).”

RC: I saw the pictures, it looks beautiful. 
“It’s Killer.” 
Green maquette

RC: Where’s the green one the green one with the lush green forest around it? 
“In France, it’s in a place called… near Cannes. Between Cannes and Nice there’s a little place called Le Muy (Venet Foundation, Le Muy, France).”

RC: Was it risky to put green against green or were you after that?
“It would be more risky to not do it, yeah.”
"Mirage #247" Vapor Drawing

A question is asked off tape:
“We wrinkle it, wrinkle the stuff up and then coat it. So when we take it out, it looks like something wrinkled, and that becomes part of the composition that does a weird thing to the space in a certain area. So the materials we make I don’t just make things out of them, I dissect them and put together components from different elements that we have prepared here. So the collages (the Fractions) are made from laminate film, mylar and papers and in no given order, in terms of priority other than in just the intuitive feeling (for example) I like this black piece I put down here, how you… So there’s stacks of stuff that we’ve prepared waiting for me in the other studio. I get up there and just start putting them together in a press, a laminating press which we have here and fuse all those components into one image.”
"Untitled" & "Elin 61" Vapor Drawings

Abq. Journal reporter asks: The vapor drawings are they also collaged like that?
“The vapour, all of the components I’m talking about are Vapor Drawings. So that I have cut up or…”
Taos Author John Nichols taking a look at the fifty "Fractions"

RC: Gus told us that there are 10,000 Fractions.
“That was a project that went from (1994 is what Mr. Foster had stated earlier) 1996 to 2000. I made over 12,000 little pieces.” Foster also added that when he and Bell were speaking about this series of “Fractions’ that Foster asked Bell, “Why not do 10,000? Well, OK that was a challenge and off he went.”
Janet Webb and Dora Dillstone by the "Fractions" with shadow of a "Light Knot"

RC: How? When do you have time? 
Every day, I don't stop.”

Abq. Journal reporter asks: Is this the first time the "Fractions" have been exhibited? 
“No, we did an installation in a French Museum in Nieme, we put up about 300 of them, in a very small room. They were cheek by jowl, rows going all the way down to the floor and the kids… People would come with their kids who loved seeing all these pictures that were down at little people level. It was great.”

RC: There’s a picture online of the exhibit, perhaps on Instagram.
“It was just great.”

Janet Webb added: “Gus was saying it was the first time those pieces (the 50 Fractions at the Harwood) had been displayed, they were donated to the Museum fifteen years ago. Usually they’re framed in real simple plain frames.” This is the first time those fifty “Fractions” have been shown at the Harwood.
Montage Window display of photographs, hats, album cover and more

Ann Landi asks: Larry how did you ever discover this process, how did that happen?
“Well, I in the early sixties I was doing some construction sculptures constructed sculpture boxes made out of wood that combined glass, as one of the sides, and I started using mirrors that I bought at the, just cheap mirrors from the Thrifty Drug Store. Cheap.”
Bell during the morning interview session with journalist from the Albuquerque Journal

RC: The type you put on the wall? Those ones that stick on the wall?
“Yeah just regular mirrors, household mirrors but they were little things, you know for sixty nine cents, you had this (twelve inch) square… I’d draw a pattern on the backside and then scrape away the mirroring from the back, that paint they put on the back, to get part of the pane of glass to be reflective and part of it to be transmissive on the same piece… so, it was really time consuming. If I wanted to have the same image… reflective in both directions, I had to cut, scrape away two pieces exactly the same and put them back to back. It was very tedious and difficult.”
Variations of red on the wall in the studio

RC: What turned you on about that (working with glass) as opposed to painting, which you had been doing?
“I didn’t like painting. There were too many people painting and there were really good ones. Why do I have to jump into a pond that has so many people doing something much better than I could ever do! I was looking for a material that was reasonable to work with. I thought glass! It ultimately became a big player in my life because it was available anywhere. Not terribly expensive. It did three things at once, that were, Hocus! It transmitted light, it reflected light and absorbed light. All at the same time. That was a very magical quality. …and, you altered what the reflective quality of the mirror was. It let just regular light go through that piece of glass. It did all kinds of interesting things to your eye. So these wooden box constructions had two pieces of glass on the front and back or one piece of glass just stuck in it. Then I decided to eliminate the wood and just make these objects out of glass and that’s what started the Cubes.” 
Three maquettes

RC: Are the original cubes on glass stands or wooden stands?
“The original ones? They were on whatever kind of stand I could put them on. At that time it wasn’t any big deal. At a certain point I decided that I liked the idea of these rather heavy little wooden boxes, that were very elegant visually but had a lot of weight and mass to them because of the stacks of the glass and stuff that were glued to the insides and on the front and back. I thought it would be nice to have them appear to float. So I tried making some bases out of clear glass that would support the piece, but it was too cumbersome and too expensive and too… Working with the glass in the sculpture itself which was the whole point of the business. To spend a lot of time hassling with the base, I ended up going into an acrylic. I went to an acrylic fabricator to make the bases.”
Maquettes all in a row

RC: In the show the maquettes are on wooden bases. They’re reminiscent of the earlier Cube works?
“That was… it had to be done that way, (for display purposes). Those maquettes are (studies for) six foot tall pieces, six foot by eight foot pieces of glass is what each maquette represents.”

RC: The green maquette is that the one for the sculpture in France?
“No, that was a completely different…”
Bell with the vacuum chamber

Abq. Journal reporter asks: Going back a little bit, how would you get from doing the manual?
“Somebody mentioned a process that the film people use, it was called front surface mirroring. It’s a kind of reflector that, cameras have them. Where a bright coating of metal is put on to the front of a piece of glass, it’s optical use is to reflect a lot of light. The thickness of the glass can absorb as much as twenty five or thirty percent of the light that would be reflected off of a surface, but if it’s absorbed by the thickness of the glass before it’s reflected back out, you lose a tremendous amount of light. So if you could put a bright metal thing on the front of the piece of glass. Glass is inexpensive and flat made perfect and so on. This process could be masked and I wouldn’t have to scrape away a pattern. I would have exactly the same pattern on both sides of a single piece of glass. That’s what I want. I had hired a guy out in Burbank, that did this process mostly for Disney. Lenses and reflective mirrors, stuff like that for their films. The process was called vacuum metalizing, I think. …or front surface mirrors. He was listed in the yellow pages of the Los Angeles phone book in the industry part. So, I phoned this, the closest guy, the guy in Burbank, named Gordon Klein. I said, you could make a mirror reflective on both sides? I sure can, he said. That was it. I went click (hung up the phone) and went out to see him. I went and said, I’m the guy that called about a (two sided) mirror. He reached under the counter, picks up this little square piece of glass and puts it down on the counter. I’m looking at it and I picked it up, a bright mirror, (acts out turning it over) a bright mirror. Can you matt this off I asked him. So we can have a pattern. He says, yeah sure. Well how do you do that? He says, well I don’t know, I know how it’s coated, you’ll have to figure out how to do the matt. Can you use tape? Nope you can’t use tape with gas. Well, it was up to me to figure out how to not contaminate his vacuum process by gasses trapped into the materials that I wanted to be coated. A little step in the technology of making my stuff is to figure out how to mask, how to clean the stuff. I got a book, a book called “Vacuum Depositions of Thin Films” by Dr. Leslie Holland.”
Larry Bell speaking with journalists

RC: So from that point to when you first got something that was perfectly fine with you, how long did that process take? 
“Years. From the time I’ve learned about the process, to the time I’ve really… it got, that it turned into, three or four years. I had work that I felt was transcendental. It was past, it was beyond it’s own, the only value being the uniqueness of it’s process. It transcended, all.”
Vapor drawing detail

RC: In your eyes, it became art?
“Yeah, and only the search was art. It was only the evidence of whatever was going down, was where the art was. There was not very much left over. As the mechanical parts of the studio activities became less of an issue, because I was more used to them. The work transformed the work repeated the ease of which it was being made. You could see it, anybody could see it. But it didn’t happen all the time. You didn’t always make that transition. It doesn’t always mean that you’re doing anything worth a shit. It has to happen.”
Bell speaking with journalists including Rick Romancito of Taos News Tempo

Rick Romancito/Taos News Tempo asks: “So was there ever an ‘aha’ moment for you, when you’re doing all this stuff?”
“Hell yeah, it happens all the time, yeah it has to happen all the time  you can’t just grind and not have an ‘aha’ an epiphany ya know, you gotta… the feedback is in the joy of discovery. The only way to express it is to say that the work is the teacher. The work is constantly teaching you how to do it. Your sort of a servant of the work. Which makes this sort of work different than being in business. First of all nobody needs the shit, second of all, there is no second of all…”
Vapor Drawing "Church Study" with Boli figure example from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection

At this point Mr. Bell pauses. With a very full schedule ahead of him I ask if he’d like to take a break. I personally am exhausted and exhilarated from speaking with him in such depth. 

“…the art world gives credibility to people who believe in themselves.” quote from ‘Larry Bell: New Work’ organized by the Hudson River Museum, 1980.
Sgt. Pepper Album Cover

In 1967 Larry Bell was immortalized as one of 57 people featured on the cover of the Beatles Album “Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Today Bell is one of only four people on the album cover still living, the others are Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, and Bob Dylan. The photograph chosen was taken by longtime Taos friend Dennis Hopper. How this came about Bell believes that it happened like this; Bell was one of the artists in a group exhibit at a London Gallery, a few of the Beatles had attended the gallery opening and made note of Bell’s presence. Soon after he was contacted for permission to use his image in the collage by Peter Blake of various people. Bell is between John and Ringo wearing a purple tie. At the time ‘Sgt. Pepper’, the album, was the most expensive album cover ever produced.
Album cover detail, Bell with purple tie

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Henry 
David Thoreau,‘Where I Lived and What I Lived For’
Visitors to the "Time Machine"

A few posts from Instagram #LarryBell include these comments:

“I just got completely lost after clicking on #LarryBell. What a lovely little morning journey.” (inspiring4U2)
 “Sooooo looking forward to this show” (newpractice) 
“the other side of a black hole” (present8imperfect) 
“TRANSCENDENCE” (alicja_big) 
“Even more beautiful in person” (loieofficiel) 
“Sent here to make epic paintings from a world beyond” (eksnels) 
“Oh my God I need to get to this” (courtriceatwork) 
“wow, this is some next level stuff” (migrating_angel) 
“Clear as a Bell” (misterngo) 
“Cooool/but Hot!” (jbprojectsllc) 
“Dope!” (fractal.flames) 
“Larry Bell is so dope.” (watchvova) 

Indeed Larry Bell is ‘so dope’, go take a look for yourself, now showing at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos.
“Larry Bell: Hocus, Focus and 12” June 9 - October 7, 2018

Post script: This is my fourth article about the artist Larry Bell. I’ve also written a fifth piece, which has been turned in to Tempo, (if it is published I will add the link here as well). All photographs are taken by me and are strictly meant to illustrate the beauty of this exhibit and a moment of time in Taos, New Mexico. All artwork is copyright of the artist Larry Bell. I was not paid nor influenced to write this article nor coerced to participate, this is strictly a labour of love on my part. The first three articles I've written about Mr. Bell on assignment for Taos News Tempo links are listed here:,48754?

Ribak/Mandleman Gallery at the Harwood Museum of Art

“…Art puts us, I believe, in a state of grace in which we experience a universal emotion in an, as it were, religious but in the same time perfectly natural way. General harmony, such as we find in colour, is located all around us. Make others feel the same way about it. Without their realizing it! That's the meaning of art.. .Yes, what I'm aiming for is the logical development of what we see and feel when we observe nature; only then I'm concerned with the process, processes being for us no more than simple ways of getting the public to feel what we ourselves are feeling, and of making our point. The great artists we admire have done no more… An art which isn't based on feeling isn't an art at all... feeling is the principle, the beginning and the end.” Paul Cezanne