Larry Bell & John Chamberlain
August 4 through October 2, 2022
BY LITA BARRIE, September 2022
Larry Bell invited me to his studio in Venice Beach to discuss the backstory behind his joint exhibition with John Chamberlain at Hauser & Wirth.
Bell and Chamberlain were close friends who enjoyed a great deal of time together in a productive artistic dialogue filled with laughter and bantering. They even lived together and shared Bell’s studio for a year which allowed them to play with improvisations in collaborative artworks. However, their work has never been shown together, although they often discussed the idea. Bell suggested a joint exhibition to his longtime gallery Hauser & Wirth when they took the late Chamberlain’s estate. He even oversaw the installation to accentuate their aesthetic connection which Bell says is, “a feeling that comes from trusting spontaneity, improvisation and intuition.”
Although these iconic artists share affinities in their approach to using everyday materials, their work is formally quite different. On display in the south gallery, Bell’s pristine glass cubes (1963 to 2022) play on sharp right angles, hard surfaces and reductive geometries which change the optical experience of the space around them. In contrast, Chamberlain’s work plays on soft, flowing, curvilinear, plexiglass forms curling and folding in on themselves. These undulating sculptures crafted more than fifty years ago (in 1970 )were coated by Bell with the same particles as his cubes, in Bell’s famous fourteen-ton, vacuum deposition chamber, “The Tank.” This new show also includes rare Bell vapor drawings (from 1965 to 2004) and a delicate hanging mylar Light Knot (1970). Chamberlain’s large furniture piece, Wiley’s Island 2 (1997), made from urethane foam and muslin, was a favorite place for visitors - especially children - to sit and view the visual dynamics of the exhibition.
Bell explained that Chamberlain “put acrylic boxes in an oven ( in a car paint booth) and heated them up until they got soft, then put on heat masks and gloves and went into the oven and bent them into a shape he liked, then took them out of the oven to cool - and that was the form.” Chamberlain asked Bell to coat them, and “the color came in with an interesting patina where critical curves are on the piece. John held the thing and never cleaned his fingerprints.” With characteristic humor, Bell adds, “there is probably enough DNA on there to clone another John.”
Bell stresses that “John is the most successful improvisational sculptor that I know of, and his input to my life was inspirational, more than anything.” He emphasizes that, “We shared a very ironic sense of humor that ran through the bigger world we had. We laughed at the same things, and that’s most important because laughter is lacking in our general milieu today.” The two artists originally met at Ferus Gallery when Chamberlain, who is best known for dismembered car sculptures, was visiting from New York. Bell let him stay with him for a while, because he appreciated Chamberlain’s goofball humor. He wandered around in Bell’s studio “in a tank top, flip flops, being funny, buck-ass naked.”
Reflecting on their work together more poetically, Bell says, “art is the teacher that allows ballet to exist.” He emphasizes that “the work is your teacher; the stuff you do is really evidence of your teaching, but not necessarily art. Objects get externalized and almost have a date stamped on them, but not literally.” He insists that “everything I do now is a byproduct of where I came from” - much like variations of the corners he saw in his first studio.
Bell’s Venice studio is in a former Christian Science church with stained glass windows - a tranquil atmosphere ideally suited to listening to silence, which is Bell’s muse for creating contemplative artwork. In one corner of the studio, his ethereal Mylar hanging knots are suspended from the high ceiling in a cluster. His stunning vapor drawings made from cutouts using the microparticles he applies to his glass cubes - often featuring shapes of his guitars - are hung on the adjacent walls, and in the center is a heavy wooden table. As I sat in one of the large wooden armchairs surrounding it, I was reminded of sitting on a throne to discuss art with a high priest - who has an irreverent sense of irony that flows from his understanding that art is both a faith and a Duchampian exercise. Bell plays with the object and its armature by lifting the cubes off the floor on plexiglass plinths in a gamesmanship of art and the mechanisms of display that make something art. Is it a cube? Is it a frame within a frame? Bell’s way of breaking down cubes is not just an abstraction of a form, but a way of looking at the world.
Bell’s interest in exploring the twelve corners and right angles in a cube started when he moved into his first studio in Ocean Park, which had a big rectangular room with a skylight. “I wanted to work, but didn't want to destroy how beautiful [the space] was when it was empty,” he admits. He started “working out of the corners of the room, and the corners became part of my trip and I’m still doing it: making sculptures balancing corners of their own vertical thrust.”
Bell received recognition early in his career, so he was already a cult figure at the age of 28 when he appeared on the front cover of the classic Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). Today, the octogenarian is still animated by curiosity, which one can see by the mischievous glint in his eyes. Because Bell’s artwork defies categorization, he dismisses labels like “minimalist” and “light and space” because he “never thought of being part of a club.” He walks his own path, guided by his feelings, never driven by crass ambition - only a genuine love of making art based on keen observation.
Moving around Bell’s sculptures, we observe a rainbow of colors subtly shifting in blended color transitions. Chamberlain also wanted these rainbow colors in his curvilinear plexiglass works, so Bell did the coating for his pieces, which are seen in context for the first time in this joint exhibition. In describing the end result of this collaboration, Bell says “when artists put hands on materials, they imprint a kind of energy released only by materials, and every part of the material is still charged energy.”
My studio visit revealed that Bell’s approach to making art cannot be separated from real life, and that is the reason his work goes much further than optical style because each piece is entirely experiential. Everyone interacts with Bell’s work differently, and even he has a different experience at different times, which inspires the next variation. Bell’s work has an empirical meaning, rather than a theoretical or metaphysical meaning, because it is based on observation alone. Although the ellipses which often feature in his work mirror the shape of the Andromeda galaxy, a form which is believed to have supernatural powers.
Bell told me that he has two passions: his studios (in Venice and Taos) and his 12-string guitars ( he owns a massive collection of 346 of these guitars on display, in his studio in Taos). He loves these guitars because he can “hear them and feel them when I play: holding [them] and making sounds I haven’t heard before, the flow of the sounds and the sensuousness inside this feeling.”
Walter Pater famously said, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” But what is the condition of music? Music conveys an aesthetic meaning in purely abstract terms - without recourse to words or narrative, or representational and pictorial elements. Music so unifies form and content that it needs no external reference: what you hear is all there is. Like music, pure abstraction is also purged of everything other than itself. Bell’s glass cubes are purely about the colors and shapes one experiences, which makes them akin to music. Instinctively, we want to move around Bell’s sculptures to see the rainbow colors shift, much like we want to physically respond to music. In a way, Bell’s cubes are music at a very high vibrational level, because they stem from the same feelings he experiences when playing one of his 12-string guitars. Claude Debussy said, “music is the space between notes” which Bell who was born partially deaf, fully understands allows notes to reverberate. As Mozart said “ music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” Bell has spent a lifetime exploring the way that beauty requires a large amount of emptiness, much like silence in music.
The biggest takeaway from my studio visit was that the joint exhibition of Bell and Chamberlain is “evidence“ of a remarkable artistic friendship when their paths crossed at a specific moment in each of their lives: a “time stamp,” as Bell would say. Larry Bell & John Chamberlain is an historically important exhibition because it shows that the real stuff from which art history is made is the actual life experience of artists who inspire each other to take risks. These iconic artists made a great duo because they are both virtuosos who could improvise together - like jazz musicians - and have fun in the process. WM
Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in Hyperallergic, Riot Material, Apricota Journal, Painter’s Table, ArtnowLA, HuffPost, Painter’s Table, Artweek.L.A, art ltd and Art Agenda. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art Issues, Artweek, Visions andVernacular. She was born in New Zealand where she wrote a weekly newspaper art column for the New Zealand National Business Review and contributed to The Listener, Art New Zealand, AGMANZ, ANTIC, Sites and Landfall. She also conducted live interviews with artists for Radio New Zealand’s Access Radio. Barrie has written numerous essays for art gallery and museum catalogs including: Barbara Kruger (National Art Gallery New Zealand) and Roland Reiss ( Cal State University Fullerton). Barrie taught aesthetic philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, Art Center and Otis School of Art and Design. In New Zealand, Barrie was awarded three Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council grants and a Harkness grant for art criticism. Her feminist interventions are discussed in The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and an archive of her writing is held in The New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa.view all articles from this author