In 1965, Larry Bell had his first solo show in New York, at the Pace Gallery. This was a major event for a Los Angeles artist, especially at a time when the art world turned all of its attention toward the New York scene. California got the short end of the stick; it still does, to some extent. The Pace show was cause for celebration, except it almost wasn’t—when Bell’s glass sculpture-painting hybrids were shipped from the West Coast, they broke.
“I had enough time to repair, and I did,” Bell said during a panel on Wednesday night at Hauser & Wirth’s Upper East Side location, where a show of his early works just opened. “I went to a shop. They gave me a book called Vacuum Deposition of Thin Films. They said, ‘You start on page one.’ ”
Bell was sitting in front of one of his reflective glass works at Hauser, speaking with his longtime friend Frank Stella, who is just three years older than Bell. As iPhones went off and Instagrams were posted, the two artists discussed the differences between the art world in Los Angeles and New York, where Stella was based, during the early part of their careers in the 1960s.
“Frank, what was your first memory of seeing Larry’s work?” Whitney Museum curator Barbara Haskell, who curated an exhibition of Bell’s work in 1972 at the Pasadena Art Museum and who was serving as the evening’s moderator, asked.
“I had the feeling that I saw it in Los Angeles. I’m probably wrong,” said Stella, who was wearing faded jeans and a blazer. Haskell asked when he acquired the work. “Well, I had to acquire it sometime around 1960,” Stella responded. “Why do I have to remember that?”
Haskell then asked Bell, who was wearing a maroon bowler hat, the same question. Bell turned to his friend and said, “You showed something at Ferus Gallery, didn’t you?”
“It must’ve been around then, but I’m struggling to remember when it was,” Stella told him.
“I can’t remember breakfast,” Bell said dryly.
The pieces by Bell currently on view at Hauser & Wirth, mostly from the ’60s, feature sharp geometrical forms and industrial materials. Because of the way the works play with depth and perception (“[Glass] absorbed light, transmitted light, and reflected light, all at the same time,” Bell explained), and because he worked out of California, some scholars have considered Bell a Light and Space artist. Yet, with his emphasis on form and mass-produced materials, he could be classified as a Minimalist all the same.
“Probably the biggest influence on my work would have been the right angles of the studio. I started at the corner and moved forward,” Bell said. And why glass? “I did a lot of work in construction centers. I really couldn’t afford to do anything else, so I worked in a picture-framing shop. I got a lot of supplies. Glass seemed like a good material to include in the two-dimensional paintings.”
Soon after realizing that he wanted glass to be his signature material, Bell started making work in which the surfaces were coated with a thin layer that further confuses the way we perceive the reflections. “I needed a single piece of glass that would reflect on both sides, and I had no idea how to do it,” Bell said. “I went to the Yellow Pages in the Los Angeles phonebook and looked under mirroring. There was a subheading for something called vacuum coating. I phoned the number. I said, ‘Can you make a mirror out of glass that can reflect on both sides?’ And he said, ‘Yes…’ I just got fascinated by the neatness of this process.”
Visibility for Bell’s work was something of a challenge. In New York, as Stella explained, magazines that weren’t Artforum, which was then based in Los Angeles, were not interested in Minimalist work. “The other magazines were kind of tight and nervous, and really hanging on to Abstract Expressionism,” Stella said.
It didn’t help that the Los Angeles scene was fractured—its artists weren’t aware of each other’s work. “What other galleries were showing people that you knew or were following?” Haskell asked Bell.
“Back then? Nobody,” Bell said. He was loosely affiliated with the Ferus Gallery crowd, which also included gallerist Irving Blum and Ed Kienholz, he continued. “Really, there wasn’t a social scene, except for the buddies.”
“I don’t know,” Stella said. “Didn’t Ed Kienholz say that everyone went to that diner or something? Barney’s, yeah.”
Both artists made it clear that the Los Angeles and New York scenes were not equal (there were fewer collectors and galleries in the former), but Gemini G.E.L., the famed artists’ workshop and publisher, helped to fix that. Through Gemini, major New York artists, like Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein, were invited to California to produce prints.
“I didn’t really know anything about printing,” Stella, who made prints for Gemini, said, “and I didn’t really much care. I just kept going. It was kind of dull, in a way, but it was warm in Los Angeles, and it was easy to get around.”
Stella, in fact, even lived in Southern California for a brief period. In 1967, he moved to Irvine, because he was an artist-in-residence at the University of California, Irvine (he met James Turrell at this time), and then lived in nearby Corona del Mar. Stella said, “I don’t know how relevant this is—it was a house overlooking the beach, the one where the aliens land in [War of the Worlds].”
After his Pace show, Bell moved to New York for a bit. “It was so successful that I stayed,” he said. “All of a sudden, everything sold before the show opened. I was thinking, ‘Maybe I like it more over here…’ Eventually, I got bored and moved to New Mexico.”