Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Larry Bell: “A-Livin’ in the Light of the Mornin” (1982)

Larry Bell ARTlines cover, 1980

This month, opening on September 17 and running through December 5, the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe presents a retrospective of the work of Larry Bell, Larry Bell/The Sixties.  During those years, Bell was a prominent member of that generation of Los Angeles artists who first commanded serious attention from critics, collectors, and curators from all over the country, especially from New York which has held the scene in a headlock.  By the mid-1960s, artists such as Bell, John Altoon, Peter Voulkos, Robert Irwin, Ken Price, Billy Al Bengston, and Ed Moses, to name only a few, challenged New York’s and the rest of the world’s, tunnel vision.  Deep, inbred prejudices softened for the moment, and barriers were, if not broken down, at least breeched.
The serious non-seriousness of these artists presented a riddle to the Eastern sophisticates.  They just couldn’t get a fix on how les enfants terribles fit into the staid world of their unsullied art galleries and museums.  The wide range of their concerns – Pop, Op, Light/Space, Perceptual, Conceptual, etc. – defied categorizing, and each presented a strong individual persona and artistic style that the art world (read “New York”) just couldn’t, or wouldn’t, put their finger on.  Larry Bell, though he has lived in Taos for the last decade, still is a prominent member of that vanguard generation of LA artists.  His works in glass and on paper are in the collections of virtually every major contemporary art museum in the world.
           I first met Larry Bell, the inestimable Dr. Lux (as he is known to distant acquaintances), late one night about four years ago outside his Taos studio.  (He moved to Taos with Janet Webb in 1973.)  I was with a friend who introduced us, and Larry took us into his studio where, for about two hours, he explained in mystifying detail the process of his work with the vacuum chamber.  He had just begun his series of Vapor Drawings, and was continuing his work on large scale sculpture projects constructed of large sheets of glass arranged in simple compositions by yielding complex matrixes of actual and reflected images.  His graciousness and generosity in presenting and discussing his work and ideas with me, a total stranger, was disarming.  His intense excitement and pleasure in his work was obvious and impressive.  Now and then, he would stop and ask if we were understanding what he was saying.  The abstract nature of the work and the process left me confused, to the point where I couldn’t think of an intelligent question to ask that might reveal a light in this forest of what I considered high technology voodoo.
After that, our relationship found a basis in a mutual love of guitars and music, folk music to be more precise.  Indeed, Larry performed as a folk singer at the Unicorn on Sunset in LA while going to art school before deciding to devote full time to his art.  I always thought it odd, and perfectly suitable to the good Doctor’s sense of irony and proportion, that he could go from his space-age vacuum chamber to a vintage 12-string guitar and Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie.  That’s Dr. Lux (Lux from Latin, meaning  “light”) all over.

I ride an old paint, I lead an old Dan,
I’m goin’ to Montana for to throw the houlihan.
They feed in the coulees, they water in the draw,
Their tails are all matted, their backs are all raw.
Ride around little doggies,
Ride around them slow.
For the fiery and the snuffy are a-rarin’ to go.

            (I Ride an Old Paint, trad.)
Larry Bell in Venice, CA studio, 1970
One night this summer, Larry and Janet invited me to joint them and some friends for a Sunday evening barbeque.  I arrive and find the Dr., pipe firmly clenched in his teeth, scientifically preparing the chicken in the kitchen.  “Hi.  How you doin’?” says Larry, barely looking up from his work.  “Great,” I lie.  “That’s funny,” says he.  “You look like shit.”  Straight deadpan.  As he leaves the kitchen with the platter of pullet, he invites me to sample one of his numerous guitars in a case nearby.  I play and he reenters the kitchen, after greeting arriving guests outside.  He putters around the sink.  “Can I do anything to help, Lar?  He looks at me.  “Yeah, you can leave.”  He doesn’t miss a beat.  I chuckle nervously.  He glances at me obliquely, elliptically.  A sinister grin curls around his pipe.  Ah yes, the Dr. is a great joker . . .
A few weeks later, Larry and I get together for an evening of guitar playing and informal conversation.  I enter the kitchen where he, Janet, and a neighbor, Jody, sit and talk around the kitchen table.  Zara, Larry, and Janet’s eldest daughter, age 8, and Sadie, Jody’s 5 year old, watch T.V. and play in an adjoining room.  Oliver, their 1 year old son, is tucked away for the night.  Rachel, the youngest daughter, age 2 ½ , struts into the kitchen to find out who the intruder might be.  She is immediately concerned with what is in my shirt pocket (a felt-tip pen) and directly asks me for it.  I give it to her, and as we “grownups” visit, Rachel begins a series of drawings on paper, destroying the pen in the process.  The Dr. thinks this is very funny.  (It’s the only writing instrument I’ve brought with me.)  She does portraits of all of us at the table, each in turn.  Squiggly lines, circles, dots.  She finishes with a self-portrait.  We all admire the art.  The Dr. starts them early.  He finally says offhandedly, “I’ve got something to show you a little later,” and says no more for the moment.
Jody and Sadie leave, Zara and Rachel are put to bed, Janet vanishes, and Larry and I sit quietly.  I spot a snappy new hard-shell guitar case propped against the far wall of the kitchen and I wonder what new gem the Dr. has uncovered to add to his already formidable collection.  Finally he says, “Take a look in that case over there.”  I kneel at the case, open it, and find a magnificent 12-string.  It looks so comfortable in its case I hesitate to pick it up for a few moments.  “Don’t just stare at it, pick it up,” says Larry mockingly.  I do, appraising the seductive shape of the body.  The style looks very familiar, and I comment on the shape.  “Like Mae West,” says the Dr.  Through the sound-hole, on the label inside, I spot the maker’s name.  Lundberg.  I sit down at the table and strum as Larry watches.  The tone is bright, brilliant, and perfectly balanced.  Looking at it, I finally recognize it.  “This is just like the one Leadbelly played.  One of those Stella, Sears, and Roebuck jobs.”  The doctor nods.  “Just a little better made,”  he says.  “I found it in Oakland last week at this guy’s shop.  Lundberg.  He made it a few years ago.  I was in San Francisco, at this seminar, and happened to go by this place, and there it was.  Just got it last Friday,” say says with a kind of diffident pride.  I play it for a few minutes.  It’s a beauty, the finest 12-string I’ve played in the Doctor’s house.  I relinquish it to the new owner.  Gorgeous, the Bell’s bulldog, snores and sputters in the corner, adding percussion to Larry’s playing.  He fingerpicks it tentatively, then into a full strumming riff in E.  A famous Leadbelly lick.  We both smile, and he begins to sing . . .

All I need to make me happy,
Two little girls to call me Pappy,
One called Sop it, one called Gravy
The one gonna sop it up,
The other gonna save it.
            (Green Corn, trad.)
I feel a bit lonely sitting empty-handed as Larry continues to play.  Another guitar case in the living room.  I’m up and opening it and find another majestic 12-string guitar (God, how he loves those 12-strings!).  Larry relights the pipe he has been playing with since I came in, and laughs at my awed reaction to the guitar – a thinner neck, the body fatter and larger, ornate and exquisite styling on the crown.  I take it back into the kitchen, sit at the table, and we begin to play one tune we’d end up playing sooner or later anyway.

Old Bill Jones had two daughters and a song
One went to college and the other went wrong.
His wife she died in a poolroom fight,
Still he sings from morning ‘til night.
Ride around little doggies,
Ride around slow,
For the fiery and the snuffy are a-rarin’ to go.
 (I Ride an Old Paint, trad.)

I stumble trying to find Larry’s rhythm.  “Jesus, I can never follow you, Larry.  Your timing is, well . . . idiosyncratic.  Like playin’ with Lighnin’ Hopkins.”  The Dr. laughs.  “It’s true.  I never could get anybody to play along with me.”  he says, and laughs hard.  We both laugh hard.  “The perfect condition and instrument for the solo artist,” I reply.  We play some more.  A blues in D.  I jot down a few notes now and then with my mutilated felt-tip.  He smokes his pipe, I chew a cigar.  Suddenly, he says to me, “What the hell do you keep writing down there?!”  “I’m taking notes, Larry.  I’m supposed to be doing this article on you.  You know, the show down at the Museum of Fine Arts?”  He pauses.  “Yeah.  That’s going to be to be a very interesting show.  Very interesting to me, anyway.  The work from ’59 to ’70.  I’ve never seen all that stuff in one place at one time before.  Some of it has never even been seen before.  Stuff I made then, but it’s been in storage since.”  He gets an abstracted look and continues.  “They were just some of the most incredible shows.  I don’t care if this sounds, you know . . . but they were just fantastic shows.  All those cubes in a room – just the cubes.  Some of the pieces were choppy, individually, but all together they were really . . . The good ones had a way of making the choppier ones look really good when they were all together in one room.  That was ’65 to ’68, ’69 maybe.  A lot of the pieces, I wasn’t too crazy about ‘em,  but they were very calming to the viewer, you know?  Some of the ones I really liked, as pieces, were just too good to put in some of the shows, because your eye would go right to ‘em . . .”
          “Were they bigger?”
“No, size didn’t matter.  They were all about the same size anyway, and the tops were all 60” off floor level, just below the peripheral eye-level of the viewer.  But I’d put some of the really good ones in a show like that they’d just destroy the whole thing.  So, some of the best ones I never put in, and they were some of the only things I ever did that I always liked.  Then I just stopped being in the gallery scene so much.  I’d have a show now and then, but I started doing things that you just couldn’t put under your arm and walk out with.  Bigger things.
Larry Bell installation, 1968, Walker Art Center
He stops.  I scribble.  “Look at all these flies in here!” he yells.  “They weren’t here before you came.  Did you bring ‘em with you, or what?” he laughs. 
“Of course, that was a crazier time then,” he continues. “A crazier time in my life, in . . .”
“Did all of that craziness that was happening then find its way into the work you were doing?  Did it affect you at the time?”
“Sure!”  he says, his voice rising, stiffening in his chair.  “Christ, Venice at that time was crazy.  Everything was crazy!  The war, the whole damn art scene, riots.  It tore me up.  How the hell could I not be affected by it.  Of course I was affected by it.  I looked around at all the artists I knew, artists whose work I respected and liked, and it wasn’t showing up in their work.  They weren’t doing anything about it.  And the artists who were trying to do something about it, reacting to it in their work, I just didn’t like their work.  I didn’t like it.  So, what the hell was I supposed to do? “I can see it is a real question for him, still.  A look of pained confusion flickers across his face.  “I don’t know,” I answer lamely.  “What do you do?”  “I worked.  I worked hard.  I like work, and so when it was all crazy I just stuck to the work.  It was the only thing I had any control over.  I couldn’t control the cops, the killings, the war, anything.  The work – my work—was the one thing I could control, and have complete control over.  It’s what always saved me.  I like work, and so when it was all crazy I just stuck to the work.  It was the only thing I could control, and have complete control over.  It’s what always saved me.  I get a great deal of pleasure out of work, you know.  That’s why I hang around the studio so much, ‘cause I know as soon as I leave the studio I can get in trouble . . .”

I’ve worked in the city,
And I’ve worked on the farm,
All I got to show is the muscle in my arm.
Blisters on my feet, callouses on my hands
I’m goin’ to Montana to throw the houlihan. 
  (I Ride an Old Paint, trad.)

The guitars are forgotten for the moment as we each replay the ‘60s in our own psycho/historical memories.  Images of T.V. footage, Watts, Newark riots, assassinations, Vietnam.  Larry continues, “I couldn’t be over there with those guys in the other camp, and I sure didn’t want to be over there with those other guys in that other camp, ‘cause their work was just . . . “ his voice trails off.  “The whole art scene was disgusting at that time.  Artists, galleries, gallery directors, everybody happier than pigs in shit.  Things were really turning over, really selling fast.  People were making a whole bunch of money, and that’s all the whole thing was at the time.  Disgusting.  I couldn’t stand it.  It was terrible.  It made me sick.  The war, my personal life, Venice, the whole damn art scene – it was crazy.  Around that time, seven people were murdered in one week in a two block radius of my studio in Venice.”  Pause.  “One week, seven people!”  We look at each other.  He nods, relights his pipe.  Sighs.  “It made me crazy.  I mean, really crazy.  I had to get out, and finally, in ’73, I did.  It was almost too late.  He stops and reaches for the Lundberg nearby.  As I pick up the other guitar, I ask, “You mean you knew you were really crazy, then came out here?”  “No,” he says emphatically.  “I didn’t realize I had gotten really crazy until I left and got out here.”  There is a long pause, and the Dr. strums a D chord and says, “Here’s a good one.  Do you know this one?”  He begins . . .

Well, I just got up to my new-found land,
My new-found land, my new-found land.
I just got up to my new-found land,
And I’m a-livin’ in the light of the mornin’.
(New Found Land, words and music by Woody Guthrie)

He stops, smiles, and says, “Isn’t that a beautiful line?  ‘I’m a-livin’ the light of the mornin’.”
            We both play and the burden of painful memories lifts with the song.  The Doctor’s timing is impeccable as usual.  “Now what else do you want to know?” he demands in feigned irritation, after we finish Woody’s tune.  “Well, where did you get your machine?  How did you end up doing them yourself?”  “Getting a little personal  there, aren’t you, Collins?”  It’s late now.  The Dr. is obviously bushed, but he begins the story.  At one time, in the mid-‘60s, he had a show of the cubes in New York.  One of the pieces arrived cracked and in need of immediate repair for that evening’s opening.  The Dr. remembers, “I had to get the piece recoated and the only place in New York that anybody knew of was this fella down in the Bronx.  Until then, all the vapor coating was done by this one guy in LA. Anyway, I took the new piece of glass to this guy in the Bronx –Dr. Koenig was his name, I’ll never forget it – and I asked him to do it, and I paid him $1,000 for the short time it took him.  Actually, the gallery paid for it, and he was astonished at what he got when I paid him.  He wasn’t used to getting jobs that, you know, ‘art’.  Anyway, he suggested that I learn how to do the process, use the vacuum chamber myself.  See, he let me go back in his shop and watch him when he did it, and it didn’t look like it was too hard once you had the equipment and all.  The guy in LA never let me in the back room where he did it, you know.  But Dr. Koenig let me back there.  I’d never even seen one of those things (the vacuum chamber) before.
       “Well, the show was a success, and I had some money in my pocket, and Dr. Koenig offered me a piece of equipment so I bought it and a guy came down on Sunday to set it up.”  Larry shakes his head and laughs softly at the memory.  “I’d never even had a wrench in my hand before hardly.  A couple of days later, Dr. Koenig came by.  He’d promised me that he would teach me how to operate it.  A real formal German guy, you know.  And we’re standing up there in this empty, cold, depressing loft, and said (in a thick German accent) ‘This will do very nicely here.’  And he was standing there with his hand stuck in his coat like this (Larry sticks his right hand in the breast of his shirt, assuming a Napoleonic pose) and he pulls out this book, Vacuum Deposition of Thin Films, and he says, ‘Now for your first lesson.  Here.  Start on page 1.’  And he hands me the book and walks out.  I’m standing there with this machine and this book in this cold loft.  Man, I was depressed.”
He stops and strums a chord on the guitar.  “I was afraid to turn the damn thing on.  And these plumbers and electricians are coming in working on it, setting it up and all, and I just sort of stood around pretending like I knew what I was doing . . . not knowing what to do.  I read that book maybe twenty or thirty times.  It’s a beautifully written book for such a technical subject.  It’s regarded as very old-fashioned these days.  But there’s only so much it can tell you.”
“You just gotta do it, huh?”
“That’s exactly what the book said!  That’s it.  The only way to learn how to do it is to do it.”
A week after our evening of guitar playing I visited Larry in his studio.  He was entertaining a couple of visitors from out of town, once again graciously explaining his process.  He greeted me with, “Where have you been?  I tried to get ahold of you last night to do some more playing, but I couldn’t find you.  Come on in.”
His studio more closely resembles a clean industrial factory than an artist’s studio.  Vapor drawings hang in a large gallery adjoining the working area with its two vacuum chambers – the small one he now works at, and a huge chamber in which the large pieces of glass for sculptures are coated.  Trays of nuts, bolts, washers, clamps, and a set of socket wrenches are scattered around the floor and table tops.  The Dr. sets up an improvisational elliptical vapor drawing, grabbing a few sheets of paper from a low shelf, and arranging them just so.  “You see?” he asks rhetorically.  I doubt if they do.  I’m not sure even I do.  He suspends the virgin construction at the back of the small chamber, clamps the doors shut, front and back, and stands at the relay/remote control unit – a 6 ½ foot free standing bank of red and green lights, meters, switches, buttons, etc.—that is attached to the chamber.  He fiddles at the unit for a moment.  “Shit!” he mutters as the chamber belches all the air out.  “I pushed the wrong button again,” he looks at me savagely.  “Collins, the good craftsman never blames his tools, he blames his assistant!”  The two visitors glance at me accusingly.  “Sorry Doctor,” I say pretending to be the incompetent assistant.
The machine is on now, the whole internal process is underway, and only Dr. Lux and his God know what the results will be.  I half expect the whole place to blow up.  He grins at me quickly, shyly from behind the controls He goes to a nearby workbench and unwraps a fresh cigar.  He leaves the room and returns immediately with a long, snaking, coiled length of black cable.  With a socket wrench he hooks up the cable to the chamber and remote unit.  Cigar jutting from his face, bent down playing with the tools and cable, he looks like a precocious kid putting together his erector set.  Indeed, there is a Mickey Mouse sticker on the side of one of the relay units.  He monitors the drawing in the machines from glass portals at the front and side of the chamber.  “I’ll do one more shot of quartz from back here,” he says to one of the guests.  “To stabilize it?” the guest asks.  “For the hell of it.  For the pleasure of it,” answers the Dr.
           He continues, playing with the dials, buttons, switches, monitoring the quivering needles of the meters, peering through the portholes.  “See,” he says to us all, “that’s all I do.  Stand here and push buttons and look through windows.  That’s all.”  Ah, yes.  The Doctor’s a great joker.
When it’s all over, and the doors swing open as if by magic after the machine has been depressurized, we all reverently gaze upon the demo-art.  The Dr. appraises it with a trained eye and hangs it on a nearby wall with pushpins. 
“That was so much fun,” he says, “I’m gonna do another one.”
The guests leave and Larry looks at me.  “Collins, what the hell are you doing here anyway?”  
A terrific joker.
--Thom Collins,  September 1982

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