Saturday, July 30, 2011

Larry Bell: "My Work is for the Dreamers" (1984)

            Larry Bell's Taos studio looks like a very clean, orderly factory. It's dominated by a huge, 14-foot-deep vacuum chamber, in which vaporized minerals such as quartz and aluminum are deposited on his art surfaces--usually paper or glass. The micro-thin layers reflect and refract light, and create work of stunning, mysterious and ever-changing color. We've often thought of the artist as an alchemist.
            Things appeared to be coming apart at the seams when we arrived at Bell's Talpa home one Saturday morning for an interview. He and his three children (Zara 10, Rachel 5, and Oliver 2) had just returned from the supermarket with provisions--about eight bags full--to replenish the empty larder. Bell's wife, Janet Webb of Webb Design in Taos, had been working night and day for weeks to prepare a book on Larry's new game edition, Chairs in Space, in time for its premiere at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Bell himself had been scrambling to get the components for the 155 games together.
            The kids were hungry, Bell was harried, several strange dogs prowled about the kitchen. We tried to help out by emptying grocery bags and storing food, and promptly dropped a half-gallon bottle of red wine on the kitchen's brick floor. "You wouldn't last two seconds in the Safeway liquor department," Bell commented. "Good thing you're a writer." We cleaned up our mess, and prepared hot dogs and raw vegetables for the kids. Bell fixed himself a sandwich--three hot dogs with cheese, mustard and sauerkraut ("This is hog heaven where I come from")--and we sat down to talk.

So. What's all this madness about? Is this what it's like getting ready for a museum show?
Well, it's not exactly madness, though the preparation work can be maddening. The project itself is a game [Chairs in Space] to be published in conjunction with the presentation of that game in Los Angeles. It's exactly about all the sculptural considerations that I've been concerned with over the years in my work. It's a wonderful game. I've had terrific, passionate response to it from people. By passionate, I mean people become engaged in thinking about it, what it's about, or how the rules could be changed, or how this could be different or something like that.

            [Young Rachel Bell called out, "Daddy, I din eat very much." "Well," daddy responded, "you got to eat your lunch or you get no popsicle." "I feel sick," she said. "You don't get a popsicle 'cause you're sick," he said. "It's not 'cause I'm sick of ..." she whined. "Whatever it is you are," he said, "it better be full of lunch or no dessert." "I hate avocado," she continued. "Well, they speak very highly of you," he concluded.]

Would you talk a little about those sculptural considerations that are summed up in the game?
The basic thrust of my sculpture has been improvisation. I am, in fact, an improvisational sculptor. The material I use has been glass. I treat the surface of the glass so that it reflects and transmits light in some manner, according to some idea I've got about how I want the thing to look. Let's say I fabricate a piece of sculpture like The Cat, and there were 12 parts to that original sculpture--four rectangular panels and eight triangular panels, all of them six feet tall, and the rectangles had an eight foot base, and the triangles were six foot bases. In a show I did in Detroit [Detroit Institute of Art, 1983] I took the four rectangular panels of The Cat and used them in a manner I'd never tried before, to mix those four glass panels with other things that I have made.

Corner lamps, chairs...
Yeah. Furniture and stuff. What was unique about that installation was that I'd never mixed parts before. I'd always used the glass in a room where I'd tried to remove everything that wasn't part of the architecture. Just expose the glass panels in an interesting manner.
            [Rachel: "Daddy, I finished." Daddy: Well, then you can have a popsicle. Did you drink your milk?" "No." "Well, go drink it."]

You have very obedient children. You're very tough, I can see.
Very. [He made a hangman's gesture and stuck out his tongue.] So this time the panels were treated so that they were more reflective where they sat on the floor than at the very top, and I made a box. Inside that box I put a chair, and placed the box at the very center of a room we designed, built inside a huge gallery. In the corners of the room I put four of these things I call Corner Lamps. All of the relationships in the room were symmetrical, everything the same distance from the other, and so on. As you walked around the space and looked through the glass, you saw the Corner Lamps, but the Corner Lamps also reflected in the glass. At a certain point, you weren't quite sure whether you saw the reflection of the Corner Lamps or the real thing. Another interesting thing that happened--the chair that I placed inside reflected only on the inside, because the mirrors facing each other bounced the light back and forth, and so you saw more than one chair--eight, in fact, one on each corner and one on each side. Apparently. So I decided to put a patch of light, from a projector straight above, on the four reflected spaces outside the sides of the sculpture where a chair appeared to be sitting but really wasn't. So you walked around this box, and it looked like there were all these chairs, but there was really only one chair. This was all a totally improvisational kind of setup.
The improvisation--how much of that took place while you were thinking about the installation in the studio, and how much...
All of it before. I still considered it an improvisation because I'd never done anything like that before. The improvisation could have been much more extensive, but...I don't like to make changes without that intuitive feeling of something wanting to be there. I couldn't tell you why until I'd done it and looked at it for a while.

And the element of improvisation is important in the game.
The game is born out of improvisation. I should carry on my point. First I will finish my milk and light a cigar. [He does.] Where were we?

Sculptural considerations, how they are summed up in the game? [Pause] Intuition.
Most of my responses to the things I do are intuitive, not intellectual, really. I think of my sculpture as very sensate-oriented experience. It might sound a little like it's all an intellectual trip that I've perfected to operate with--it's not. And I screw up right and left. The best thing about the stuff I do--I'm familiar enough with the materials I use and the technique I work with to not be afraid of it. Since I'm not afraid of it anymore, the learning process is much faster.
            Anyway, the Detroit installation was great fun. It was the most stimulating installation I could recall. It was magic. I was so excited about it that when I came back.... We made models of the room before, and then I made a little glass sculpture that replicated The Cat, actually a little bigger than scale. That was an interesting thing to discover, that to my eye a direct transference of scale was not necessarily accurate to the feeling needed. Then the little chairs. I made blocks with a quarter circle cut from them, and painted them. I laid down a checker board with a two inch grid, the blocks were two inch square, and it did the goddamnedest thing. All of a sudden, because of the change in scale, the block colors, things began to happen. I began playing with dice, but still I didn't have a game in mind. It was a like a tool to help me make decisions about the piece.
            I played around with that for quite a while, nothing seemed to be changing, until it occurred to me it was a game. Just the thought--it became a whole different thing. Now I had the ability to interact through this thing with other people. Four sides to the board, four different colored chairs. I started asking people what they thought. Certain things were given--the dice would determine the moves.

And the object of the game is to get your chair on the square that corresponds to the reflected image in the glass...
The object of the game is to teach yourself to see. The object is to teach yourself to see what you are participating in, what you're doing. It's a game about observation. You have to see what you're doing, you have to identify what you see, and you have to make that information be assimilated in your mind in relationship to what to do next. That's what it's about. There's not...I don't see any losing in the game. It's not like chess or poker. Nobody gets anything, except the aesthetic experience of the sensuals, the visuals of making one reflection overlap the spatial relationship of another thing on the board.

Have you ever thought of your sculpture as having this kind of teaching function?
For me, sure, My work is my teacher.

It teaches you to see?
It teaches me what to do next. It teaches me what I did just before. It's the only credible source of information I have. It's the only thing that has any roots. It's the only things I can prove, without a shadow of doubt, came from a certain specific thing, and it happened because of this, this, and this. I can't, maybe, tell you why what I'm doing is what it is, but I can tell you why it's there and where it came from, just like I described the source of the game. It's the only thing I know anything about, really.
            [Rachel, who had missed her nap, raced into the kitchen and threw herself toward her father's lap. She missed and struck her head on the edge of the table. She screamed, and Bell took her into his arms, checked for damage, stroked the hurt head, and quickly calmed her. "I want a pomegranate, daddy," "That's just what I bought them for," he said.]
So you find a great deal of security in your work.
Well, not security, but confidence. Sometimes I'm pretty good, sometimes I can't even believe how good I am. Most of the time I'm in doubt about whether I really know what I'm doing. I can get through the day okay, but I'm not afraid of being challenged on the level of what I do. The only reason I'm so shy about getting involved in social scenes and politics is that I don't know about those things. I'm afraid when it comes to that.

In your talk in El Paso [at a minimal art symposium, spring, 1984] you referred to the studio as a sanctuary.
It is. I don't consider myself a religious person, but in the studio I see God everywhere. I don't need anything more than that. It's not that I'm getting religious or spiritual about any of that stuff. It's real. It's real stuff, just as real as some devout person whose whole life is devoted to the Bible. Now that my convictions are secure, about my credibility in doing these things, I'm not afraid to try and talk about them. I was for a long time.

Your pursuit of intuition is so involved with technology. I find that fascinating.
Well, it's less involved with technology than you might think. A lot of people think that my trip is about high tech stuff. It's not at all. My trip is about the sensuousness of vision. That's what my work is about. The tools I use are the only ones I know to change the way light interfaces with the surfaces I like, without changing the surface. I like the smooth quality of glass. I like the fact you can see through it, and it's reflective, and so on. I can change the quality of that surface anyway I want, but it will still be the same surface, and that's what the tools I use do. If I could do it with cottage cheese and balsa wood, I would. It would be a lot easier and cheaper, but I can't, and that's the way it is. As far as high tech goes, I don't know anything! I am a complete klutz on the technical level, as compared to my skill as an observer of the things I do with what I klutzed at. If you get my drift. One of the reasons I tooled up was I could never afford to have this surface treatment done industrially. Before I got into doing this stuff, I never held a wrench in my hand. I still forget which way to turn the nut. I'm not into that stuff just because there's a lot of buttons to push. I hate it. It's painfully noisy, it can be dangerous, in the sense that there's a lot of electricity around. It's heavy, a pain when minor things go wrong to find where the trouble is. The biggest threat I have working in Taos are the instantaneous power outages that happen when a cow scratches its ass on a utility pole!

I ask this question with some trepidation, but how is God manifested in the studio?
Well, I guess I would have to say, at the risk of sounding a little crazy, through the creative act. Those are the times when I feel closest to God. I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm not taking anything away from anybody, I'm putting forth the maximum amount of effort that I'm capable of, I think, and using all of the resources at my disposal, both physically and intellectually, that I was God-given, and that's what I do. I feel very responsible to those kinds of things. I'm not a religious person except for my dedication to my work. That's where my faith and strength come from.

[Rachel: "Daddy, I don't feel good." Bell: "Well, you better go lay down." No!" "Well, don't tell me about it. Maybe you have to go to the potty. That usually makes you feel a lot better."]

You're doing all the work on the games yourself. Why don't you get someone else to publish them?
I don't like involvements with people I do business with unless it's a collaboration. I don't have much faith in the system. I'm becoming convinced that it's not in my interest to be associated with the flow of art merchants' trips these days. I don't like the thrust of most of the work that's being shown. I feel like an old fuddy-duddy, but I don't see much depth in the work. I see the market growing, and the implication of that is essentially that the merchants are conjuring up stuff to fill a big, growing market. That's not art they're selling, it's art-type merchandise, and that's not good for any serious artist, and it's not fair to the honest public.

You once told me a story about Dord Fitz, the Amarillo dealer who occasionally brings tours to New Mexico, and the elderly farm woman who bought one of your pieces. That story seems to illustrate the best of what a dealer can do for an artist.
Mr. Fitz is a wonderful man, a complete lunatic of the highest order. I wish the world had more of him. The group he brings is a highly unlikely one from my experience--farmers and ranchers, a lot, widows, retired people, often living out in the Panhandle somewhere. The tradition of the importance of art out there is not very strong. One time he brought about 40 people to my studio--he calls everybody "honey," whether it's a six-foot-eight rancher or his wife. Anyway a slim little lady comes up to me and says hello, tells me she came through on the first trip with him, and bought a small vapor drawing from me. She had it hanging in her house, a farm-type house. She was a widow, must have been 75, but in good shape, nothing slow about her. The drawing was hanging in the parlor, across from this window where the light in late afternoon raked across and made the thing come alive, and she was so happy with it.
            Well, friends came over for coffee in the afternoon, and they would never mention it, but she felt it made her good friends uncomfortable. She knew they had seen it, so she moved it out into another room, her sewing room that had a window just like the one in the parlor, and she moved her favorite chair into that room and would go in there at that time of day and enjoy it. Then she decided the room was too cluttered, so she moved the sewing stuff into her bedroom, took everything out of the room except that drawing and her chair. When she doesn't have company in the afternoon, she goes in there, closes the door, and enjoys it. It was about the most touching compliment I ever got in my life. She got off on it, from the most unlikely background, and I will forever be in Mr. Fitz's debt for setting that up, because that again gives me a real feeling of credibility. That's what I want people to feel about my work, become engaged and like it and enjoy it for the sheer beauty of it and the sheer value of the meditation kinds of things that it allows them to go off on. My work is for the dreamers. It's to stimulate people's dreams.

November, 1984

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