In Search of a Feeling

With the opening at Dia:Beacon in upstate New York of a longterm installation by Larry Bell and a show of his new work at Hauser & Wirth London, Ursula magazine revisits an insightful conversation between Bell and curator Cliff Lauson

Larry Bell, 1986. Photo: Thomas P. Vinetz © Larry Bell

  • 6 December 2018

Larry Bell’s work reflects a lifelong investigation into the physical properties of light, the materials it hits, and the spaces in which to create work. Equally tangible is his passion for playing with those properties with reverence and a spontaneity that belies or even denies the impressively technical nature of his practice. On the occasion of ‘Larry Bell. Time Machines’ on view at ICA Miami, this interview with the artist, conducted by Cliff Lauson, has been excerpted from ‘Larry Bell,’ the definitive survey of Bell's career co-published by Hauser & Wirth Publishers and Rizzoli New York in 2018.

Cliff Lauson: To start, let’s go back a bit.

Larry Bell: Go anywhere you want.

CL: Art school for you seemed to be something that was very on and off—it wasn’t a wholly consistent experience.

LB: Well, no, I don’t think that’s correct. I think it was a very consistent experience. I just sensed that my place was not in school—that I should be applying myself in a studio manner rather than as a student. This was advice I got from one of my teachers, because I was a bit unhappy. He said, ‘Why are you letting yourself get so depressed? If being here is the problem, just leave and get a studio and see how it is.’ So I took his counsel and just never went back. I was about nineteen when I went into the studio, and I never came out.

CL: And going into the studio, those were painterly days for you?

LB: Yeah. I was doing a lot of oil painting. Acrylic paint had barely come on the market in those days, so I was painting on paper with oil paints. The paper was like a blotter—it sucked the oil right out of the pigment, and so things dried fast. It was quite convenient to work on paper. Plus, it was a lot cheaper than canvas. I didn’t have any money at all. The first studies on paper were essentially paintings of squares or shapes that followed the scale of the paper, and that was it. All that came out of a complete misinterpretation of what one of my teachers had said. He was a figure-drawing teacher. All around his room were students’ works from various periods in his career, and they all looked like they could have been done by one person. I realized that it was all this other work in the peripheral vision that influenced the direction of the drawings. This teacher would go on and on about the metaphysical aspects of drawing and so on, and he was talking about some kind of internal energy that allows you to control the flow of the imagery. As I interpreted it, he wasn’t talking about drawing the figure at all; it had to do with the sensibility of the line on the paper: if the paper was this shape, then the line that occupied the paper had to relate to this physical being. And then one day the teacher came over and asked me what I was doing. I explained to him that what he was talking about, some inner sensibility that comes out through the work, I interpreted as having nothing to do with the figure. And he recommended I go discuss this with a guy that the school had brought in as what he called an ‘aesthetic advisor.’ Anyway, I enjoyed meeting the guy and talking about these things, but one day I came home, and I was feeling really great because I’d had this meeting with the guy not too long before, and my roommate wanted to know why I was so chipper. I told him, ‘Well, I saw what’s his name today.’ And he said, ‘You saw who?’ And I said, ‘Steinberg.’ And he said, ‘What are you seeing him for?’ I said, ‘Well, Jefferson said he was an aesthetic advisor and he wanted to talk.’ He looked at me, and he said, ‘Aesthetic advisor, my ass. That guy’s a shrink the school hired to weed out the weirdos.’ I was devastated. I interpreted the whole thing as being taken for a ride. I went to my locker, picked up my stuff, and never went back. And that was the end of school.

‘Art schools don’t teach people how to be an artist; they give you a few tools that you can carry on with. When you get out of school, you’ve got to learn how to do everything yourself. Everything.’

CL: I suppose that’s what I meant when I said it was an up and down experience for you. Do you think in retrospect it was a necessary step to take?

LB: Well, I never went back. Art schools don’t teach people how to be an artist; they give you a few tools that you can carry on with. When you get out of school, you’ve got to learn how to do everything yourself. Everything. You have to learn how to do things that have never been done before, in a manner that’s never been used before, with materials that aren’t normally used for such expressions—so whatever comes out of you, whatever you externalize, is new and investigates different things. I began with the corners of the room. I brought those square paintings on paper into the studio, and then immediately I was working out of the corners of the room and finding myself being influenced by volumes that were present in the room—like above the area where I painted was a skylight, a rectangular shape, and I did a painting under it that was virtually an illustration of the volume of the skylight well.

CL: It’s really interesting that you’re talking about your having to leave art school to get going. But even at school you were thinking about how the work relates to its environment; you were already talking about an inner sensibility that was moving into abstraction rather than figurative work.

LB: Right. Some of my paintings had a lot of the influence of [Willem] de Kooning and [Yves] Klein. I liked the spontaneity those guys had. That was the most striking thing to me, how powerful spontaneity was. How do you control it so that the work is always spontaneous? That’s by allowing your intuition to make the decision. You just need to trust yourself. The rest will take care of itself.

CL: One of your earliest works, Untitled (Shadowbox) (1959), seems to be a turning point for you, both in terms of materials and perception. How did it come about?

LB: I got a job in a picture-framing shop, and the guy in the store sold these little boxes for people to put knickknacks and things in. I used to buy them really cheap from him, and I made little constructions out of them. The first one had a piece of blue paper, wrapping paper, and I put a piece of glass in it and scored it, so that when I broke it, it made this interesting line. And if you look closely, you’ll see that above the line is the reflection of the line, below the line is the shadow of the line, and in between is the line itself. The three elements were fused together as one dramatic thing in this container. This was a mind-blowing piece for me—that the simplicity of it could deliver so many things to look at. And that started my romance with volumes, illustrations of volumes, and things that contain the sense of volume.

Installation view, ‘Larry Bell. Time Machines’, ICA Miami, Miami FL, 2018 © Larry Bell

Larry Bell, Pacific Red, 2017. Installation view, Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York NY, 2017. Photo: Timothy Schenck © Larry Bell

CL: I like that the enigmatic nature of this very simple break in the glass is what you went on to explore for the rest of your career. It was both accidental and deliberate—scoring the glass had caused it to break, and then you continued to work through the different ways of breaking glass.

LB: It was thrilling. That kind of simple discovery. It all seemed very logical to me that this was the direction to go in. I started using mirrors I bought at a cheap drugstore. I wanted to have a mirrored pattern, so that meant I had to scrape away the mirroring in areas where I didn’t want mirroring. In one piece, the patterns that you saw on the outside were reflective also on the inside. That meant I had to make two pieces exactly the same and put them back-to-back to get it mirrored on both sides. The scraping away was such a pain in the ass, I said there had to be a better way of getting this kind of design; I wanted to find a way of getting through that kind of stuff more easily. And then I came across the technique of vacuum plating.

CL: When you were scraping off the mirrored finish, were you trying to remove the traces of your hand as well?

LB: I was trying to. I wasn’t good enough at it. I kept making mistakes and more mistakes and scratching away at this stuff. And I was impatient with it; it took too long. How can you be spontaneous and improvisational and intuitive when you have to noodle on something forever to get there?

CL: So what was it about trying to preserve an industrial or a machined look in the work?

LB: I don’t know. I think it had something to do with wanting not to make anything that had a texture to it. You can buy a piece of glass just about anywhere, and it’ll be finished—it’s a finished piece of material. What you do with it should also have that feeling; that was my thought at the time. Then there were also the references to corners and volumes and so on. If I were to ask you, ‘What’s the single most powerful element in this room?,’ what is it?

CL: Architecturally?

LB: I defy you to count the number of right-angle relationships that impinge on your peripheral vision in this room. You can’t do it; there are too many. That was the key. When I realized that—that there was this extraordinary tyrant forcing me to feel these things—I had to get it out. And so the cubes were born really as a response to the corners that I worked in. As the cubes evolved, the idea got to be to get rid of the extra stuff. So I eliminated the patterns that I thought had some kind of mystical quality to them and began just trying to create a gradient out of each corner, so that there was a shape of whitish light that appeared to float. If you look at the wall, you’ll notice that it’s a little bit darker right in the fold. Every place has a gradient. Wherever you go, you’re always walking from light to dark and being influenced by the gradients of a space. There it was.

CL: Tell me more about that interior light. You could achieve it by using a mirror or by coating or not coating certain areas. So the cubes were intended to hold an inner light.

LB: That’s why I like the feeling in the room with the big pieces [at Bell’s 2018 exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in Zurich]— there’s a feeling that the light is emanating from the piece itself. So the source of what is being scrutinized, looked at, visually massaged, is the light itself.

CL: Is there a point when light, rather than the glass of the mirror, becomes the material?

LB: Well, when you perceive it as such, I guess.

Larry Bell, Time Machine, 2002. Installation view, ‘Larry Bell. Time Machines’, ICA Miami, Miami FL, 2018 © Larry Bell

Installation view, ‘Larry Bell. Time Machines’, ICA Miami, Miami FL, 2018 © Larry Bell

CL: You often come back to the optical qualities of glass, mirror, or coated glass as a kind of halfway medium.

LB: Well, glass does several things at once: it transmits light, it reflects light, and it absorbs light. Those are the inherent qualities of the material itself. Changing the coating changes one aspect of it: it makes it more absorbent or more transmissive or more reflective. One thing changes everything. And I like that kind of voodoo. But it’s something you have to feel when you see it. If you don’t feel it, then it’s meaningless.

CL: It seems like it’s also contingent on the viewer, and how the viewer sees or looks.

LB: The orientation of the light, your personal prejudice, what you ate for breakfast … all of those things are factors in one’s ability to accept what’s there and get off on it.

CL: So you also presented those early cubes on Perspex plinths?

LB: The first ones were on metal bases, actually. I had a dealer named Irving Blum, who was partners with Walter Hopps in the Ferus Gallery. Irving was big on Art Deco stuff, so he designed some bases to hold these pieces. And, in fact, they were quite good, because they got the piece up to five feet high or so, and they had a clear glass plate on the top, so light could come up from the bottom as well as from the other five sides— the ambient light flowed through and up from the bottom. And then I went to the plexi because there was a kind of a cross bar in the steel, in the top plate, that I ended up not liking. We made some solid regular glass ones, some clear glass pedestals. And they were a bitch, because they weighed too much and they broke and chipped. So, finally, we went to acrylic, and that worked just fine. The acrylic was very clear, whereas the glass had been green. They were lightweight and they were strong and they did the job, and they weren’t terribly expensive.

CL: What about the lighting conditions? Was the idea to replicate the way you had the work lit in the studio in the gallery?

LB: No, I wasn’t that concerned about what happened with the work. All I wanted to do was to get through each one and have this intimate relationship with the piece up close, fussing with it. My thing was cleaning it so that when you looked at it, you didn’t see anything. That was sort of like my chiseling away at marble. Some of the older ones now have a patina on the interior, and it’s getting so beautiful; they’re starting to opalize.

CL: Even though you came to this on your own, in retrospect writers often make reference to the Light and Space movement. A shared aspect of this group working in and around la at the time is often referred to as ‘Finish Fetish.’ What do you think of these groupings of artists?

LB: Well, if there’s no light, you can’t see anything, and you need space—so everybody uses light and space. Nobody who’s an artist isn’t involved in light and space, as far as I’m concerned. If it’s totally conceptual, then you just have to listen to them talk; there is no evidence that’s physical. I like making things. I like the tactile aspects of turning switches and running equipment and playing with surfaces and so on. I like it. The thrift of not having to do that is great. But I’m addicted to wanting something tangible in front of me for the amount of sweat I’ve put into it. Minimalism was another trip I never really felt I was part of. I was put around people like Donald [Judd] and [Robert] Morris and [Ellsworth] Kelly—all great artists. But the fact that I put things on a pedestal meant that I couldn’t be a Minimalist; I had to be something else, whatever it was. The other thing is that I was rather isolated in my younger days, because I was born with something called hereditary nerve degeneration in my ears. I had a forty percent deficit across the audible spectrum in both ears, and it was not diagnosed until I was forty-six. So I went through a whole period of my orientation to the world short of facts, which I think helped me. It certainly eliminated a lot of distractions; it kept me from trying to be too intellectual about what it was all about. And the manifesto kind of thing—‘Do this a certain way’ or ‘Believe in this’ — I escaped because I couldn’t really understand it. I didn’t hear it, and I didn’t read very much either.

‘Presumably some artists went and spent their earnings on shiny new cars. But Larry went and bought a vacuum deposition machine.’

CL: Where did you find inspiration, then, in your younger days?

LB: It just came out of things. If anything, it was the passion of my friends doing their thing that inspired me more than anything else. I hung out with a group of people who wouldn’t tolerate anybody they were close to copying them or being too directly influenced by them. You had to make stuff in a manner different to everybody, made out of stuff that wasn’t normally used for making art. And you had to trust your direction.

CL: So there was a moment when you discovered the vacuum deposition process, and that was totally new?

LB: Right. The deposition equipment is a kind of gadget, sort of like a camera. A camera is a nice gadget—it’s got little switches and things you look at and so on. The first coater was sort of like that too. You threw switches and turned dials and looked through a little window and watched what was happening. It was a very sensual experience. Plus, you had to massage the surfaces [you wanted to coat] really well to clean them, so you got to know them. I have never seen a perfect piece of glass in my life. Every piece I have ever handled has had some kind of flaw in it. But still, [with the deposition equipment] it was finished. It couldn’t have been any nicer to use.

CL: I’m interested to hear you describe the process as sensual because it’s extremely industrial as well.

LB: It’s just a feeling you have, you know. I don’t know how to describe a feeling: sometimes you feel elated and sometimes you feel sad, and sometimes you feel depressed and sometimes you feel happy. But the fulfillment of a project—it made me feel good. It was a sensual feeling. That’s what I look for in what I do.

CL: And what about the experimental nature of it? You’re saying that sometimes it’s a high, but sometimes it must just come out completely wrong?

LB: I really don’t care how it comes out. The only thing I care about is how honest I’ve been with my approach. Was I thinking about something that I shouldn’t have been thinking of when I was doing this? It shows up in the work. If the work attained a certain kind of resolution—if it didn’t have clumsy parts to it, and when you looked at it you felt satisfied that all the conditions of it were resolved—it made me feel good.

CL: What were some of those conditions?

LB: Well, that the coating did the right thing, that it created an interesting shape. Sometimes it was necessary to walk around a piece a bunch of times to decide the orientation. I used to think it didn’t make any difference which part was on the bottom, but in fact I found that it made a difference in just about all of them. I can’t tell you why. It’s just a feeling.

CL: There was a point when you were having the vacuum deposition work done by someone else, and then you went and bought your own machine.

LB: Everybody was sure I was crazy. And I was sort of crazy, actually.

CL: Presumably some artists went and spent their earnings on shiny new cars. But Larry went and bought a vacuum deposition machine.

LB: Yeah, I wanted to do some bigger pieces. So the first vacuum I had, I purchased in New York in 1965. A guy came and taught me a bit about how it worked.

Larry Bell Working at the Taos Studio, 1980. Photo: Walter Chappell © Larry Bell

Larry Bell with Hydrolux (1986) at Boise Art Museum, 1986. Photo: Thomas P. Vinetz © Larry Bell

CL: This was after you’d moved from the West Coast, when you were in New York?

LB: Yeah, I had a studio at 333 East Ninth Street, and that’s where I learned the basics of how the system worked. The first cubes that I made were done in New York.

CL: But then you moved back to Venice Beach. Did you have to leave the equipment in New York?

LB: No, I moved it to Venice. I had started missing Venice Beach too much. I had made great friends in New York— really loved these people. Frank Stella, Neil Williams, John Chamberlain—there were all these great people I really enjoyed hanging around with. I just never really got into cold weather. Venice of the mid-1960s was nothing like the Venice of today. It was such a nasty neighborhood. Nobody wanted to live around there. You could buy a house in the canals for two thousand bucks. There were no commercial businesses at all. Every store was empty because it was too dangerous. Not even a restaurant at the beach.

CL: But there was an enclave there, right? I mean, you artists were all there.

LB: Yeah, and [Billy Al] Bengston, Ken Price, [Robert] Irwin …

CL: Doug Wheeler has a studio there.

LB: Wheeler is on the next street, and [James] Turrell was around. It was cheap. Forty bucks a month for three thousand square feet, on the ocean. I came back and moved into just about the same place I was in before.

CL: That was on Market Street?

LB: Yeah. And then when I moved to New Mexico in the early 1970s, I moved there lock, stock, and barrel. I took the equipment and moved it to Taos. I didn’t know whether I was stepping out of the cosmos or not; I just wanted a more normal kind of scene.

CL: When I visited you in Taos, you were showing me the machine. I asked you how you learned to do this, and you pulled a book off the shelf, which was The Vacuum Deposition of Thin Films.

LB: The guy who sold me the first coater in New York, he gave me that book. He said, ‘You start on page one.’ He was right.

CL: So you were largely self-taught? What about the scientific side of it? That’s not a book for easy reading.

LB: It depends on how interested you are in the thing. If you don’t understand what you’re reading, read it again a couple more times until you’re thoroughly positive you don’t understand it or something comes through to you. You just make one step. When that something comes through, you’ve assimilated something that you use and vary it a little bit for the next step. Until you have just a little bit of personal evidence that you’re understanding a direction for yourself with this tool; you’re going somewhere together. It’s not so different from playing the guitar. If you do it every day, you have chops. And if you don’t do it every day, you lose your chops.

CL: What you describe—it’s almost like the scientific experimental method of testing cause and effect.

LB: It’s not particularly scientific; it’s very matter-of-fact. The simplest way to describe it is as the thermal brute-force evaporation of various materials in an environment that has no air. That’s the scientific part of it. What the gases are made up of is something you learn on the way through getting them out of there. How the gases react to other gases that you might bleed in—all of that stuff is very tangible. You can see it. If you ionize nitrogen, it has a red color inside there. If you ionize oxygen, it has a yellowish kind of color in there. Blue water makes a blue plasma. All that just sort of happens, and you watch it through a window.

CL: You describe it very matter-of-factly, but there’s also what you once called the voodoo aspect of it—the magic. Because you see the results afterward, but it happens at an atomic level. It’s also the closest thing that you can get to outer space, right? You’ve got a bit of space in your studio.

LB: There’s very little air, yeah. We try to get the pressure as low as possible so that the molecules of the residual gases in the vessel don’t collide with the molecules that you’re evaporating and wanting to go on the surface. You want to get the gases as low as possible, the surface as clean as possible, and then do the evaporation so that the coatings go down onto a surface that will allow them to stick. Sometimes the coatings are soft; usually, that’s a factor of the tank being dirty. And sometimes the coatings are hard but they don’t stick; that’s a factor of the surface not being clean enough. It’s pretty straightforward. It’s hard to put a piece of Scotch tape on something that’s wet.

CL: So, by 1969, you had graduated from your first vacuum deposition machine to a bigger one. You had the capability now to do panels.

LB: The reason I got into it was that I didn’t think that the cubes were big enough to be considered important efforts. They might have really taken a lot of time and effort to make, but when they were finished they looked really simple. Nothing about them, in my mind, belied what a pain in the ass they were to make. So I decided that I wanted to try and make things that were bigger, that operated not in your foveal vision alone, but in your peripheral vision as well. It was quite simple to open up the cubes and just work with the right angles. That is all a cube is—a bunch of right angles put together. Changing the scale of those things and working with clear and mirrored corners that just stood on the floor—they had quite a powerful statement to them. They weren’t containers; they were just corners. Sometimes they were walls, but the wall was made of corners.

CL: Once you’d liberated yourself from the six-sided cube, you now had freestanding corners, standing walls, and open-ended rooms. And then you added a triangle to the mix as well. So you had all sorts of potential by combining different shapes and forms.

Installation view, Larry Bell, Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, 1965. Photo: Frank J. Thomas © Larry Bell

LB: It was a great opportunity to take a step into another dimension, figuratively and literally. There was, again, a sensuousness to making these things; it really was physical. I got off on grunting those things around. I might make a huge piece, but none of the components of the piece were bigger than my physical limitations. In other words, the height was determined by how high I could jump and touch at that time of my life. The width was limited by how far I could reach. And the weight of each part did not exceed the amount of weight that I could lift. That was what determined the size of the equipment that I had built. And not knowing exactly what I was going to do, it was pretty crazy to buy that big thing. But it proved itself endlessly valuable to me for experimenting with things. I never could have afforded to hire the kind of business that would have done that process for me. It was much cheaper to build the equipment and drag it into my own place and mess with it than it was to try to hire a company that was capable of following my instructions.

CL: So through the late 1960s and into the 1970s, you were not just experimenting with the glass—the size of pane and the coatings—but you were also making all sorts of other kinds of work. There was the architectural work with the tilted walls, Leaning Room, and Hydrolux, a video projection on a cascade of water. You were exploring multiple directions simultaneously.

LB: I had a friend who was a life scientist with Garrett Air Research, and he told me about a tribe somewhere that had the ability to stop the flow of blood when they went into battle just by willing it. They didn’t need a Band-Aid to stop from bleeding to death; they just made it stop. Well, I was impressed with that story. I was doing these experiments in this low-light room I had built in my studio, and it occurred to me that if you could learn to feel the muscles that control the dilation of the pupils, you could walk into a dark space and just make your eyes open up so you could see. But you had to know what it felt like. So we built these black spaces, and I put some reflective rods on the far side of the space. The floor was black, the ceiling was black, the walls were black. There was no light whatsoever in there except what spilled into the space from a piece of white tape; where the ceiling and the wall came together, there was a two-inch strip of tape that had a light focused on it from around the corner. I put these glass tubes into the room—just hung them so they went across the wall. And the idea was that my assistant would change the position of these rods. What I was doing was looking for the reflection of those rods in this black space. All we saw was the white tape. And it appeared as just a tiny little thin line of light floating in this black space. Once you saw it, there was no mistaking what it was. As you stepped into the space to walk toward the line, you were actually moving away from the source of the light. That meant that the line moved away from you exactly the same amount that you moved, until you banged your head on the wall at the end.

CL: You were also in a three-man show at the Tate in 1970.

LB: With Irwin and Wheeler.

CL: Was that similarly environmental?

LB: It was exactly the same piece except that the shape of the room was different—and it didn’t work. We did everything with the same rules, but the room was a rotunda. We built walls to contain this thing; we put the tape line up as it had been before. But you couldn’t see it because I had some black cloth stretched tight below it—you couldn’t see it directly, and I was counting on the rods hanging in the center of the space to reflect that white line and appear to be floating. It didn’t work. I was standing there with my thumb up my ass trying to figure out how I’d screwed up. And, finally, I was just very despondent and I walked out of the gallery, and I kicked something out of the way that was lying on the floor in front of me. And there was the line—it was reflected on the floor. It wasn’t out there floating; it was in this terrazzo floor. What an incredible discovery. I was looking up there for it when all the time I was looking in the wrong place. It was such an extraordinary revelation to me.

CL: Did you have to modify it then?

LB: I didn’t have to do anything. It had been working from the minute we did the whole thing. So the glass rods didn’t mean anything in that environment. I got some funny press on that, I remember. ‘Artist turns lights off at Tate.’

CL: In terms of the environment and responding to the environment, I wonder if we could talk about the largescale glass works. There are a number of them that mutate. They change depending on where they’re going— responding to the space, picking up the architecture of galleries, of the environment.

LB: The whole idea of getting into the walls was to extend what I was doing into another dimension, so it was satisfying in that I made the change, and they definitely were significant changes. The walls were spontaneous, improvisational, intuitive, and so on. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to show them—there are a lot of institutions that have been interested in showing these things.

CL: Some of your works are actually named or subtitled ‘An Improvisation.’ It almost seems as if you show up with a deck of cards, a deck of glass panels, and then you just decide in situ …

Larry Bell, The Cat, 1981. Installation view, ‘Larry Bell. Time Machines’, ICA Miami, Miami FL, 2018 © Larry Bell

LB: Well, The Cat (1981) was one. The cat analogy was simple: a cat has nine lives, and I figured out nine different ways of installing those parts. For The Iceberg, there were fifty-six parts. That meant that the number of possible configurations was a factor of fifty-six, so at any given installation, you’re only seeing a tip of the piece—a tip of the iceberg. So they were kind of poetic metaphors, but they were the best I could do.

CL: You were talking earlier about perception and peripheral vision, and now The Iceberg is a work that sweeps left and right. Still, what you’re seeing is only one part of something much bigger, or a conceptual configuration of the way that the piece can be put together.

LB: That’s exactly what I wanted to do, to have that feeling of making it important. If someone stuck their head into one of the cubes, they would find an endless variety of relationships between the right angles. But you’d have to get your head inside, and that meant that you couldn’t do it. Opening them up allowed you to go in.

CL: What about your palette of glass? If you look at an artist like Dan Flavin, for example, his palette was limited to the bulbs he could buy at the shop down the street from his studio in New York. What defines your palette, your materials?

LB: Well, it’s similar to his. The glass I used was just regular glass, window glass, available anywhere; it’s not very expensive. There were people who knew how to polish edges so you could miter them and get them with nice square corners and so on. It’s a very workable material, and it has a shelf life of three million years. What else do you need? It had all the voodoo inherent in it to make stuff that would be quite different from anything else.

‘As far as I’m concerned, everything is an experiment. One thing leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another. Some of them are better than others, simply because they have a more finished feeling to them. And some of them don’t have that finished feeling, and they’re still better than others. So there is no loss in whatever I choose to work with.’

CL: Have you ever been involved with the production of the glass?

LB: On a trip to France, I got invited to a Saint-Gobain factory where glass was made, and it was fascinating. But I didn’t want to get into that—I was just fascinated by the vastness of what it takes to make glass and how ubiquitous it is in our society. It exists everywhere.

CL: Do you think glass is the mainstay of your practice? Or is it just one part of a whole?

LB: Well, paper was a good material for the vapor drawings. I had a fairly extensive library of engineering books on the technologies related to coating thin films, but none of the books talked about coating paper. So I was out there; I had this tool, and I found myself doing something that nobody had ever done before. It made me feel really good to play with it. I started working so fast, there was work just falling off my hands. There were a lot of rejects, but I had put a hell of a lot of work into those rejects. That’s when I decided to start tearing them up and combining things to get somewhere new and not waste the energy that had been put into the stuff. I was so happy to have made that decision, because there was so much stuff left over from experiments that was good-looking but had a problem somewhere. I could easily tear that problem away and combine it with something else and make these little things that I’d never seen before— images that didn’t transmit light, but reflected and absorbed it as the glass did. The light differentials across the surface of the paper really depended on what the surface quality of the paper was. If you look at it under a glass, you see that the paper is like a lawn; it’s got little hairs.

CL: Fibers.

LB: Right. And the way different papers are made determines how different that surface is, because they all have hair on them, and what that hair does when it faces the vapor stream is amazing.

CL: Again, it’s seemingly magical as it’s something you can’t really see. It’s microscopic.

LB: Yeah, you can’t see it if you get up close to it, but you step back from the work and all of a sudden it becomes a cohesive thing. That just added to the magic for me; I was totally infatuated with it. And I was doing things like weaving the light into the paper by creating gradients, where lines dissolved into each other. Every one was different, and every one was interesting. I couldn’t do anything that wasn’t interesting—at least to me. Each thing I did took me to the next thing. There was no end: when I got bored, the imagery was gone and it was time to move on to another kind of imagery.

CL: What was the duration of the vapor drawing process? How long did you have to wait to see what you’d done?

LB: About an hour. It was really fast. Plus, the tank was huge; I could have a lot of stuff in there and experiment on different things at a time. One hour might give me fifteen different pieces of evidence of the activity in the tank. Every position in it collected the molecules in a different manner, so there was no end to the amount of diversity. That was just part of the wonder of the whole thing.

CL: Beyond glass, you have also made different kinds of work on paper—the collages and the Fractions.

LB: As far as I’m concerned, everything is an experiment. One thing leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another. Some of them are better than others, simply because they have a more finished feeling to them. And some of them don’t have that finished feeling, and they’re still better than others. So there is no loss in whatever I choose to work with.

CL: I want to come back to light. We’ve been talking about artificial light, and your outdoor projects also involve sunlight. How do you think of light as a source, as a medium?

LB: I think of light as a material I can get for free. I can use it as casually or as formally as I want, and there’s no end to the amount of it that I have access to. If I’m doing something where there’s a physical object that wants to incorporate itself in some manner, engaging the ambient light—I look for those kinds of opportunities. Because that’s my game: I find the place that has the most interesting options and then go after milking it dry. I forced myself to think of shows, or of gallery spaces, as extensions of the studio, because it was the only way I could fit into a commercial arena without hating myself. I didn’t want to be part of all that shit. I wanted success, I wanted money, I wanted everything everybody wants, but I didn’t want to fuck with the scene; I mistrusted it. The only people I trusted were my immediate friends, because most of them were my mentors and my peers and teachers. I was very lucky. They were just there, and would volunteer only honest opinions—wouldn’t give you an opinion unless you asked for it, then you’d get what they really felt.

CL: Moving then, from light to sound: You’ve loved guitars your whole life, and have a formidable collection. For you, how do the worlds of music and visual art overlap?

LB: Well, when I went off to art school I liked folk music, all acoustical sound—no electric stuff with regular amplification. I liked the simplicity of the idea of being a troubadour. Playing a twelve-string guitar resonates much more than a six-string and it plays louder, so with my hearing problem I could hear it. And that’s what meant a lot to me, because I liked the feeling of being in the rhythm that I created for myself. They’re two different kinds of sensate experiences that have engaged me over the years. One is the physical act of making things, making an object. You might say, ‘Well, that makes you a sculptor.’ I’m not sure if I’m a sculptor. I’m not even sure if I’m an artist. I only know that if I keep my hands busy and keep doing stuff, I introduce myself to new things that I haven’t seen before. That’s the bottom line, to be able to constantly be engaged in something new for me.

‘Larry Bell. Time Machines’ is on view from 1 November 2018 – 10 March 2019 at Institute of Contemporary Art Miami, Miami FL.