Man and Machine
For the fourth film in our Material series, Larry Bell takes us inside his studio in Taos, New Mexico, to talk about his work with glass, metals and other materials to create ethereal effects of light, mass and volume in sculpture. For more than half a century, Bell has pioneered the use of the vacuum tank to achieve these ends, which he describes as “improbable surfaces.”
My work with glass began very simply, as far as methods went. I was making pieces that required a mirror, and I was buying little mirrors from the Thrifty Drug store around the corner from my studio for a buck and a half. Then I would mask off the back of the mirror into a pattern that I wanted and scrape away the mirroring. It was very arduous. And what I really wanted was a piece of glass that was a mirror on both sides, glass that both transmitted light and reflected light.
Somebody mentioned something to me called a front-surface mirror, which was used in photography, in cameras. And so I went to the yellow pages of the Los Angeles phone book and found a guy in Burbank who made front-surface mirrors. I went out to his little shop said, “Can you make a piece of glass reflective on both sides?” He reached under the counter and put a four-inch-square piece of glass down, and I picked it up, and it was exactly what I wanted. His business was basically making optical devices for the film industry. His main client was Disney Studios, but he was willing to do the things that I wanted and he was curious about where I was coming from, what I was up to. I was all of twenty-three or twenty-four at the time, just operating on instinct.
“I said, ‘Okay, when do I get my first lesson on how to use this thing?’ In his thick German accent, he said: ‘Right now.’ And he reached into his overcoat and pulled out a book called Vacuum Deposition of Thin Films and stuck it in my gut and said, ‘You start on page one.’ And then he left.”—Larry Bell
I ended up doing a whole series of work for a show at the Pace Gallery in New York in 1965. And in the adventure of getting things shipped to New York, several pieces broke in transit. We had plenty of time before the show opened, and it occurred to me we might be able to fix some of the work if we could find fabricators who dealt with glass the way the guy in L.A. did. And so I went right back to the yellow pages and found Benjamin Koenig in the Bronx, on Longfellow Avenue. He used exactly the same process but for completely different ends. He was a decorative metallizer. He made stuff like Christmas tree ornaments and toy cap pistols, plating the plastic to look like chrome. And what was funny was that the name of his company—which did all this very commercial work on low-end consumer items like Christmas tree ornaments and toy cap pistols—was Ionic Research Labs. Koenig had been a professor teaching spectroscopy in New York but at some point he quit academia and went into the commercial industry. He was a lovely guy, very kind to me. He said at one point: “I can’t imagine how much you’re paying your guy in L.A. to do this kind of work. You know, you should do it yourself and save money and be able to experiment.”
Well, I knew nothing about mechanics or electronics or machinery. I can’t remember ever even holding a wrench in my hand. But I thought about it. The Pace show was extremely successful. I mentioned to the gallery that this man recommended getting my own equipment and had a used vacuum tank that he said he would sell me for not very much money. The gallery said yes, and I bought the tank and found a little place on the Lower East Side. Koenig came when they delivered the tank. I remember there was a big blizzard in New York that day, and I said, “Okay, when do I get my first lesson on how to use this thing?” In his thick German accent, he said: “Right now.” And he reached into his overcoat and pulled out a book called Vacuum Deposition of Thin Films and stuck it in my gut and said, “You start on page one.” And then he left. So here I am with this book that I had no idea what it meant and this piece of equipment that I had no idea what to do with. Koenig called me two days later saying, “Don’t be mad at me. It’s just that New York can be very hard on people who are as positive as you and I thought you needed a lesson. I’ve got a guy who has worked for me for years. He’s going to come and show you how it all works.” And that was my beginning of my work with tanks.
I became hooked. I was just enchanted by it all. It was a whole other world of things I’d never known anything about. I started to learn about chemistry and physics and optics. It was wonderful. It was incredible. The fellow who came to teach me was an outpatient from a tuberculosis sanitarium, not in very good shape. But he was very good at what he did, and he came twice a week to teach me. The early tank was totally mechanical. All the valves had to be opened and closed by hand according to a procedure that you had to follow religiously or it didn’t work. The ritual was absolutely riveting. The machine was the Fountain of Youth for me, the Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Around that time, a couple of things happened that made it impossible for me to stay in New York. One was the black-out in 1965 and the other was the blizzard of 1966. As much as I loved hanging out in New York, I realized: I’m not a New Yorker. I can’t take weather like this, conditions like this. All I could think of was getting out and getting back to Venice Beach and so I went back to California.
Eventually, with the process, I wanted to make bigger things, and I knew I would need a bigger tank. I started writing to companies. By that time, I knew a little bit of the jargon, how to request information, how to be taken seriously, but it was still difficult, as an artist, to deal with people who really only spoke to other industrial people. Finally, I located a company in England called Edwards High Vacuum. I wrote to them about what I wanted. They wrote me back a very nice letter saying, “We’re sure Edwards can build anything you want. But you have to be able to explain exactly what you want the potential of the equipment to be.” Basically the entire system of doing what I do is using a bottle that we can pull all the air out of. There are things that can be done with metals and surfaces inside an environment that contains no air that cannot be done in the presence of air. Simple as that. I was very clear with the company how versatile a tank had to be for my purposes, and they came up with a proposal and a price. Essentially, the parts of the tank couldn’t be wider than I could reach and couldn’t be taller than I could jump and touch because I needed to be able to work with the materials myself. The tank was built to a size that related to my body.
They made me a tank from stainless steel because I was working in Venice Beach, and I didn’t want the tank to rust. The system cost me $68,000 plus another $12,000 to move it from where it was manufactured, in upstate New York, near Buffalo, to California and set it up. It had the ability to pump down to 1/100th of one micron of air. At those low pressures, it allows us to evaporate metals at high temperatures so that they keep their natural crystalline structure and coat surfaces as a thin film that provides optical qualities. It’s possible to change those optical qualities by both layering various films together and doing the plating in various reactive gases that change the molecular structure of the material. I first started using aluminum and silicon monoxide, which is one atom of oxygen short of being quartz. The materials became very important to me because I could manipulate them to interfere with light at various wavelengths and get color out them. I’d get the metals the same way a manufacturer would get them, from companies like Union Carbide.
“My stuff had to function only visually, whereas industries usually needed more robust kinds of coating. All I cared about was: What does it look like? And ultimately, that’s still all I care about. I wanted to use materials that were readily available everywhere, and I wanted to use them improbably.”—Bell
My stuff had to function only visually, whereas industries usually needed more robust kinds of coating. All I cared about was: What does it look like? And ultimately, that’s still all I care about. I wanted to use materials that were readily available everywhere, and I wanted to use them improbably. Glass, for example, is everywhere. You can’t be in a place that doesn’t have some glass in it somewhere. So you can get it everywhere. And it’s not terribly expensive. So it’s a perfect material for the kind of stuff that I’m interested in exploring. The thing I love about glass is that it reflects light, transmits light and absorbs light, all at the same time. And you can play with those three little things very subtly and change things and makes surfaces improbable. It’s not a boxing match with materials. I’m just looking for a flow of energy transference. The energy that makes me work has to flow out and create evidence of that flow.
My old tank is now fifty-three years old, and it’s operating as if it was new. In 1975, when I started spending a lot of time in Taos, we moved it out here and built the studio around it. And since then we’ve been constantly renovating it to make it more efficient and make it do new things. It’s a great piece of machinery. I have a lot of affection for it. But at the end of the day it’s just a tool. And what I ultimately want to get from it is something ineffable. I count on spontaneity. I count on improvisation. I count on intuition. It’s not so different from somebody who’s working with oil paint or video or sculptural materials or any other kind of medium. The key is trust. You have to trust where you’re going and where you’re coming from. And if you do that, your intuition and your spontaneity and your improvisation will do the rest.
—as told to Randy Kennedy in Taos, New Mexico, June 27, 2023
Larry Bell is one of the most renowned and influential artists to emerge from the Los Angeles art scene of the 1960s. Known for his refined surface treatment of glass and his explorations of light, reflection and shadow, Bell embraces a practice that extends from painting and works on paper to glass sculptures and furniture design. Since 1969, his studio has developed a high-vacuum system for coating thin metal films onto materials, creating ethereal effects of light and color.
Kalen Goodluck is a photographer and investigative journalist from Albuquerque, New Mexico. He covers Indigenous Affairs, public health, law enforcement and extremism.
Shaandiin Tome is a recognized filmmaker from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her breakout, award-winning short film Mud (Hashtł’ishnii) premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2018, with foreign debut showings worldwide elevating her as a writer/director. While working on her path as an evolving filmmaker, she has directed multiple narrative-shifting short documentaries.