A pioneer of the Light and Space movement, Larry Bell is known for his ability to toy with the viewer’s perception. He has long been fascinated with the properties of glass and its ability, to paraphrase the artist, to reflect, transmit and absorb light. Historically, Bell’s sculptural works embraced a formal geometry, ranging in size from discreet objects to immersive installations, from glass cubes to freestanding configurations of six-by-six foot glass panels meeting at right angles. Treated with translucent metallic film at the artist’s Taos-based studio to enhance the medium’s natural tendencies, Bell’s sculptural works both react to and transform the space in which they dwell. The current exhibition at Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University allows the viewer to appreciate the range of Bell’s manipulations, from his early works to the recent translucent Light Knots and prismatic “vapor drawings.”
Although a retrospective, with works on the second floor dating as early as 1959, the artist’s recent works take center stage at the current exhibition. Filling the entire first room, Pacific Red II (2017), is a striking introduction to the exhibition. Bell’s trademark cube has been broken apart, fractured and re-arranged into a series of six nested chevrons, consisting of six-foot-square red glass panels meeting at right angles. The vibrant red hues a sharp contrast to the understated translucence of the earlier manifestations of the maze-like installations, but the crimson surface that first attracts our attention soon dissolves to other concerns. Though not immediately apparent, slight variations in the opacity of the red metallic film distorts the viewer’s perception; reflections, shadows, and objects alternately disappear and reappear as one traverses the seemingly simple installation. In the main exhibition space are two discreet bodies of work. Hanging on the walls are recent examples from the artist’s series of “vapor drawings,” two-dimensional collaged works of with layered papers, treated with a similar metallic dust. Prismatic and engaging, the sensual abstract shapes reference both the female torso and silhouettes of acoustic guitars (Picasso, eat your heart out). Suspended from the ceiling, a series of Light Knots echo the curvilinear forms of the surrounding collages. Crafted from polyester film, treated with aluminum and silicon monoxide, they capture the color and light from the environment—the light, the room and its inhabitants—while also reflecting light and casting shadows onto the surrounding walls. Contrasted against the earlier works on view, this exhibition makes clear the artist’s conscious dedication to a singular pursuit and the varied aesthetic experience that results.