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Los Angeles Artists: Larry Bell's Metalized Work

Lots of contemporary artists use industrial processes in art making.  Jeff Koons, Richard Serra and many others come to mind.  My challenge is to push industrial processes towards my explorations.  Usually, this means one-off creative choices that lie far away from the volume and conformity for which industrial processes are designed. New work pushes me towards reinvention of what I learned over 15 years of working with technology and machines to make art. That means starting over every time.


I’m inspired by the story of Larry Bell’s Kinney Vacuum-Coating Chamber from Ionic Research Labs. Bell solved the mismatch of his vision and commercially available industrial capabilities. He bought a coating technology machine that creates the signature metalizing effects for which his work is known. In 2005 I bought a CNC machine and learned to manipulate G code for complete creative control and current work requires the most challenging working processes to date.

The Getty's Pacific Standard Time catalogue tells it this way:

“Larry Bell’s works in glass utilize industrial coating processes to create works that are similarly concerned with the mechanics of perception.  Though the coating technologies that he would explore were developed in the aerospace industry, he was first inspired to use etched and mirrored glass while working at a commercial frame shop during his time at Chouinard.  Bell began using scrap pieces of glass to make shallow wooden shadow boxes, and, intrigued by the suggestion of volume provided by the glass, he soon incorporated pieces of glass into his paintings, ultimately abandoning canvas altogether to begin creating the cubic forms that would make up his work of the 1960s.

In Bell’s early cube works, he used coated glass panes fabricated to his specifications by a Los Angeles company; however, when several broke while in transit to New York for an exhibition at the Pace Gallery, Bell was forced to seek another source. This predicament brought the artist into contact with Ionic Research Labs, a Queens based novelty metalizer company that made Christmas tree baubles and top cap pistols. In 1966 inspired by the process of manufacture that he saw at Ionic Research, Bell purchased his own Kinney vacuum-coating chamber, which he transported to Los Angeles in 1967. The chamber allowed him to apply thin films of semitransparent substances to sheets of glass, using a process by which metals such as aluminum, chromium, rhodium, and silicon monoxide were vaporized inside the chamber and their particles deposited on the surface of the glass. Instrumental in Bell’s early engagement with the process was a copy of the classic textbook on the subject “Vacuum Deposition of Thin Films” by Leslie Holland, first published in 1956.

The results articulate the seemingly paradoxical simultaneity of surface and volume, containment and openness. They demonstrate the artist’s fascination with both the reflection and absorption of light and evince his interest in the possibilities opened up by the transparent and reflective and absorption of light and evince his interest in the possibilities opened up by the transparent and reflective qualities of glass. Bell’s works are concerned with the physicality of looking, rather than the production of symbolic meaning. Nicholas Wilder later described seeing one such work at Ferus his terms evoking Light and Space art to come: “You walk up to this cube that’s forty inches of smoked glass and you start inspecting it. And then what happens? In the refractions of the light the object is extended several meters out- and you. Your body is physically inside the parameters of the object you’re viewing. What has that done to you? Later works, produced in an even larger chamber, emphasize the phenomenological effects of reflective surfaces. In an untitled wall piece of 1967, Bell partially coated 10-foot-long glass strips of black and white glass with Inconel (a reflective nickel-chrome alloy) and hung them at intervals along a wall up to 25 feet long, producing striking optical effects that seem to dematerialize the wall as the viewer approaches.



For Bell, the noisy mess of machinery at Ionic Research Labs held more allure than the sterile environment of his previous glass fabricator, inspiring him to pursue a more physical engagement with the processes of making his work. Although artists like (Billy Al) Bengston and Bell drew from the techniques of industrial manufacture, they eschewed the cheap or disposable connotations of mass production the pervaded postwar consumer culture and that had widely informed critical understanding of pop on the East Coast. Rather than absenting the hand of the artist by using the machine, Finish Fetish objects reasserted the centrality of the craftsman, jas as more straightforward L. A. pop works did. John Coplans stated as much in 1966, when he included the work of Bell, Price, and McCracken in the exhibition of Five Lost Angeles Sculptors at the art gallery of the University of California, Irvine: “Essential to the realization of the acute formal relationships of the qualities of surface finish desired, “ Coplans wrote, “craftsmanship also serves to indefinitely maintain these effects”. 

Rebecca Peabody , Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art, 1945-1980 (Getty Research Institute; 1 edition (October 18, 2011) p. 169-170