Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

A major artist hiding in plain sight

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In 2004, then-MOCA curator Ann Goldstein organized “A Minimal Future? Art as Object, 1958-68.” The museum described the show as “the first large-scale historical examination in America of the emergence of minimal art in the late 1950s through the 1960s.”

On the occasion of the exhibition, I asked Goldstein, now the director of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, who the most under-examined artist of the period was. She didn’t pause to think about it. “Larry Bell,” she said. “No question.” [Image: The Larry Bell gallery in “A Minimal Future?” Photo by Brian Forrest.]

At the time, I thought that was an odd answer. Bell’s work looked great in “A Minimal Future?”, but then again it pretty much always does. For the most part, Goldstein installed her exhibition by artist, a gallery of him here, two-third of a gallery of her over there with an occasional face-off. (Goldstein’s Truitt v. Judd gallery remains memorable and probably helped lead to Truitt’s first retrospective, at the Hirshhorn in 2009.) But I don’t recall that Goldstein’s presentation particularly pushed Bell forward in a way that suggested he deserves greater attention.

Now I get it. As it turns out, Bell is a super example of how seeing an artist in a series of region-wide exhibition-and-scholarship initiative such as Pacific Standard Time can help us see the range of an artist’s accomplishment. More on that in a minute. [Image: Bell, untitled, 1967. Collection of the Tate.]

To borrow a phrase from Broad Art Foundation curator Ed Schad, Bell has hidden in plain sight for years. In hindsight, 2004 should have been the year in which Bell re-emerged. For whatever reason, Goldstein’s sprawling show failed to elevate him.

The other major minimalism event of 2004 was the publication of scholar James Meyer’s 2001 history of New York minimalism was a clearer landmark in Bell-exception. Even though Bell exhibited in many of the landmark minimalism exhibitions of the period, including the 1966 “Primary Structures” show at The Jewish Museum, and even though Bell lived, worked and exhibited in New York in the mid-1960s, Meyer mentions Bell just long enough to dismiss him, ostensibly because Bell wasn’t “polemical.” (Later Meyer brushes aside the three Bell cubes in “Primary Structures” as being in the same “‘Californian’ palette” as other Western artists in the show. Truitt’s work was as colorful as Bell’s, but as an Easterner she made Meyer’s cut.) [Note: Thanks to Christopher Howard, who informs me that Amazon’s dating of the book is tweaky. Meyer’s “Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties” was first published in 2001. I regret the error.]

For most of the last decade, Meyer’s single-city-focused presentation of minimalism has dominated minimalism history. His narrative has been affirmed by critics such as the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl and possibly inadvertently by galleries such as David Zwirner, which have often presented non-New York-based minimalism in isolation.

In the years since, Bell has languished unexamined. He’s never been the subject of a major-museum retrospective or even a significant monograph. The only show to examine a substantial chunk of his career was at the Albuquerque Museum, in 1997.

The Pacific Standard Time series of shows have made it clear that Bell was the key link between hard-edge painting, minimalism (on both coasts) and light-and-space-and-perception art. (You can see a short summary of that progression in the images I put together here.) Bells’ work was presented in depth in “Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface” at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego,” “Best Kept Secret,” at the Laguna Art Museum and in “Crosscurrents” at the J. Paul Getty Museum. In addition, a PST-concurrent exhibition of Bell’s earliest work at Frank Lloyd Gallery in Santa Monica helped clarify the links between Bell’s earliest paintings and his later sculptures. [Image: “Primary Structures” catalog cover, designed by Elaine Lustig Cohen.]

Strangely, as best I can recall, the first important Bell sculpture wasn’t on view in any PST show: This untitled sculpture from 1959 is among the earliest — and least known — works of minimalism. I’m not sure why it was left out: It was in an important collection (that of art dealer and artist-parent Betty Asher) and it’s, er, hiding in plain sight in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art. As Bell detailed on The Modern Art Notes Podcast this week, that work — and a crack that almost immediately developed in it — showed him how light could work in an opaque sculpture and led to everything that came next. Just as Marcel Duchamp embraced the damage to The Large Glass, Bell embraced and learned from how that crack moved across his sculpture.

For the next four years Bell would explore what he learned in that box (or pre-cube) on canvas, on wall-mounted objects with glass and painted wood, in plinth-mounted sculptures made of glass and painted wood, and eventually in his remarkable glass cubes, a form he would continue to explore into the 1990s.

It seems like every art museum in America has one of those cubes. We’re all used to seeing them in permanent collection installations. I think that as a result, our response tends to be, ‘Oh, a Larry Bell cube,’ and to move on. Seeing many — dozens? — of Bell cubes across several PST shows revealed how different they are, motivated me to do a better job of differentiating between them, and left me thirsting for a show that presents them chronologically so that I may see how Bell progressed through them over the course of several decades. [Image: Bell, untitled, ca. 1970. As installed at MCASD.]

Then, in late 1960s in his studio, at the Tate and at the Museum of Modern Art, Bell helped pioneer artists’ interest in (and control of) room-sized environments. In 1969 he started making floor-mounted pieces in glass, delicate works that are rarely exhibited today but that rank as among the most jaw-dropping sculptures of the post-war period. Today, at 72, he continues to make work, including in collage. He’s had a 50-year career with at least a 30-plus-year period of intensely significant production.

Perhaps one reason Bell’s reputation has languished is that those floor-mounted works are difficult to work with: As I learned while preparing this week’s MAN Podcast, The Iceberg and Its Shadow (ca. 1976-77, at right installed with Frank Stella‘s Damascus Gate (Stretch Variation III) at the Boston Federal Reserve building), Bell’s most ambitious and arguably greatest sculpture is in near-ruins at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: It’s been moved around so much by Bell and later by the school, that dozens of its 56-something panels have been damaged. MIT is examining the possibility of conserving, even saving, the work, but it’s not clear it will be able to.

Maybe another reason Bell hasn’t received the full treatment is because he doesn’t show with a powerhouse commercial gallery, often preferring to deal with collectors himself rather than through a dealer.

Who knows why? No matter: Here’s hoping that PST helps ensure that Bell receives the scholarly and curatorial attention he deserves.

Related: Bell is my guest on this week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast. During the program we talk about that pivotal 1959 work, his cubes, his room-sized installations, his floor-mounted pieces and more. I had a fantastic time researching Bell for the show and talking with him.

To download or subscribe to The Modern Art Notes Podcast via iTunes, click here. To download the program directly, click here. To subscribe to The MAN Podcast’s RSS feed, click here. To see images of the works discussed in this week’s show — many of which haven’t been published in years, even decades — visit this MAN post.

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  1. Matthew Levy says:

    Not sure that’s fair to Meyer. His essay in the Minimal Future catalogue does an excellent job with Bell, arguing that his bi-coastal practice in the sixties was a key contributor to an east-west dialogue that was vital to Minimalism’s development. He even suggests that Judd’s use of the box might have been inspired by Bell. More importantly, Meyer integrates Bell into Minimalism’s discursive field, arguing against “finish fetish, “light and space” and other California-based stereotypes that have shaded the artist’s reception. Meyer’s Bell is an active player in a national artistic scene, not one whose work is best understood in a regional context, as you seem to suggest. Lastly, if Meyer privileged New York in his account of Minimalism, it’s not due to regional bias, but rather because his goal was to trace the emergence of “Minimalism” as a critical construct. He conceives of Minimalism as a (yes, polemical) conversation rather than a monolithic movement, and it so happens that the majority of the key players in that conversation worked and showed in New York.

  2. Chris says:

    A minor point: James Meyer’s book Minimalism: Art and Polemics of the Sixties was first published in 2001, not 2004. The Amazon website–never a good source for correct bibliographic information–must have 2004 as the publication of the softcover edition of the book.

  3. Tyler Green says:

    Matthew — thanks for the comment. Meyer is an important historian, particularly on Anne Truitt. He deserves much of the credit for keeping her work front-and-center.

    Yes, that’s true: Meyer attempts some Bell back-fill in his “A Minimal Future?” essay.

    But he also chunks it up in spots, writing: “The considerable originality of Bell’s work also proved resistant to dominant accounts of Minimalism.” Well, yes, such as Meyer’s own book.

    Meyer’s essay goes on to discuss how important it was that Bell made his cubes from hand: “Bell’s art embodied other contradictions: for example, the delicacy and handmade quality of his cubes introduced a subjective quality to his practice, contradicting the East Coast penchant for industrial fabrication…” Well, eventually Bell made them by hand, yes. However, when Bell first started making cubes he lived in Los Angeles and he outsourced the glasswork to an industrial fabricator in Burbank. Bell only began to make them by hand… in New York, which contradicts Meyer’s geo-cliche.

    Meyer presents Bell’s work as paradoxical in its relationship to reality, and suggests that’s a problem. He cites Michael Fried. I think that’s a strength, a key link between hard-edge, minimalism and light-and-space-and-perception.

    Meyer concludes his essay by blaming Bell for not being adequately remembered by historians “because [his practice] not only failed to conform to literalist principles but actually undermined them, their practices were relegated to the margins of Minimalist debate.” That’s pretty much Meyer, 2004 blaming Meyer, 2001.

    And yes, you’re certainly right on what Meyer was attempting in that book. I’ve never quite understood why any of that polemical stuff is of significant interest, except as a way to exclude people who were geographic others or to explain exclusions. (Such as Judd and Truitt. Also, given that polemical focus, it seems odd that Meyer includes Truitt, and prominently. She was substantially personally uninvolved with New York minimalist artists.)

    I guess ultimately I’m less interested in “Minimalist debate” or polemics or what have you, and more interested in the art itself.

  4. Tyler Green says:

    One other thing: “Meyer’s Bell is an active player in a national artistic scene, not one whose work is best understood in a regional context.”

    I understand that you’re saying Meyer ‘nationalized’ Bell in 2004, but Meyer’s “Minimalism” is about New York, only New York (plus Washington-based Truitt, a couple hundred miles away). Is that not almost the very definition of “a regional context”?

  5. Flavio Ignacio Berenstein says:

    Great Article,
    I din’t really agree on all your points regarding minimalism though.
    Minimalism at its core is minimal.

  6. […] of a closer look. One of those was Tyler Green, the most prominent art world blogger, who posted a lengthy article, and interviewed Larry. For a look at the whole show, we produced a video that was skillfully shot […]

  7. […] way to pick up Bell’s history as a podcast. But don’t miss the large group of photos on the MAN blog and the link to Ollie Bell’s video of the Larry Bell survey in Nimes, “In Perspective.” Share […]

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