Studio  August 18, 2022  Jordan Riefe

Larry Bell Offers Insight on his Career & Life Lessons

© Larry Bell. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Barbara Brown.

John Chamberlain and Larry Bell at the motorcycle races, Bridgehampton NY,1966.

The fedora stays on, the jacket, too, even in the dog days of summer as Larry Bell mills about his new show, Larry Bell & John Chamberlain, at LA’s Hauser & Wirth through October 2. Bell’s contribution includes a corner of the south gallery occupied by his trademark glass cubes of varying sizes as well as vapor drawings made from cutouts and the same microparticles he applies to the cubes.

Photo: Jordan Riefe.

“John was probably the preeminent spontaneous improvisational sculptor of our day,” Bell says, recalling his old friend who came to live with him in the late sixties for a year after a bad breakup with his girlfriend. “I learned from John and others to trust myself to be spontaneous, improvisational, and intuitive with my decision-making. Even though his things flowed and were soft, I'm just the other side of the coin. My things were all corners and hard surfaces.”

Best known for his Abstract Expressionist dismembered car sculptures, Chamberlain, who died in 2011, presents a series of plexiglass boxes. Softened through heating, they curl in on themselves and are coated with the same vaporized particles as Bell’s cubes.

“Aluminum is what makes them more reflective, and a material called silicon monoxide which was like a form of quartz. And that’s where the colors come from. There's no pigment there,” Bell explains. “Just like the gas in the puddle at the filling station, you see those rainbowy colors. Where you see blue on the water, the gas is thinner than where you see red on the water. The same rule follows with all of this stuff. John would bring these things in and we would put them in the tank and zap ‘em.”

Installation view, Larry Bell & John Chamberlain, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2022.
Courtesy the artists and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Jeff McLane.

Installation view, Larry Bell & John Chamberlain, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2022.

John Chamberlain Gallup, 1970. Mineral-coated synthetic polymer resin. 63.5 x 139.7 x 111.8 cm. (25 x 55 x 44 in.).© 2022 Fairweather & Fairweather LTD / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Dia Art Foundation, New York.
© 2022 Fairweather & Fairweather LTD / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Dia Art Foundation, New York.

John Chamberlain Gallup, 1970. Mineral-coated synthetic polymer resin. 63.5 x 139.7 x 111.8 cm. (25 x 55 x 44 in.).

‘The tank,’ a vacuum deposition chamber acquired by Bell in the late 1960s, stimulates the absorption, transmission, and reflection of light on the glass. The cubes in the new show began to appear around 1963. Two years later, his first solo show sold out at New York’s Pace Gallery, putting Bell on the art world’s radar at the age of twenty-six.

While preparing the show, some of the pieces broke during transit. Fortunately, Bronx local Ben Koenig, a Christmas ornament manufacturer whose work required the same vacuum deposition process, was able to lend a hand. He sold Bell a used vacuum chamber, which the artist shipped to his studio on Venice’s Market Street after living in New York for a year.

© Larry Bell. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Jeff McLane.

Larry Bell, Golden 1969/2022. Coated glass with chrome edging. 31 x 31 x 31 cm. (12 1/4 x 12 1/4 x 12 1/4 in.).

“He gave me a book called Vacuum Deposition of Thin Films, and basically said you start on page one. That’s really what I did,” he laughs. “It was an enormous difference.”

Teachers figure prominently in Bell’s rearing, like those who found him unteachable in the public schools of Southern California. That’s where he grew up after moving at the age of six from Chicago where he was born in the same hospital, days apart, as Judy Chicago.

“She’s older, so she remembers,” he jokes. “My folks moved here, pulled a house trailer across country, Route 66 in 1945, a ‘40 Plymouth. Dad had an airstream or something like that. A friend of his in Van Nuys had a chicken farm and that's where we pulled in and stayed a couple of months living in the trailer before dad found a house to rent.” 

Bell was born with severe hearing loss that wasn’t diagnosed until his mid-forties. Therefore he missed much of what his teachers were saying and earned lousy grades. “I think they thought I was retarded,” he says of his parents, then laughs. “But I’ve got a mind like a steel trap. Nothing gets in and nothing gets out.”

He recalls getting slapped around for not paying attention in school. “My folks didn’t have a lot of money, so if they spent money on sending me to Hebrew school and I didn't take advantage of it, it cost them and they didn't like that. When I left my parents’ house and went off to art school, I decided I'm not going to allow myself to be punished anymore for being who I am.”

Courtesy the artists and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Jeff McLane.

Installation view, Larry Bell & John Chamberlain, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2022.

Beginning in 1957, he attended Chouinard Institute (now CalArts), where he studied under Light and Space artist Robert Irwin. At the time he was making shaped paintings, sometimes featuring a forty degree ellipse mirroring the shape of the Andromeda galaxy, a form he believes has supernatural powers. But assessing his own work alongside that of classmates like Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari, Bell decided painting might not be his thing and turned to sculpture. At the time, he was employed at a Burbank framing store where he experimented with glass shards inside a wooden shadow box.

He was the youngest member of the “Cool School” of the sixties who exhibited at West Hollywood’s Ferus Gallery, founded by Walter Hopps and Ed Kienholz. In addition to Kienholz, artists like Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses, and John Altoon showed there. 

“John had mental problems,” Bell recalls of Altoon, who passed away at the early age of forty-three. “He said to me once he didn’t like the direction my work was going in and he threatened to destroy everything. His studio was next door to me. At that same time, he got arrested for walking down Wilshire Boulevard near Westwood, buckass naked. The cops stopped him, and he popped a cop in the mouth and all hell broke loose, and he ended up in Camarillo being treated for whatever it was. They gave him shock treatment and all kinds of stuff. Fucked him up good, it’s probably what killed him.”

While Hopps had a visionary approach to the Ferus Gallery, he also had a head for business. He was the first to exhibit Andy Warhol’s Soup Cans in 1962, and a year later, brought the first Marcel Duchamp retrospective ever to an unlikely venue—the Pasadena Art Museum.

Around that time, Bell was working in his studio when three men showed up, claiming to be friends of Hopps. One of them spoke with an English accent, and the eldest of the trio spoke French. Bell’s poor hearing kept him from catching their names until one referred to the other as Marcel. It was then he realized he was hosting Duchamp, an idol to himself and the rest of the Ferus guys.

Photo by Jordan Riefe.

Larry Bell and some of his guitars.

Besides art, Bell’s other great love is music. He owns 400 twelve-string guitars, many of them cluttering his Church Studio in Venice. He plays them well enough to clear a room, which is what he did when Lenny Bruce was appearing at the Unicorn Club on Sunset Strip in 1963, the night he was arrested on obscenity charges. Bell was working the door when the crowd became unruly. The manager pulled Bruce off the stage and put Bell on with his 12-string. “After the first song there was no one,” he recalls. “The place was empty.”

His other great achievement in the world of music includes being one of the last five living figures among the fifty-seven pictured on the cover of the Beatles’ historic album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” designed by British pop artists Jann Haworth and Peter Blake.

The likeness of Bell is a photo taken by actor Dennis Hopper in Ocean Park, in front of a shop called Mike the Tailor. “Bengston and I used to go haunt the thrift stores and get funny clothes and take it to Mike the Tailor so it fit us,” Bell says, referring to his pal, Billy Al Bengston. “I didn’t know anything about the Beatles. That wasn’t the kind of music I liked. I was into folk music and the blues and grungy stuff.”

With the new show at Hauser & Wirth, Bell looks back on a rambunctious youth. But the eighty-two-year-old artist is always looking forward, too. His work has grown in scale in recent years and he’s been developing a new coating method with researchers at Colorado State University. In Autumn, 2023, he hopes to install the large-scale sculpture, Red and Whites at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Each piece informs the next, a mantra he has followed throughout his creative life. “I’ve always taken the position that the work is your teacher,” he says, eyes drifting over the artworks he made with his friend a half century ago. “That's something that Chamberlain once said to me, too, that art is a teacher, it's not an object.”

About the Author

Jordan Riefe

Jordan Riefe has been covering the film business since the late 90s for outlets like Reuters,, and The Wrap. He wrote a movie that was produced in China in 2007. Riefe currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound.

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