American artist Larry Bell is best known for his glass sculptures ranging in scale from small to monumental, using color, light and shadow to play with our sense of perception. Since 1969, he has used a machine known as “The Tank”, which allows him to coat glass in specific ways, changing its absorbent, transmissive or reflective appearance. “Although we tend to think of glass as a window, it is a solid-liquid that has three distinctive qualities at the same time: it reflects light, it absorbs light and it transmits light at the same time”, has he said about his raw material. During his career he also created paintings, works on paper and furniture designs. A solo exhibition of his new sculptural works is at Hauser & Wirth, London, until July 30.
You have two studios, one in Los Angeles and one in Taos, New Mexico. Why these places in particular?
Well, part of that is greed. The other part is that I spent half of my youth in LA and met my mate and had kids in Taos. I have to say though that it’s not really Los Angeles, it’s Venice Beach, which is quite different from the rest of the city. I like the air there. When I first lived in Venice [Beach] it was cheap and a bit dangerous: there were a lot of gangs. But that has changed a lot since then. It has become much more expensive.
The first reason I went to New Mexico was to see a friend of mine, a great artist called Ken Price, who was a sculptor and a big inspiration to me. He had moved there and I missed him very much. When I went to see him, I fell in love with the place and by chance acquired an old house that Ken had bought but decided not to keep. I took over the renovation, as a kind of favor for him and the person he was buying the house from. When I decided to stay, I locked the doors to my Venice Beach studio apartment and kept it that way until the landlord said he didn’t want to have tenants who weren’t on places, so I had to leave. I wasn’t working at the time and didn’t really have any income other than selling work. What I had, however, was the house I owned in Venice Beach, so I sold it and that paid for the acquisition of a studio in Taos â a former commercial laundry. A huge space. All the laundry relics were still there, all the old washing machines, even though the building had been vacant for years. The ceiling was falling. I bought it for nothing, in co-purchase, with a friend of mine, with the intention of making our two studios there and that’s what we did. We are still partners. He’s a photographer and uses half the property, I use the other half.
How do you divide your time between studios?
I used to drive between studios every three weeks. It’s about a thousand miles, 14 hour drive, but I loved it. I don’t like driving in Los Angeles because there’s so much traffic and I’m afraid I’m not such a good driver anymore, so I tend to go to Venice Beach and stay there, but the drive from Los Angeles Angeles in New Mexico is magnificent and nourishing: the immensity of the mountains, the desert.
Why every three weeks?
I do not know. It just so happened that it worked that way. I started a new series of paper works which became very addictive, but I couldn’t do the whole process in one place. I had to prepare the materials I was going to work with in Taos and then drive to Venice [Beach] where I assembled and finished them. It was my routine. It was a very productive time and the pieces were wonderfully interesting: I found images from all parts of my brain that were representative of my very personal passions. For example, I collect guitars. The works weren’t images of guitars, but they had shapes of guitars, which isn’t something I planned, it just developed. But then Covid arrived and that was the end of it all.
Do you think the reader itself influenced the work you were doing?
I do not think so. The ride was a period of cleansing for me. When I got in my car in Venice Beach to go home to Taos, Los Angeles slowly emptied of me. And when I came back, I was exhausted from both the car ride and the fact that the air was thinner (Taos is about 7000 feet above sea level). Driving in the opposite direction was a completely opposite experience. I always felt good when I arrived in Venice Beach. I may be tired and I sleep very well, but I wake up in great shape, so that when I arrived in Taos, I lay exhausted me and I woke up still tired. It took a few days to acclimatize to the altitude.
Is there anything that frustrates you in your studios?
No. Nothing has ever frustrated me in my studios. Every studio I’ve ever had has been successful in terms of usage.
You possess a very unique piece of equipment: a 14-tonne vacuum chamber known as The Tank, which you had specially made to produce your cubic works. What’s the story behind it?
The Tank has been my friend for a long time. I ordered it to be built in 1968 and it arrived in 1969. We’ve used it ever since. It was originally delivered in Venice Beach, but when I got kicked out of my studio, I had to move everything to Taos and it just sat on the floor while we assembled the building around it.
You mentioned being inspired by the work of your friend Ken Price. Do you pin the work of other artists?
No I do not know. Ken was a ceramist and he made very small and beautiful things. He also made coffee mugs, some of which had figures of animals, snails and things like that. I still have some of his pieces in the workshop. I drink my coffee from one of his cups. Interestingly, even though these are ships that you physically use, the way they sit on the table is quite unusual. The little creatures grab the platform. I would say his influence on the way I made my sculptures presentable was quite profound, just in the way the piece is staged.
What is the most leafed through book in your studio?
I have a large library. I get tons of books sent to me. I think the last art book I bought is Codex Seraphinianuswhich is from italian architect Luigi Serafini who wrote a encyclopedia of the following species. I don’t read too much fiction anymore, but I used to collect the writings of HG Wells.
Do you follow a particular routine to prepare for work?
This changed with age. At first I did pretty much everything myself, then in the late 60s I started working with an assistant I met in New York. I had gone to New York for a show that had been very successful and I decided to stay there for a while because I was charmed by the place and the artists I met there. I was lucky enough to become really good friends with a lot of people whose work I admired, but while I was there there was the blizzard of 1966 and the blackout across the city ââthat made me realize that I was definitely not a New Yorker. But it was in New York that I met my first assistant: a Frenchman named Guy de Cointet, who was a pretty good artist himself. He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak French.
How did you communicate?
[Laughs] I don’t know, but we did. We got along very well and when I came back to Los Angeles, he came back with me. He passed away about fifteen years ago, but he was an extraordinary person. He influenced many artists. He wrote plays and did these very strange drawings. There are a few books on his work available. In fact, some of his works have just been sold at auction in Los Angeles. A small piece, a wall thing with letters and stuff on it, sold for $84,000. I was very impressed. He would have been impressed too.
How many assistants do you have now?
I have seven â and I consider them my family. The people I work with are really fantastic. I don’t think I deserve to have people of this caliber working with me, but I try to pay them well, do what I can for them.
Who is the most interesting visitor you have ever had at the studio?
Marcel Duchamp once came to my studio. A surprise visit. I didn’t know who he was. Three people showed up to knock on the door and I didn’t answer because at that time the only people coming to the front door were building inspectors (you weren’t allowed to live in a commercial space). So everyone I knew came to the back door. Anyway, they were there knocking softly on the door, non-stop for about twenty minutes, so I finally answered. They were wearing suits, so I was convinced they were detectives, but the first thing one of them said was, “Walter Hopps sent us.” Walter Hopps was my dealer in Los Angeles so I knew I had nothing to worry about. I was born with very severe hearing loss and that was before I had hearing aids so I didn’t understand their names. AOne of them turned out to be a surrealist painter called William Copley, the other was British artist Richard Hamilton, and the other was Marcel Duchamp.
‘Larry Bell: New Works’ is at Hauser & Wirth23 Savile Row, London, until July 30, 2022.