Even a cursory investigation into nearly any seminal cultural moment, institution, or movement in the latter half of the 20th century, reveals the presence of artist Larry Bell. Bell’s presence in the Arts is akin to the glass boxes that he is most known for, that, at once, reflect, reveal, and transform their environment. The works are mirrors, windows, lenses, yet are also self-contained and complete in and of themselves. From Disney animation, to Abstract Expressionism, to the West Coast Light and Space movement, to the famed Ferus Gallery, to Dennis Hopper’s legendary Taos scene, to the Venice Beach scene (he even has a bar named after him: “Larry’s”), to the iconic cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Bell was there, and none of it — and, in turn, the Arts today — would be the same without his presence. Nowhere is this more apparent than in regards to the Light and Space movement — of which he, along with Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and others, comprise. Light and Space directly influenced much of what is most exciting and groundbreaking in the Arts today — i.e, the intersection of Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and Art. This is where the concerns of many of the youngest and brightest artists and “makers” today lie; Irwin, Turrell, and Bell are the Predecessor Gods at whose altars they worship.
Larry Bell is internationally renowned: one can see his work in museums such as the Tate and the Pompidou, and read about it in contemporary art magazines and in history books alike. Larry Bell is a household name, and yet, what very few people in the world know is how encouraging he has been throughout his life of other artists — many young, many unknown. I first met Larry at the opening of one of my very first solo shows at a small gallery in Taos, NM, in the late nineties; the first of many in which he attended. He makes a point to quietly show up for, and to contribute to, countless local art shows, exhibitions, organizations, and events. Larry is one of the most original, humble, and above all — kind, people I have had to privilege to meet; it is an honor to have interviewed him as the first Artist for Twenty Que. I know you will enjoy his inspiring responses.
- Were you born an artist, or did you become artist, or did you make a conscious decision to be an artist?
When I was born I was too young to know what art was, I didn’t even know what I was? I also didn’t know that I was born with “hereditary nerve degeneration” in my hearing components. I was born with a 40% loss across the audible spectrum in both ears. I was a fairly happy kid with the exception of the frustration of being punished for doing things I was told not to do. Remember? Parents are always correct! By the time I was to graduate high school the only thing I was prepared to do was watch old movies on television. Upon graduation, I was informed by my parents that I could: 1) Go on to school, 2) Get a job, 3) Join the Army. I had no interest in any of those choices, nor was I prepared to create other choice’s; but parents are always correct!
I had to do something. I could no longer sit around the house and watch television?
- What was the very first work of art that you can remember having created?
I liked to doodle cartoons in high school, it occurred to me that if I learned how to really draw cartoons (at an art school) maybe I could get a job doing it professional? In Los Angeles Chouinard Art Institute was an art school that trained Walt Disney’s animators and designers. I submitted my request and sent some of my cartoons to the school. I was accepted but the tuition was quite high and my parents were not rich but they were supportive to the extent I could try it. The curriculum for cartooning was very advanced and many preliminary programs had to be dealt with before one got to the level of cartooning. Drawing, painting, design, perspective, and other activities were required. It was a pretty boring stack of classes that I did not do well in except for the painting class. I changed my “major” to painting because I really liked the humor of the teachers in that department. To me painting was not about getting a job but cartooning was. I did not have the slightest idea what “Art” was? I lasted less than two years at Chouinard Art Institute. I was depressed that I could not grasp the ‘spirit’ of anything, so on the advice of a teacher who said to me: “This is a professional school, you can leave and do something like get a studio and see what it is like out there, if you want to come back, you just pay your tuition, and come back! ” Best advise I ever got! I quit and went into the studio at age 19 and never went back.
- What was the trajectory that led you to the work that you are creating now?
After being in the studio trying to figure out what a painting was or what I wanted to do with myself in the world of art, I started painting the spatial details of the room that was my studio. I was fascinated with the corners of the room. I was shocked one day when I realized that I could not count the number of right angle relationships that impinged on my peripheral vision in the empty room I was painting in. There were too many of them to count? That aside; I was painting very minimal spatial relationships based on the volume of the space I occupied. I was painting on canvas’s shaped like a ‘Tessera,” a two dimensional diagram of a 3 dimensional cube. For some reason I felt I needed to add another element to what I was painting and I decided to cut a square hole in the canvas and install a piece of glass into the structure of the stretcher bar. It was a window that showed me the wall the canvas hung on. I believe that was the first work of art I consciously made.
During those early years I examined “space” by making containers that held space, all of them had a “window” that let light into the interior. Some had mirrors that let the light appear to be doubled inside the container. I liked the fact that the interior space of the containers brought in the light from the exterior of the container, and I realized: that I was no longer interested in painting, I had become a sculptor. The work itself took me to that place.
- What drives and compels you to make art?
I am not sure that I make “Art”! I think of the things that I make as “evidence” of an investigation. Each day is new and another “investigation”. I think ART is a teacher, not an object. What drives me is a very private ambition and curiosity about the surfaces of things.
- As an artist, what do you find to be most challenging?
Making a living is the most challenging.
- Most inspiring?
I am inspired more by humor and music than anything else.
- Who are your favorite artists in history?
Vermeer, DeKooning, Ken Price, Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Elsworth Kelley, Ed Moses.
- Who are the artists working today that you are most excited about?
Betye Saar, Ai Wei Wei, Judy Chicago, Ellen Zimmerman, Mya Lim, Robert Erwin, Peter Shelton, etc.
- Who are your heroes?
I have too many hero’s whose names I do not know to begin to try and list them.
- What qualities do you admire most in a human being?
Humor and forgiveness.
- In yourself?
I feel alive and curious.
- What quality troubles you most in your fellow humans?
Wanton stupidity and greed.
- What quality would you like to change in yourself?
- Five people in history you’d most like to invite to dinner–
Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Willem De Kooning, Elanor Roosevelt, Janet Webb
- What are your favorite books, films, music? Have they influenced your work?
H.G. Wells; the “Invisible Man”, “The Time Machine”, Stanley Kubrick;” Dr. Strangelove”, Patrick Suskind:” Perfume”. J.S. Bach;” The Brandenburg Concerto’s”, Leadbelly (Huddie Leadbetter) “Gallis Pole”.
- Do you consider the above genres to be “Art”? Why or why not?
Yes, they transcend Commercialism. They transcend the mundane. They are spiritual works. They are always new. Repeated viewing or reading or hearing never gets dull or boring.
- What is art’s place in spiritual & social transformation? More specifically, your art’s place in it?
Art is a teacher. Its teachings are spiritual, they are not religious!
- Do you believe in God? the Gods? Gaia? A Higher Power?
I cannot answer this!
- As a human race, where are we headed?
I cannot answer this either.
- What’s it all about, Alfie???
The great American cartoonist Robert Crumb had many characters in his ouvre. Two of them were named Mr. Natural and Flakey Foont. Crumb drew a cartoon once of the two of them walking down the street; Flakey Foont asking Mr. Natural: “What does it all mean Mr. Natural?” His answer as they walked along and he kicked an old can out of his way: “Don’t mean Shit!”
About Twenty Que: Twenty Que was born out of my twenty years as a full-time visual artist. Art is my life: everything I do is in service to my work, and, in turn, my work informs where I choose to go, what I choose to do, with whom I choose to spend my time, what I think about, and how I live. I have many friends who are involved in the Arts — filmmakers, dancers, musicians, writers, visual artists. I go to exhibitions, I watch films, I listen to music, I engage in collaborations, projects; in short, the place of the Arts in the world and in human history is deeply important to me. As an artist, I’ve given many of interviews over the years, and have been as fascinated by what questions journalists choose to ask me as those questions that are not asked. There are questions that come up, year after year; there are also questions that fail to arise at all. Recently, I was preparing to give a lecture, and I began to discuss with artist friends — painters, fellow renderers at my drawing group, Hollywood friends in the film industry, musicians, bulteros, metalworkers, etc. — what they are most interested in hearing? What do they want to know in regards to their fellow artists? The questions posed in Twenty Que are the result…
About Erin Currier: My artistic practice has taken me on a lifelong “shoestring” adventure — packed with action and magic — that has variously found me training in Beijing with Kung Fu masters; tango dancing in Buenos Aires; in riots in Chile; eating dinner on dirt floors with Tibetan exiles in Nepal and at the dinner tables of famed filmmakers in Italy; on the couches of Panthers and Weather Underground; in medicinal ceremonies in the Amazonian jungle; at Tahrir Square with a million Egyptians… I am a humanist artist: unapologetically narrative, and for whom art and the social world are inseparable. I use the proceeds of the sales of my art to witness the world firsthand — i.e, when I sell a painting, I buy a plane ticket and go!