On ViewHauser & Wirth
Larry Bell: Still Standing
February 20 – April 11, 2020
For such a long time, Larry Bell’s uvre was represented on the East Coast only by the occasional installation of one of his small Cubes. Exquisite glass boxes, the sides of which have been tinted by a vacuum coating of colored film, the Cubes suggest foggy conditions during which the sky dissolves into the ocean, spectacular Western sunrises or sunsets, or the presence of shapes that exist for us only when our eyes have adjusted to very dark conditions. However, Bell’s ambition has always been larger than the size of these structures, most of which can be held (very carefully) in the arms. More recently, in 2016, Hauser & Wirth exhibited his work of the early 1960s along with some new (or remade) Standing Walls and large-scale, nesting Cubes. Bell was also represented by a sequence of five Pacific Red II (2017) cubes at the 2017 edition of the Whitney Biennial. And now Hauser & Wirth has given over the ground floor of its Chelsea location to Still Standing, a display of three Standing Walls, their maquettes and scale models for other freestanding pieces, as well as three new Cubes. It is an exhibition full of glorious color and, in the case of the Standing Walls, carefully muted installation.
In the earlier gallery and Whitney exhibitions, Bell’s large pieces were placed directly onto the floor so viewers could walk up to them or even move within them. Here, they have been placed onto low plinths upholstered in grey fabric. Undoubtedly—and importantly—this protects them from fingertips, strollers, and back-bending Instagrammers, but it also sets them apart as sculptures instead of environments and, even more disappointingly, disrupts the light and reflective effects that play off their surfaces. This is a shame because these effects are stunning.
Griffins Fracture (1977), installed by the windows, consists of two slender right triangles, one somewhat longer than the other, that are joined together along their right-angle spines. When the viewer stands at the windows, both sections are transparent, and the taller triangle reflects the light, color, and movement from outside. But a turn around the corner reveals a nearly opaque, highly reflective plane. When they overlap, the two triangles and their finishes reflect the viewer and everything behind her. If the piece were resting on the floor, the illusion would be nearly seamless.
Two Icebergs and their small-scale counterparts, both titled Iceberg SS, share names but otherwise diverge. Iceberg (2019), four jagged, oppositional lengths of dark grey, solid white, and frosted white glass, explores different types of opacity, with white laminated glass doubling back on itself and somehow becoming even whiter when seen with a backing of smoked grey. For its part, the other large Iceberg (2020) examines color relationships. This time, the structure’s four peaks echo each other in shape and position. Because of this, they overlap, visually mixing and unmixing their hues—evocatively called cornflower, spa, blush, and lagoon. As a result, we see royal blue, lavender, mauve, and the hint of crests rising above the horizon. If we were to walk within these Icebergs, it would be like traversing Caspar David Friedrich’s Sea of Ice (1823–4).
It was wonderful to see Glacier (1999) again, after having first encountered it in the 2016 Hauser & Wirth exhibition. This tabletop monument consists of four zig-zags, three of which are tinted pink rosa, azure blue, and light grey, with the fourth remaining clear. From the side, the colors are discreet, but viewed head on, they combine to produce a complex, lush, mossy green. More landmass from this angle than ice form, the tiny Glacier is somehow vast and infinite, conjuring mountain ranges and fractal turbulence.
The best decision Bell has made is to bevel his edges. All the panes of glass in this exhibition have been treated in this way. This allows the pieces to be fitted closely together, hiding the mechanics of their attachment. But it does more than that. In the chromatically subtle Untitled (1985), the chambers cause each plane to appear outlined in black. In the Icebergs, they create shapes within shapes and multiply reflections on top of reflections. Throughout, the bevels bisect fields, color, and visitors, acting as zips that direct the eye and project us around the room. Perhaps most important of all, they let Bell’s contours be sharp, soft to the touch but sharper than glass has ever been.