The six glass sculptures in "Larry Bell: Then and Now" offer a concise, stunning and insightful overview of this intensely focused artist's careerlong endeavor to make a perfect object out of nothing but empty space and the light that moves through it. At Kiyo Higashi Gallery, which Bell designed in 1987, this exhibition definitively outlines the issues that have animated his art from the beginning, before he was recognized in the mid-'60s as an essential member of Los Angeles' "Light and Space" movement.
Two small, previously unexhibited sculptures from 1959, the year Bell turned 20 and left Chouinard Art Institute, trace his movement away from the illusionism intrinsic to abstract painting, through the physical presence of sculpture, and toward the interactive nature of installation art.
One consists of a simple, thin wooden frame with a pane of glass attached to its back. Like a backward painting, it faces the gallery's wall. Across its blue-gray tinted glass runs a horizontal, landscape-like crack. The crack is all but invisible except for the points where it glistens, reflects a bright line on the wall or casts a shadow.
This modest work is significant because its simple form encapsulates the concerns that have animated Bell's art for the past 33 years. With increasing skill and sophisticated technology, he has continued to construct glass containers that seem to turn their surroundings inside-out, shifting between emptiness and infinity.
Another odd, glitter-coated piece from '59 and a gem of a sculpture from '61 show Bell progressively enlarging the literal space of his art. The thin volume encompassed by the pane of glass in the earlier piece is here expanded to an enclosed space that includes silhouettes, mirrors and reflections. They seem to materialize out of nothingness. In all three pieces, substance and immateriality cross paths with increasing complexity.
Three larger sculptures from '92 refine and intensify, but do not significantly alter, the illusionistic charge of Bell's early works. They dissolve real-world space into blankness, or multiply its reflection across pristine planes. Like three-dimensional collages or collapsed pieces of theater, they undermine your confidence in the truthfulness of vision. You seem to see through their surfaces while they simultaneously throw your line of sight in the opposite direction.