Since 1968, Bell has been developing his series of freestanding glass wall sculptures in varying scales and configurations. 6 x 6 An Improvisation is the culmination of this series. First shown at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas in 2014, it consists of 40 panels, each measuring 72 x 72 inches or approximately 6ft square, a measurement relational to the artist’s own height. Bell has reconfigured the panels for White Cube Bermondsey, creating what he terms an ‘Improvisation’, combining clear glass, grey glass and glass coated with Inconel (a nickel/chrome alloy) which results in it becoming, to variable degrees, reflective. Arranged in right angle pairs, some that are inverted or doubled up, the sculpture forms a labyrinthine series of spaces that reflect and refract the interior architecture of the gallery. Highly dramatic and visually complex, 6 x 6 An Improvisation subverts the viewer's spatial comprehension through a layered convergence of hues and densities, while maintaining an illusion of volume.
Commenting on the series of freestanding wall works as a whole, Bell has said:
‘In some cases, it’s highly reflective where the glass parts come together; in others it is highly reflective where the glass touches the floor, and so on. And I like the idea of being able to just combine these things so they’d stand up, since the parts were all the same size. They balance in the weight of their own vertical thrust, and are anchored to the floor with glue, and equally bound together by glue. So they hold each other up, and I could change it any way I want. So there was a lot of versatility. That gives a certain kind of symmetry to the relationship of the reflective coatings to each other. I’m trying to say that symmetry comes from the relationship of the distance between the parts being half the width of the part.’
Two early paintings by Bell from 1960 vividly show similar preoccupations with geometry and perspective. In My Montauk (1960), acrylic is applied opaquely onto canvas to create a monochromatic abstraction where a black rectangle is set against a white background which appears to have been clipped at its opposing corners. During the ‘60s, Bell produced several shaped canvases that drew attention to the painting’s status as an object. Similarly, in Untitled (1960), two triangular shapes are masked out from a vivid orange background, meeting point to point in the centre of the canvas, thereby suggesting an isometric projection of a three dimensional form.
Bell’s large-scale ‘vapour drawings’ employ the same coating process that the artist uses for his installations in glass. In these drawings, thin layers of aluminium and quartz are vaporised onto the paper surface in variable thicknesses to build up an image using alternating bands of gradients and optical effects. Some of these processes create dark, semi-reflective areas that enhance the sense of volume, while in others, they create abstract and minimal forms that divide the ground vertically, or with a curve-like shape that runs from top to bottom. In a series of ‘Ellipse’ works from the 1980s, a central oval shape appears to float or form a portal within the composition; for instance, in MEL 39 (1984) or MEL 35 (1984), the varying application of coatings create a rainbow-like pattern of refracted light and optical play. In the 'HFBK' works from late 1970s, strips of aluminium coated with silicon monoxide on black paper create horizontal banded patterned compositions that appear to run over, beyond the paper’s limits. In MSHFBK 26 and MSHFBK 9A (both from 1978), the bands are curved, creating the effect of a strict but distorted geometric composition that appears to be receding or fading away.
Also included in the exhibition is a series of 11 new, large ‘Church Studies’: densely layered collages that combine various papers and films, overlaid by fencing grids and props that undergo a coating process in Bell’s vacuum thermal evaporation machine, which he has used since the mid-60s. Verging on abstraction, some of these collages suggest a female torso or, equally, the curvaceous shape of a guitar, inspired by the collection of acoustic guitars that Bell regularly plays. Bell returns to this curvilinear and undulating form throughout the ‘Church Studies’, fusing a range of vivid colours, textures and alchemical intonations that are absorbed onto the dense black Arches or red Japanese Kozo paper that he uses.
Throughout his career Larry Bell has made investigations into the properties of light on surface. By experimenting with the nature of surface and its relationship to space, Bell has devised a methodology characterised by spontaneity, intuition and improvisation.
Bell began his career in 1959 and his earliest works consisted of abstract, monochrome paintings on paper and shaped canvases whose outlines corresponded to the silhouette of a box drawn in isometric projection. Panes of glass and then mirrors were substituted for parts of the painted design and this exploration of spatial ambiguity eventually evolved into sculptural constructions made of wood and glass. These works represent the genesis of Bell’s later glass cubes and standing glass-panel wall sculptures.
From 1963 onward, Bell began exploring the passing of light through the cube sculptures, deploying a technique of vacuum deposition whereby thin films were added to the clear glass panels. Bell found that these glass cubes, presented on transparent pedestals, offered the viewer the essence of the captured light, becoming, in the process, tapestries of reflected, transmitted and absorbed light. Challenging notions of mass, volume and gravity in one single measure, the cubes appeared to float on the light between the floor and the work.
From 1968 to 1969 Bell commissioned the building of a coating device in order to produce work on a more environmental scale. During the plating process, thin metal films are deposited onto another material, mainly glass, resulting in a coating that allows light to be reflected, transmitted and absorbed simultaneously. He began creating sculptural installations with large sheets of glass that were rendered partly mirrored and partly transparent through the vacuum deposition procedure, thereby making the glass surfaces almost disappear and volumes become weightless. The colours which become visible are known as ‘interference colour’; an illusion which results when light hits the sculptures’ surface. Throughout this period, Bell produced interior wall environments, such as The Black Room for both the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1969) and the Tate Gallery (1970).
In 1978 Bell began experimenting with depositing the coatings on paper, finding in the process that the paper did not transmit light but only reflected or absorbed it. This body of work, known as ‘Vapor Drawings’, continues to this day. In the early 1980s Bell began combining different surface qualities as layers within the ‘Vapor Drawing’ oeuvre, such as Mylar and laminating film, to create the so-called ‘Mirage works’ – a mirage being an illusion which results from a combination of heat and light.
Bell’s more recent ‘Light knot’ sculptures developed from these ‘Mirage works’, eschewing their paper and laminate film and using only Mylar. These fluid works are composed of pliable, curvaceous-shaped sheets of polyester film that have been coated with metals and quartz. Highly reflective, the sheets are twisted into a knot and hung from a ceiling. Ceaselessly in motion, propelled by any slight air movement, these undulating sculptures act like a series of mirrors that reflect the viewer and their immediate spatial surroundings.
László Moholy-Nagy 1895–1946
Artwork description & Analysis: Moholy-Nagy was fascinated by light throughout his career, and photograms offered the opportunity to experiment with the subtlety of light and shade. To create the photogram, he laid everyday objects on light-sensitive paper before exposing them to light. The brightness of the object's silhouette depended on the exposure time - a longer exposure meant a brighter image. In this photogram a paintbrush lays over Moholy-Nagy's hands, perhaps slyly suggesting the photogram is a medium of art that rivals painting.
Gelatin silver print - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In 1928, Moholy took a series of perhaps eight views of the Berlin Radio Tower: just finished in 1926, it was one of the most exciting new constructions in the German capital. Moholy had already photographed the Eiffel Tower in Paris, looking up through the tower’s soaring girders. In Berlin, however, he turned his camera around and pointed it straight down at the ground. The plunging perspective he chose showed off the most spectacular achievement of the Berlin Radio Tower: While the Parisian tower needed a base of 1,300 square feet for stability, the Berlin Radio Tower was nearly seven times smaller at its base—making the view from its 450-foot peak especially vertiginous.
The Berlin Radio Tower series demonstrates better than any other work by Moholy the eye-opening potential of unexpected angles and progressive technologies that he called the New Vision. Moholy attached exceptional importance to this image, the boldest in the series. He hung it just above his name in the room devoted to his work at the Berlin showing of Film und Foto. In 1931, this image was reproduced in the leading art periodical Der Querschnitt. That same year, Moholy held his first one-person exhibition of photographs in New York, at the Julien Levy Gallery. A different view from the Berlin Radio Tower was one of several works purchased from this show by the Museum of Modern Art. Meanwhile, Moholy had sold another print of this exact image along with two further views of the same subject to Levy, whose collection of painting and photography passed into the Art Institute of Chicago in 1979.
ABSTRACTION IN PHOTOGRAPHY OF LÁSZLÓ MOHOLY-NAGY
Today, photography is ubiquitous. Cameras are imbedded in billions of electronic devices, and it is hard to imagine any subject that has not been thoroughly explored ad nauseam in photographs. But what is the status of photography as abstract art? In 1925, the Hungarian artist and Bauhaus professor László Moholy-Nagy complained that, although photography had existed for more than 100 years at the time, artists used it for little more than the reproduction of reality. He said, “the total result to date amounts to little more than a visual encyclopedic achievement.” He called most photographs nothing but an “arrested moment from the moving display.” Now, nearly 100 years later, we still primarily use photography for reproduction, not production. In Painting, Photography, Film, his seminal book on the topic, Moholy-Nagy pontificated at length on the multitude of other possibilities photography might promise to artists willing to pursue its abstract potential. Foremost among those possibilities in his opinion was the potential for photography to create “new relationships between the known and the as yet unknown.” Moholy-Nagy believed that we are at our best when all of our biological systems are working in synthesis with each other, and that integral to that state of total functionality is the incorporation of a regular flow of novel sensations. For artists, that means the greatest contribution one can make to the elevation of the human race is to offer new sensory experiences; not by simply imitating, or photographing, what already exists but rather by offering perspectives on how to see the world anew.
The Personal and the Universal
Art is not a topic to easily generalize about, because nearly every artist strives for originality. Outside of those moments when a group of artists signs a manifesto describing exactly what they are doing, it is almost impossible to lump artists into a movement or a particular point of view. Nonetheless, it is occasionally accurate to say that a common tendency was or is being adopted by a particular group of artists, and to talk in a general way about what that tendency seems to be. (If that sounds like a caveat, that is because it is.) Two of the most commonly generalized tendencies that seem to occur within abstract art are the tendency toward aesthetic expressions that are personal, and the tendency toward aesthetic expressions that are universal.
Personal expressions are generally somewhat subjective, or ambiguous; universal expressions are generally objective, or unambiguous. These two tendencies manifested in a distinct way among many of the early Modernist abstract artists. On one side were artists like Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian who espoused a geometric, objective sensibility. On the other side were artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee who sought to express their personal quest for the spiritual. This is an oversimplification, but one way to put it is that one side was emotional, and the other side was practical. But all were hoping to achieve something universally valuable, though their perspectives were quite different, and their approaches often diametrically opposed.
Black and White
Until he was nearly on his deathbed, László Moholy-Nagy was firmly on the side of the practical artists. One story about him claims that nearing death he renounced his disdain for emotional art, and announced the importance of subjectivity. But when he was the most influential, while he was at the Bauhaus and while he was engaged in photography, he was as unambiguous as they come. His frame of mind was that artists should use photography in accordance to its objective function as a medium. That function, as he put it, is the ability to convey chiaroscuro.
Chiaroscuro is the portrayal of the qualities of lightness and darkness in a painting. Paintings with extreme differences between shadow and light are said to contain a high degree of chiaroscuro. László Moholy-Nagy perceived photography as a medium primarily concerned with light, and thus considered it the ultimate medium through which to portray chiaroscuro. He saw this as the highest use of the medium, and many of his earliest abstract photographs were intended as pure, formal compositions of white, black and shades of grey. These images become abstract when we focus on the chiaroscuro, because we acknowledge that the object being photographed is not the subject, but that the subject is an idea, in this case the idea of lightness and darkness.
The Mystic Mundane
In addition to chiaroscuro, László Moholy-Nagy also identified several other unique abstract qualities he believed were inherent to photography, all of which he sought to express in his work. One is the ability to transform something mundane into something magical through the manipulation of formal elements like exposure and composition. All around us, imagery exists that, if we were able to see it from a certain perspective we would appreciate its surreal, dreamlike, or even mystical aesthetic properties. But our true experience of the world limits our perspective and inhibits us from selecting what we see and how we see it.
A camera inherently sees reality from an edited point of view. It can freeze a moment and extend it forever in time. Photography also exploits the fact that the human mind instinctively perceives anything the eye sees in a photograph as reality. Even though a photograph shows us only a partial view of the world, one that has been manipulated by the artist, our mind still interprets it as true. This can cause something familiar to seem unfamiliar, or vice versa, and that uncanny experience can create a sense that what we are seeing somehow transcends the natural.
Another potentially abstract quality in photography is the ability the artist has to use the medium to create multiplicity. László Moholy-Nagy accomplished multiples in various ways in his photographs. Sometimes he exposed a negative multiple times, creating compositions that contained simultaneous different perspectives on a single subject; much like a Cubist painting. Other times he made a print that featured multiples of the same image, resulting in strange compositions of repeating identical objects.
While looking at these images our mind struggles to identify what it should consider as the subject matter. Is the subject the recognizable image of a person or an object? Should we ignore the fact of multiple images or multiple perspectives? Or is the subject matter the idea of repetition? In truth, the subject matter is the fact that we do not know the subject matter. It is the abstract representation of the as yet unknown.
Truth Through Distortion
Perspective may be the most powerful abstract tool a photographer possesses. A photograph allows the whole world to see whatever a single camera can see. In one sense, perspective heightens the ability of a photograph to show us reality. For example, in his famous photograph Balconies, Moholy-Nagy gives us a new perspective on the harmonious composition of objects in the real world by capturing the geometric composition of architecture in the sunlight. This is the visual truth of our ordered, geometric environment, as our limited eyesight will not allow us to see it.
In another sense, perspective heightens the ability of a photograph to distort reality. In his photograph called Berlin Radio Tower, Moholy-Nagy shows us a point of view so subjective that it is almost kitschy. This is our world as we will likely never see it in real life, or need to see it. This is reality, but not our everyday reality. We can appreciate the photograph purely according to its objective subject mater, or we can appreciate its compositional elements, removed from any personal responsibility to the content. Or we can interpret the subject matter as the abstract notion of our usual inability to see a wider perspective on our world.
New Ways to See
Many of the photographs László Moholy-Nagy created seem distorted, obscured or intentionally abstracted. But he did not define them according to those properties. He saw the camera as a tool through which a heightened, universal reality could be expressed. But in order to express that heightened reality he believed the camera had to be used “in conformity with its own laws and its own distinctive character.”
He defined the distinctive character of photography as something simultaneously objective and abstract. Photography captures reality, but does not always limit its subject matter to the reality it captures. Instead, the subject matter revolves around notions of lightness and darkness, the mystery of perspective, the ability to freeze motion and the power to extend time. Through his work, Moholy-Nagy demonstrated how abstract photographs are not necessarily distortions, but rather in the hands of a visionary artist can be, “An invitation to re-evaluate our way of seeing.”