First Things First
I’m fond of remembering the origins of artists’ careers. Their first shows often give a sense of who championed the work, and how it was defined by critics. In 1966, the Jewish Museum in New York presented the first show of Minimal art, titled Primary Structures. While citing most of the major figures in that new movement in modern sculpture (then called Minimal art or ABC art), curator Kynaston McShine included Larry Bell, one of the younger artists. Bell’s work was not unknown to the New York audience, as it had been shown by Sidney Janis Gallery in their 1964 exhibit Seven New Artists and a major one-man show at the prestigious Pace Gallery in 1965. In fact, Bell’s sculpture had already caught the attention of none other than minimalist Donald Judd, who cited Larry Bell in his 1965 essay Specific Objects for Arts Yearbook.
Indeed, Larry Bell’s early reductive, cool glass sculptures were exhibited and discussed in many major survey shows and publications. New York historian and critic Michael Benedikt contributed Sculpture as Architecture: New York Letter, 1966-7 to Art International, and that essay discusses the 1966 Whitney Annual. The author stated, “Box sculpture may well have reached a ne plus ultra with Joseph Cornell, represented by a Celestial Box of more than familiar star/goblet iconography. The recent work of Larry Bell (seen here in one of his icily elegant empty boxes, untitled) and perhaps that of Sol LeWitt (on view with one of his glassless, multi-compartmented boxes) are, I think, as close to Cornell as to the Primary Structure”.
By the next year, 1967, New York historian and critic Irving Sandler spoke directly about Bell’s work, writing “The rectilinear scaffolds of Sol LeWitt and Larry Bell section and contain space, turning it into masses of air—negative solids—unlike the constructions of the 1950’s, which pierce and cut into space vigorously.” The Sandler essay appeared in the catalogue for American Sculpture of the Sixties at LACMA, and was included in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology.
I’ve been thinking about these original sources and the early exhibit history, since Larry Bell’s work is now included in Primary Atmospheres. “A splendid show, at the David Zwirner gallery, of California minimalism, mostly from the late nineteen-sixties, revisits an apotheosis of the continental divide”, according to the brilliant and esteemed New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl. The exhibit at Zwirner, notes Schjeldahl, contains works that “feel as fresh as this morning.” The poetic wordsmith goes on to especially revisit Bell’s work:
“Take Larry Bell’s glass boxes: chrome-framed cubes, vacuum coated with vaporized minerals (usually grayish, but gold in one instance). The transparent objects admit your gaze. The space inside them is a continuation of the space you occupy, simply inflected with misty tones. The works are echt minimalist in that they are understood almost before they are seen. Mystery-free, they leave you nothing to be conscious of except yourself, affected by their presence. But unlike, say, Judd’s sternly confrontational metal and wooden geometries, they don’t mind seducing. They are as obvious as furniture and as dreamy as whatever mood you’re in. Not only elegant, they precipitate a feeling of elegance: ease, suavity, cool.”
Schjeldahl writes that he saw the art of Bell and others, as it emerged over 40 years ago. I take it from his comments that New York critics did not universally favor the work: “In the sixties, puritanical New Yorkers (me included) liked to deplore the air of lotus-eating chic that Bell shared with other California minimalists.” Yet, now Schjeldahl comes to the conclusion that “the intellectual integrity of the cubes, merging Euclid with reverie, proves rock solid.”
Having helped the curator with the organization of the show, I’ll be very pleased to see Primary Atmospheres in early February. I’m just wondering how many visitors will recognize the connection to the show titled Primary Structures. First things first.