Larry Bell, 2D-3D: Glass & Vapor opened on July 17, 2015 at White Cube, Mason’s Yard in London. With pieces in group shows currently at Kohn Gallery and Quint Gallery in California; a piece in America Is Hard to See, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s inaugural exhibition; and recent solo shows at Peter Blake Gallery, Frank Lloyd Gallery, Chinati Foundation, White Cube Hong Kong, São Paulo and Bermondsey; Larry Bell continues to be a significant force in contemporary art. On the occasion of these recent exhibitions we revisit this exploration of Bell’s 1974 Graphicstudio project.
This piece was originally published in the October 2011 issue of Art in America.
FLOCKED PINK LADIES: AN ANOMALY
Experimenting with a panoramic camera in the late ‘60s, Larry Bell subsequently used some of the trippy photographs in a striking suite of uncharacteristic and largely forgotten prints.
By Faye Hirsch
It was about a decade ago that I first saw a group of six large, pink-and-black, distorted female nudes by Larry Bell. Surprised, I had to ask twice if the untitled screenprints were by that Larry Bell–the glass boxes Larry Bell. The staff at Graphicstudio, the collaborative workshop at the University of South Florida (USF) where he had completed the prints in 1974, assured me that it was, indeed, the same Larry Bell. Lodged in my memory, the suite – which, in an edition of 60, has even today not sold out – resurfaced a couple of autumns ago, to my delight, at Graphicstudio’s booth at the International Fine Print Dealers Association’s annual New York fair.
The prints were as spectacular as I remembered: tall verticals–all but one 84 by 42 inches–in which the life-size image of a spread-legged naked woman with long dark hair ripples as if in a funhouse mirror. Most strikingly, they are fuzzy. Produced in four ink runs (ocher, black and two shades of pink), the prints underwent a fifth pass in tinted varnish that was then coated with a translucent white rayon flocking.1 They are, in other words, a printed species of velvet painting, but ultra chic, and bearing the trippy aura of the era.
I’ve wondered about the prints ever since first seeing them, so I recently e-mailed Bell to ask him how they came about. As it turns out, in 1973 he was teaching part-time at USF, where Donald Saff was chairman of the art department and founder (in 1968) of the university’s affiliated print workshop. In the first eight years of Graphicstudio’s operations, Saff invited Philip Pearlstein, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Mel Ramos and Ed Ruscha, among others, to make prints. Along with Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) on Long Island, Tamarind Press in Albuquerque, Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, Crown Point Press in San Francisco and numerous smaller ventures, Graphicstudio, with its capacity for large scale and willingness to innovate through all manner of technical gymnastics, was revolutionizing collaborative printmaking in the U.S.
Bell had “never paid much attention” to prints, as he writes me,2 and was interested in trying his hand at the medium. Invited by Saff, he brought along some photographs he had shot in 1968-69, when he was experimenting with panoramic cameras while waiting for a special glass-coating machine to be custom-built in his studio. (These photographs, along with the screenprints, were included in a major Bell exhibition organized by Marie de Brugerolle last winter at the Carré d’Art–Musée d’art contemporain de Nîmes.3) “A great deal of the works were torsos in motion,” Bell writes. Specifically, the torsos were those of naked women, in one photo seen handing colorful ceramic cups by Ken Price to each other (Pink Ladies), and, in a sequence of 14 black-and-white shots, rolling off a sofa (The Rollers). The open shutter warped their ongoing motion into distorted stills: thus the funhouse effect–sort of like Muybridge on L.S.D.
At that time, Graphicstudio mainly produced lithographs, so Saff called in master printer William Weege from the University of Wisconsin to achieve the effects in screenprint that Bell was seeking.4 “I still have the image [in my mind] of Bill Weege throwing the flocking on the floored prints then sweeping it off with a house broom. I really liked him; he was incredibly funny.” Bell was looking for a way to enlarge the images without making them utterly indecipherable. The flocking “diffused the light across the pink images and melded the dots into reasonable shapes of the torsos–easily recognizable at 35mm but not at 7 feet high.”
In their psychedelic quality, the images are very much of their times. “I smoked a lot of pot and did some acid in my younger days,” explains Bell, “and when I saw the 1970 film Performance with Mick Jagger it reminded me of the images I was working on. I thought they would make good posters for the culture that liked that kind of stuff. I was wrong, and it was not the first or last time for that.”
Why the prints didn’t sell out instantly, and why no one seems to know about them, has always been a mystery to me. Perhaps it’s their anomalous status within the oeuvre of the artist, or the perennial challenges of marketing prints. But maybe, too, they are just too sexually flagrant, too incorrect. “I did get a lot of flack from Judy Gerowitz,” writes Bell, “although it was good humored since she was a good ol’ pal and on her way to becoming Judy Chicago.”
“Some time later,” Bell goes on, “the Gemini people offered me the opportunity to do some prints, and I wanted to continue with the images from the same period, same size. But they were too raunchy for the business of ‘fine art’ and the project produced only one image. I was then politely asked to get the hell out of there.” But Bell himself does not care for the Graphicstudio prints. “I was resistant to showing them in the [Nîmes] show, but Marie de Brugerolle insisted and I agreed. When we hung the work I was gratified to learn that I still did not like them but was not afraid to use them for the show.” In fact, he adds, “I did cut a few up to collage into other images, which I liked. But if someone wants a suite, we have ‘em.”
1 For a description of the process, see documentation sheets published in Gene Baro, Graphicstudio USF: An Experiment in Art and Education, New York, Brooklyn Museum, 1978, pp. 99-104.
2 All Bell quotes are taken from e-mails to the author, Aug. 11 and 12, 2011.
3 Larry Bell, Carré d’Art–Musée d’art contemporain de Nîmes, exh. Cat., Dijon, Les presses du reel, 2010, pp. 11-13, 20-24.
4 Weege went on to found another important workshop, Tandem Press, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, in 1987.