Larry Bell is a Rock Star.
Of course he is an artist – that’s a given and goes without saying. After all he’s been doing what he does for half a century, replete with International recognition and acclaim since he was in his early twenties.
Even the art he makes, is akin to music and stages and the road and the life that comes with all that. The crazy, vacuum packed mylar twisted mobiles, the bendy figures and Carney mirrors that double up – it all doubles up. The childsplay and the intellectual focus.
And the magic. What Larry calls the Hocus.
The fascination with the play of light on surfaces reminds me of Dylan’s fascination with a narrative story line – an obsession that compulsively draws one back to the medium of choice. Constantly searching for resolution and redemption through a particular form.
Clearly, the curvilinear lines in Larry’s Church Studies, suggest another Rock Star tendency; women and guitars. The Pink Ladies, which are missing from this show, are a more literal expression.
12, he says relates to the strings on a twelve-string guitar. When I think of 12 strings, I think of the time the Byrds played in Johannesburg. We stayed in the same hotel. I rode up in the elevator with Roger McGuinn. George Harrison and Tom Petty too, loved the 12 stringed instrument.
Larry’s studio in Taos is where he keeps the guitars he’s collected as long as he’s been doing what he does.
As he sits with a gaggle of journalists (self included), who pester him with questions during a catered lunch of assorted sandwiches, hosted by the Harwood Museum, he appears both slightly uncomfortable and self-assured all at once. He’s used to all this and changes hats with ease whether he likes it or not. Probably not.
Here we were, in the Rock Star’s enclave, with the guitars and the women (his assistant Patou, his long-time friend, former partner, mother of his three children and truly remarkable woman in her own right, Janet Webb, and their oldest daughter Zara.) Their youngest daughter Rachel was presumably busy at Shank or with her four kids!
Oliver, their son, was also in the building.
After lunch everyone went to the old studio with the sci-fi vacuum tank with all of its nuts and bolts in full view, wires snaking around its curved side. Larry led the way around the contraption where they squeezed into a small space, gathered ‘round Larry as he answered their questions about the tank and what it does, how it works and so on.
Larry’s instrument for the music he makes out of paper and mylar and dreams.
I took the opportunity to look around the big adjacent work space. A couple of the twisted, holographic looking mobiles caught the light, hanging from the high, vaulted ceiling. On a shelf an installation of paper 3D storybook houses were encased in a glass cube along with other disparate objects . A sign posted in front of the cube read “One bomb is too many.”
I snapped a few shots of corners of Larry’s studio. I had been here before and had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with the tank, when I brought my friend (NPR CEO, and a collector of Larry’s work), Jarl Mohn to meet Larry a year or so ago. Jarl comes outta a serious Rock & Roll background; Top 40 Radio in the 70’s (where he was a crack DJ, known as Lee Masters when I met him), then MTV, E Entertainment Networks and now NPR.
I first met Larry on the streets of NYC in 1979, introduced by my not yet ex-husband Sonny Robinson. Sonny knew Larry from Taos and the Ocean Club and Max’s Kansas City scenes – spin-offs of Andy’s Factory scene – both Sonny and Larry had been in Andy’s circles. I say circles, because Andy drifted. He was loyal to himself.
I too had fallen into the Andyesque rabbit hole, landing at the Mudd Club the minute I arrived in NYC. The Mudd Club is where I had met Sonny who at that time worked for yet another Mickey Ruskin operation at 1 University Place.
Sonny introduced Larry to me as a Blues and guitar aficionado. Sonny is a secret Rock Star, and it takes one to know one.
I learned that Larry and his family lived in Taos (where I’d not yet been), and that he’d moved there along with several other artists, including Ron Davis and Ron Cooper, at the invitation of Dennis Hopper.
Anyway, after we divorced and I relocated to Taos, our children became friends with the Bell kids, but it wasn’t until the kids were in their teens, and I was commuting between Taos and Santa Fe for work (which I did for a period of time), and in a relationship at the time, with an artist in Santa Fe, that I reconnected with Larry.
Paul Shapiro is another artist who sings the Blues. Another (not so secret) Rock Star, so it was no big surprise to see Larry turn up in Paul’s circle of friends, which brings me back to my point.
Larry Bell is a Rock Star.
As I snooped around the studio, I could watch and listen from a little side passage, so I tuned in here and there. Robert Cafazzo asked a couple of questions that elicited interesting responses and indeed, earlier on, during lunch Robert had asked him about the guitars and whether he plays them and Larry let loose.
He told this story about working in a Folk Club in LA during the 50’s, when he was an aspiring Folk Singer. A coffee-house, no bar. People came for the entertainment. When I interviewed Dylan in 78, he told me that there were lots of places around the country like that back then. “They were down home and different.” He said.
Larry said he was working the door and Lenny Bruce was the act that night (I mean Lenny Bruce? It doesn’t get more Rock Star than that. Dylan even wrote a song about him), and there were folks lined up around the block, but the people inside wouldn’t leave, so the owner had Larry go onstage and play, and he said the place emptied instantly!
Larry is hard of hearing, due to a condition that went undiagnosed for decades. He wears a hearing aid and it helps to speak loudly around him. If he doesn’t like what you say, he can conveniently pretend not to hear.
This however has not gotten in the way of him jamming with friends over the years, although he says he doesn’t really do that anymore.
When asked about the kind of music he likes, he answered like a true Rock Star.
“Oh I like the Blues,” he replied definitively, acknowledging the magic in the music right off, “and Folk Music,” he continued.”
“I like traditional songs, you know, nothing too produced.”
In his introduction to this show at the Harwood, where we had all gathered earlier for a preview before the studio visit, Gus Foster the curator of this stunning show of Larry Bell’s work, explained that “this was not a retrospective”, although it goes back through the archives of the artist’s work. But that rather, “Larry sees his exhibitions as extensions of his studio”, inviting the viewer to participate in the process.
The show is exhibited in four of the Harwood’s galleries; three installations downstairs and one upstairs.
Here one sees the essence of Larry in his full glory. One enters to a collection of familiar pieces made through the years – all of which are part of the Harwood’s collection. A collection of his mid-career Fragments unframed, hang on the back wall with three of the mylar mobiles suspended above them.
I was, like Robert Cafazzo, drawn to a window box filled with bric a brac and photographs, bits and pieces of ephemera chronicling a path through life. And there was the Sgt. Pepper Album Cover. During lunch, Larry told us that Dennis Hopper had taken the shot. I had mused out loud that I thought it was pretty cool that both Dennis and Dean (Stockwell) had photos on that iconic cover. It’s even cooler that Larry is on the cover.
Janet had remarked that “Larry, Dylan, Paul and Ringo are the only ones included in that collage who are still living.”
In another, darkly lit space, three large installations play with light to trick the eye.
Upstairs we get the whole picture.
The room is hung with the Church Studies (named for the former church they were made in) and a selection of his insane collection of guitars that rival any Rock Star’s. In the center of the space, two of his Art Deco chairs (Larry occasionally designs furniture too), are placed facing backwards and forwards as is the artist’s wont; playing with mirror images whether there is glass involved or not.
And therein lies the duality. The smoke and mirrors, the shadow boxing with light.
Hocus, Focus and 12.
Larry Bell’s new show at the Harwood Museum, entitled Hocus, Focus and 12, opened on June 9th and runs through October 7th. The show is thoughtfully curated by Larry’s old friend, photographer Gus Foster. For more about the exhibition please visit the sites linked below this post.
Larry Bell is included in Taos: 1960’s – Present, currently on view at the Vivian Horan Gallery in NYC.
The cubes that started everything and Larry, Janet and their daughter Zara, thanks to Robert Cafazzo. All other images taken on my iphone in Larry’s studio except for Jarl Mohn and Larry, taken by me on Jarl’s phone.
Robert Caffazo’s blog, Two Graces is linked on my sidebar.