Although he has lived in Taos, New Mexico, since 1973, Larry Bell is still chiefly associated with the Light and Space movement that emerged in southern California in the 1960s. His early works epitomised the group: semi-mirrored glass cubes that, through their fleeting reflectivity, reacted to — as advertised — the light and space around them, deft exercises in highlighting the processes of perception.
On a cold day last December, sitting outside her studio in Santa Monica, Calif., the artist Suzanne Lacy talked excitedly about the coming year. In Manchester, England, exhibitions of her work were already open at the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Manchester Art Gallery. She looked forward to a prestigious fellowship at the University of Manchester in the spring.
In May 2020, the sculptor Charles Ray was driving north from his home in Los Angeles to Anacortes, in Washington state, to see a man about a boat. Locked up in the early months of the pandemic, the restless Ray got what he calls ‘Covid fever’ and, despite the entreaties of his wife Sylvia, threw a sleeping bag into the back of his car and set off for the boatyard, near the Canadian border, where he needed to make some decisions about the layout of a sailing boat that was being built for him. Ray takes sailing very seriously indeed. In 2003 he was nearly shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean when an unlit military vessel collided with him in the middle of the night; this new boat, he tells me, is designed to accommodate his wife and her friends so Ray will not have to sail alone.
Many – if not all – artists eventually acquire origin stories, formative experiences to which all their subsequent artistic achievements can plausibly be traced. Tony Smith had his night-time drive on the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike; Louise Bourgeois had her father’s affair; Andy Warhol had his time drawing ads for shoes. Such stories become more meaningful as they recede in time, ossifying with use and reuse.
The Arts and Industries Building, built in 1881 by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, began life as a place to house artefacts from the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia. It became the US’s first national museum. Over the years, its purpose was rejigged as new Smithsonian museums spawned around it, and it accrued various nicknames from “the Mother of Museums” to “the Palace of Invention”.
Last summer, the painter Sarah Cain was contemplating the biggest project of her career: a 45-foot-long painting for the East Building Atrium of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. Cain, 42, has been making caustically colorful, improvised abstractions since the mid-2000s and had been commissioned to hide construction walls during refurbishment of the atrium’s skylight. Nearby sculptures by Max Ernst, Isamu Noguchi and Richard Serra, too large to relocate, were protected by wooden boxes. Cain was tasked with painting on the boxes, too — each bigger than her studio. (And she needed a title.)
At one point in Rachel Kushner’s recently published novella, “The Mayor of Leipzig,” the narrator, an American artist, reveals: “I personally know the author of this story you’re reading. Because she thinks of herself as an art-world type, a hanger-on.”
When Charles Gaines was in elementary school in Newark, New Jersey, in the 1950s, he showed an aptitude for drawing. His well-meaning teacher suggested to his mother that perhaps he should be an artist. He could be the first black artist in the history of the world, she said.
Sometime not long ago, before the pandemic rendered such gatherings unconscionable, I met up with a few fellow critics for drinks at a friend’s house. At one point in the evening, during a boisterous discussion about artists’ personal politics, someone casually remarked that so-and-so was ‘definitely a misogynist’, and everyone roundly agreed before cantering on with the conversation.
Robert Longo makes aggressive, powerful images. They are usually big. Sometimes very big. High-definition, high-contrast, high-octane. Stereotypically masculine, he’d be the first to admit. Emphatically American.