Larry Bell

Vapor Drawing LNVF XI


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Larry Bell born 1939
Metal on paper
Support: 1527 x 1076 mm
Purchased 1979

Not on display

Catalogue entry

T02412 VAPOUR DRAWING LNVFXI 7/10/79 1979

Inscribed ‘L. Bell 79’ b.r.
Vaporised metal on paper, 60 1/8 × 42 3/8 (152.8 × 107.6)
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1979

Larry Bell has used the industrial process of vacuum deposition to coat glass surfaces since 1962, when he made the Tate Gallery's mirrored box, ‘Untitled’ (T01695). He obtained his first vacuum chamber in 1966 and a larger one in 1969, making it possible to work with large-scale glass surfaces. In March 1978, he made his first ‘vapour drawing’ on paper, using a modified version of the vacuum coating process.

The material Bell uses to coat both his glass and his paper works is Inconel, a nickel chrome alloy containing iron, magnesium, cobalt and traces of other metals. This is loaded onto filaments (similar to those used for light bulbs), which are then placed in a vacuum chamber. Each filament is approximately six inches long and is made up of stranded tungsten wire around the centre of which is wrapped a twelve inch strip of Inconel wire.

To make a ‘vapour drawing’, the artist tapes a sheet of 100% rag paper (usually Arches or Rives) to a steel sheet which is then rolled or curved in the vacuum chamber for coating. He controls the coating process by masking the paper with strips of 1 Mill (1/1000 of 1 inch) thick plastic film which he cuts in varying widths and lengths and tapes to the steel sheet. After the initial coating process, the artist may remove the sheet, re-mask the paper and subject it to the vapour source again, until the composition is complete.

Once the paper has been placed in the chamber at an angle so as to catch the Inconel deposit, air is withdrawn from the chamber, creating a vacuum. A small quantity of pure oxygen is then released into the vessel and an electric current is passed through it. The electrical discharge purges the surface of the paper of any extraneous matter, thus preparing it for coating. This process lasts for about four minutes, after which the high voltage discharge is shut off and the pressure inside the vacuum chamber is reduced. A current is then applied to the filaments holding the Inconel material. As a result, the Inconel vaporises and fills the chamber as a gas which is deposited onto the paper as a thin film. The variation in thickness of this coating is determined by the curvature of the steel sheet, in relation to the Inconel-bearing filaments, so that areas closest to the vapour source receive a heavier coating and those curving away from the source, a lighter one. The artist purchases the Inconel material in California and uses a high vacuum coating apparatus which was built for him in 1968 by Edwards High Vacuum of Grand Island, New York. (The parent company is based in Sussex).

The ‘vapour drawings’ are conceived in series and the artist wrote (21 October 1981) that to date, he had initiated sixty-three series, some comprising as many as seventy works. He has made drawings on both black and white paper, in a variety of sizes and compositional arrangements and has pointed out that the size of these drawings is not determined by their method of fabrication. Some ‘vapour drawings’ as in the case of T02411 and T02412 are designed to be displayed singly but some series were conceived as potentially interlocking, several drawings being hung together to make up a multi-panelled image. A number of these multi-panelled works were recently exhibited in New York (Larry Bell/Multiples, Marian Goodman Gallery, January–February 1979)

Asked about the signficance of the titles of T02411 and T02412, the artist replied that ‘LDIF4’ stands for ‘Large Diagonal Fade # 4’ and ‘LNVFXI’ for ‘Large New Vertical Fade Eccentric # 1’. Each drawing is marked with its date of fabrication, following the American convention of preceding day by month.

The ‘vapour drawings’ resemble in their austerity and beauty the ambiguous, reflective and spatial qualities of Bell's glass works, where, by controlling the density of the metallic coating, he is able to vary degrees of transparency and opacity across a surface.

Asked about the relationship between his drawings and sculpture the artist replied (21 October 1980) ‘Inherent in any aspect of an artist's work are the prejudices that make up his rules for that work. The drawings are two dimensional, the sculptures are three dimensional. Both elements contain the traits of my interests, visual and otherwise’.

The above entry is based on information supplied by the artist in two questionnaires which he completed and returned to the Tate in March and October 1980. It has been approved by him.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1978-80: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1981