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Art meets architecture: Larry Bell and Frank Gehry

October 26, 2011 |  2:05 pm

Frank Gehry, World Savings and Loan (now Wells Fargo), Toluca Lake
Architect Frank Gehry has often talked about the influence artists have had on his building designs. A good example illustrating what he was getting at just went on view at Frank Lloyd Gallery in Santa Monica, while others are in the Pacific Standard Time show "Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface" at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. An early work from the 1960s by sculptor Larry Bell in the Frank Lloyd show offers a partial template for a Gehry design built three decades ago in Toluca Lake.

Gehry's World Savings and Loan branch at Riverside Drive and Mariota Avenue is a sky-lighted, one-story hall framed by tall facades out front and in the back, as if a full second story had been planned but never built. Gehry cut open-windows into the tall rear wall, which mesh with the residential scale of the neighborhood beyond the modest parking lot behind the bank. The pair of two-story facades gives this relatively small building greater presence on the low-rise suburban street -- a presence that the current occupant, Wells Fargo, has ratcheted up with a blast of bombast in the form of over-scaled signage.

But it's the front facade where Bell's influence is most obvious.

At Frank Lloyd Gallery, an untitled 1962 painting shows how Bell was in the process of working toward the glass cube sculptures for which he is best known today. He sliced off opposite corners of the canvas; painted a skewed black rectangle that suggests an isometric projection of a box fused with the resulting canvas edges; and, finally, inserted mirrors that further complicate illusions of internal cubic spaces within a picture that is otherwise resolutely two-dimensional.

Larry Bell, "Untitled," 1962, mixed media
That's what Gehry achieved on his bank facade too. Instead of paint, canvas and mirrors, the architect utilized artfully arranged mullions and rectilinear shapes of black and clear glass. In effect he drew a shifting cubic projection on the building's front surface, which takes advantage of transparency and reflection. For a motorist driving by, the unusual bank seems to unfold in space.

In addition to that unfortunate new signage, Gehry's original design has also been compromised by the removal of one black-glass shape at the left, in order to accommodate a pair of ATM machines. The defacement throws the symmetrical composition out of balance.

Still, it's easy to see how Gehry's long-standing friendship with Bell had an impact on his work. Gehry was rethinking the plain commercial boxes that proliferate in the typical American landscape, and Bell was exploring the Minimalist box as a distinctive sculptural form. Think of the little bank as a finish-fetish building, or maybe an architecture of light and space.

RELATED:

Art review: 'Glenn Ligon: America' at LACMA

Art review: "Monet/Lichtenstein: Rouen Cathedrals" at LACMA

Art review: 'Under the Big Black Sun' at MOCA

-- Christopher Knight

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photos: Frank Gehry, World Savings and Loan (now Wells Fargo), Toluca Lake; credit: Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times. Larry Bell, "Untitled," 1962, mixed media; credit: Frank Lloyd Gallery

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