The door is open to artist Larry Bell's studio just a block from the sand in Venice Beach. Wearing a hat, his signature look, and puffing one of his favorite Nicaraguan Oliva cigars, the painter/sculptor/collagist is explaining how he came to have one of the neighborhood's hottest new restaurants named after him.
The spot is three-week-old Larry's, a laid-back cafe opened by the Hotel Erwin, a mere block from Bell’s studio. The tapas-style food, quite a cut above the typical fare at Windward and Pacific Avenues, is by chef Brendan Collins of critically-beloved Waterloo & City restaurant in Mar Vista.
"It might be sort of a quid pro quo," says the 71-year-old Bell, one of the pioneers of California's Light and Space art movement, along with Robert Irwin and James Turrell. He's had a studio in Venice since the mid-sixties and, along the way, stayed countless times at the hotel, which was formerly a Best Western called the Marina Pacific, and is operated by the Joie de Vivre hotel group.
At a meeting with co-owner Erwin Sokol, Bell suggested the hotel's name. "I didn’t like any of the names and I just spoke up and said I think we should call it the Hotel Erwin cause Erwin built it. And that became the name," says Bell, who splits his time between Venice and a place in Taos, New Mexico.
Sokol turned around and asked if Bell would lend his name to the hotel’s latest venture — "If I'd design the logo," says Bell. It's right there at the entrance to Larry's, a caricature in neon of the artist, complete with hat and cigar. A space above the bar is decorated with a collection of his cigar boxes and hats as well.
Bell's only demand? "I was quite frank that it had to be good if I was going to invite my friends." Bell's old pal Ed Moses has already been in several times. In the past three years though, his friends Robert Graham and Dennis Hopper both passed away. Recalls Bell: "Dennis was one of the first movie people ever to buy one of my works in the early 60s." Graham's former studio and residence — which his widow, actress Anjelica Huston currently has on the market for $16.8 million — sits right across from the restaurant.
The seminal Venice artist is about to inaugurate another space as well. He's recently rented a space right next to his studio where he’ll mount a new solo show, opening Oct. 3. The artist will exhibit some never-before-seen work from early in his career. It's timed to coincide with Pacific Standard Time, the sweeping Getty-funded arts initiative that will see forty concurrent exhibitions open this fall, all focusing on the influence of California in art and design. He's not benefiting from the Getty's largesse though. "I'm doing it on my own. It's a roll of the dice, bro."
Bell — whose most recognizable pieces are his minimalist cube sculptures from the early 60s that rest on clear pedestals — is currently at work on a series of abstract collages made from mylar, laminate, film and paper. They blanket every wall of his studio and earlier pieces also hang at what's known as Larry's Lounge, a conference room at the Hotel Erwin. The works' colors, created through an interaction of aluminum and quartz, rest in the hazy opalescent territory of motor oil spilled on asphalt. Figures, in the barest of outlines, seem to live in some of the collages. But, seen from different viewpoints and depending on the direction and quality of light, they sometimes almost disappear in ghost-like fashion.
Of course, when he's not holed up in his studio, Bell can often be found enjoying a beer at his namesake restaurant. Read on to find out what dishes Bell can't get enough of at Larry's — which offers up 26 beers on tap and where dishes top out at $15 — as well as a short list of his other must-visit Venice restaurants:
What are your favorite dishes at Larry's? There’s very good pizza. In particular, I like the brussels sprouts pizza [with bacon, parmesan and chili vinegar]. I’ve never had that before. It's fabulous. And I like the Larry's BLT [rye, pork cheek, beefsteak tomatoes, romaine and bbq mayo.]
What's your beer of choice? I like Mexican beer. They have Negra Modelo and they have it on draft and you don't find that very often.
Where else do you eat in Venice? I'm real partial to soul food. I like Campos on Windward. It's Mexican soul food. Dollar for dollar it's the best meal in the area. My palate is pretty simple and they are close. I go to Capri because it's the only restaurant I know on Abbot Kinney that's not noisy. The food at Gjelina and the Tasting Kitchen and Joe's is fantastic but you can't hear anything. Also, when I was there last time, I thought Piccolo was fantastic.
How has Venice changed over the year? When I first came here and looked towards Santa Monica and saw 20 people on the boardwalk that was a big day. Nobody was down here. It was funky and cheap. Now it’s funky and expensive.
Why have you stayed in Venice all these years? It’s a high-energy place. The air is ionized. The weather is always great. I don't mean that in a superficial way. The millions of feet that have walked here have pounded energy into the boardwalk. It reeks of energy. There's a kind of creative force that exists. It’s always worked for me. I think it's one of the only real places in the city.
Larry's, 24 Windward Avenue, Venice, CA, 310-399-2700, larrysvenice.com