By Tucker Neel
Originally published in Artillery Magazine Vol.2 No. 1, Sept. 2007
One of the grandfathers of Minimalism and a forerunner of “installation art,” Dan Flavin’s ambitious environments were often very site-specific, designed to activate the experience of a certain place. In 2005 I had the pleasure of seeing his traveling retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Taken together in the context of a retrospective in the museum, Flavin’s work seems a little amputated, purely historical, pointing to an earlier place and time. Yet in DC, one piece, untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection) from 1973, stood out among the rest as a testament to Flavin’s lasting influence as an artist.
A long, four-foot-tall barricade made of rectangles of green fluorescent lights, the piece commanded a space near an expansive window on the second floor of I.M. Pei’s architectural masterpiece. While outside of the museum I was captivated by the work’s radioactive glow, it was positively the strangest thing I had ever seen in this rather conservative institution. Once I was inside, Flavin’s work dominated the museum, bathing everything with the slightest tinge of emerald green. When I got close to the sculpture it burned its chroma into my eyes, and when I looked away, I was surprised to find that the intense light shifted my vision. A pink haze suddenly coated everything in sight from Tony Smith’s Die sculpture, to Gerhard Richter’s nearby abstract squeegee painting. I was “looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses.” While the rest of the works in the exhibition testified to Flavin’s dogged pursuit of the formal and conceptual possibilities of fluorescent light, his medium of choice, nothing really seemed to measure up to the phenomenological intensity of that first green installation, its ability to completely change its surrounding’s visual and metaphorical meanings.
At the L.A.C.M.A. Flavin’s retrospective feels cool, calculated and better organized. Perhaps this is because L.A. is the last stop for the show, and the curators have worked out the kinks. While the DC show felt like a mortuary, the museum’s dark carpeting dulled his light and muffled the sound in each space, at LACMA Flavin’s light reflects off the gallery’s wooden floors and radiates across the walls. And thankfully at the L.A.C.M.A. his work is positioned perfectly so that light from one piece doesn’t spill into the space of another, a problem that was evident in the DC show where the work seemed cramped in the museum’s small galleries.
In both venues the retrospective begins with Flavin’s icons, his first works incorporating store-bought lights. The most formative of these is icon IV (the pure land) (to David John Flavin [1933-1962]) dated from 1962-1969. Here Flavin created a memorial to his dead twin brother out of a simple painted white box topped with a single modest florescent white light. With the icons, Flavin not only pioneered his use of titles to suggest something just outside of the self-referential fluorescent tube, he also began to explore the seemingly infinite formal possibilities inherit in the simple geometry of a glowing line.
With monument 4 for those who have been killed in ambush (to P.K. who reminded me about death) from 1966, Flavin employed this technique with phenomenal results. Consisting of a triangular construction of eight-foot-long lights positioned in the corner of a darkened room, the piece glows a deep impenetrable red and hangs ominously in the air like a flying bird, a stealth bomber, or a blast of light aimed right at the viewer’s retinas. The effect is undeniable. In its imposing and frankly disturbing light, one cannot help but project feelings of dread, loss, and fear onto the piece. Made in 1966, the piece is rooted in an scathing analysis of the Vietnam War yet, unsurprisingly, its deftly assertive title maintains its import today and will no doubt remain timely as long as the original conditions that gave it resonance remain in place.
In what is undoubtedly the most theatrical room in the show, the LACMA recreated three adjacent corridors Flavin designed for the E.F. Hauserman Co. showroom at the Pacific Design Center in 1982. The central passageway, untitled (to my dear bitch, Airily), is a 52 foot long corridor lined with dozens of equidistant eight-foot-long blue fluorescents positioned at tilted angles highlighting an altered perspectival view of the installation. Walking through this tunnel is like entering a fun-house; the experience is a little over the top, the sheer spectacle overwhelming, diminishing the subtle play of light and title so masterfully deployed in Flavin’s earlier works.
Bars of lights placed back to back against each other block two hallways on either side of this long blue corridor. One hallway houses pink and yellow lights, the other pink and green. Once inside the corridor one is bathed in light with a view of the other chamber and the other people in it. Depending on which side of the corridor one is standin.g, this installation causes the viewer’s appearance to change dramatically. While bathed in yellow, my pasty skin appeared jaundiced and sickly, but the pink light produced a flattering healthy glow. The sensation of watching others through the bars of light, and consequently being watched, was discomforting and no doubt a critical aspect of the work.
Maybe it’s just inevitable with a blockbuster retrospective like this but seeing all of Flavin’s works together makes them appear more like a shtick when originally they were well thought-out artistic interventions into specific architectural environments. I admire Flavin for being so dedicated to his medium and pushing the boundaries of what exactly could be called art during his lifetime. Any artist working today can learn a lot from him about how to activate space with the most economical of means. But I left both versions of his retrospective wishing I had been lucky enough to see the original installations back in the day instead of in their current reworked state.