Flavin's light show has bewitching glow

Fluorescent tubes become artist's wands of magic


October 13, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Talk all you want about the "dematerialization of the art object" - critic Lucy R. Lippard's fancy phrase for the emergence of conceptual art in the 1960s - but Dan Flavin's sculptures are still just a bunch of off-the-shelf fluorescent light fixtures with glowing, pastel-colored tubes.

Nothing fancy, nothing too terribly theoretical, abstract or fashionably French-ified: just your ordinary, mass-produced fluorescent light bulbs suitable for industrial or office use.

Yet in Flavin's hands they became living things, absolutely amazing embodiments of the cultural Zeitgeist.

Flavin, who died in 1996, was one of those artists whose work people looked at in the '60s and their first reaction probably was, "Whaaa?" Next reaction: "Heck, I could have done that!"

That's not likely to happen at the terrific exhibition of Flavin's work that opened recently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, however. Dan Flavin: A Retrospective brings together more than 40 objects and installations - along with drawings, sketches and collages - by one of the most innovative artists of the second half of the 20th century.

Today it's easy to see why, if we had been there when Flavin was, we couldn't have done what he did: Nobody could've, except him.

Out of materials anyone could buy at the local hardware store, Flavin managed to create an art that was all atmosphere and aura, and practically nothing else. That took genius.

What, after all, could be more immaterial than a beam of light? Or more ethereal?

Flavin accepted the radical conceit of Marcel Duchamp and others that anything could be art if the artist said it was, and also the notion that the ideas embodied by artworks were more important than the objects themselves.

To this he joined the minimalist aesthetic of Donald Judd and pop art's mischievous delight in the banal artifacts of consumer culture. The result was a series of conceptually based, minimalist artworks of striking subtlety and beauty, all derived from the fluorescent light bulb, one of the most commonplace electrical appliances imaginable.

Take, for example, Flavin's untitled 1970 piece dedicated to the painter Barnett Newman. The work is a rectangular, floor-to-ceiling assembly of six standard fluorescent light fixtures arranged so the four red and blue tubes face the corner behind the piece while the two yellow tubes face the viewer.

Because the gallery's white walls reflect the red and blue lights, those two tints combine behind the piece to create the color violet, which is the complementary hue of the yellow lights facing the viewer.

Yet the overall effect is nothing like that of an art-school color wheel. Rather, it's a magical, mysterious glow that seems to envelop the viewer in a meditative aura of light with profound spiritual implications.

Flavin developed his technique after working with incandescent lights in the early 1960s, when he produced a series of works that he called "icons," boxlike constructions to which he attached various colored bulbs, and which he conceived of as occupying a space that was neither painting nor sculpture.

From the "icons" he moved to fluorescent tubes, either white or colored, which he mounted on the wall in the standard fixtures used for homes or offices. His first works consisted of a single tube; later he began to arrange them in groups.

In the late 1960s, Flavin created the first of several versions of his "monument" for V. Tatlin, dedicated to the pioneering Russian constructivist sculptor of the 1920s.

The pieces, which usually consisted of eight plain white tubes of varying lengths arranged in the form of lozenges, towers and other symmetrical shapes, called into question the whole idea of a monument as something permanent and enduring by substituting for the heavy materials of stone and bronze pure light, the most ephemeral and insubstantial of media.

Flavin strenuously resisted metaphysical and symbolic interpretations of his sculptures, insisting that his pieces had nothing to do with the "old art" he had rejected, including the idea of art itself as a permanent, discretely defined object.

But from the beginning his works struck critics and others in transcendent terms.

The fact that Flavin worked with pure light - not painted or photographed representations of it - seemed to connect his work to a long Western tradition of halos, gold-leaf backgrounds, candles, lamps and holy fires that for centuries had served as visual signifiers of the spiritual and the supernatural.

Today, many of his works may still strike us that way, despite the artist's intentions, but what's the harm?

Whatever else they may be, these are works that are meant to be experienced viscerally, and no one who visits this extraordinarily soulful exhibition is likely to come away without feeling in some way transformed.


What: Dan Flavin: A Retrospective

Where: National Gallery of Art, Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., Washington

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays; through Jan. 9

Admission: Free

Call: 202-737-4215

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