Using inexpensive, standard-sized fluorescent lamps, fixtures and wiring, Dan Flavin fills large rooms with tremendous energy. Some of the 50 objects and installations on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s current retrospective are unbearably intense, some are seductive, and some are antagonistic. Radical in conception and execution, the light pieces hover between sculpture and drawing. Indeed, in many cases Flavin thinks like a draftsman -- its just that his lines are not marks, but three-dimensional shapes in space that radiate light and color; they exist only so long as his characteristic fluorescent lamps function and receive electric power. These lines are most effective when they have an entire space to command and can stake their claim to it by their reflections on the floor, walls and ceiling.
But can’t anyone fabricate a "Flavin" simply by visiting a hardware store, assembling fluorescent fixtures, mounting them on a wall or leaning them in a corner and flipping a switch? When he was alive, the artist issued certificates to collectors, attesting that the piece they purchased had come from his studio. But the MCA puts on abundant display the kind of craft that goes into this seemingly guileless art: Flavin was basically a draftsman in light, who planned out his work on paper, giving close attention to scale, proportion, color and composition. Through constant experimentation, he learned how to cull powerful effects from lamps that were only available in a limited number of standardized lengths, colors and diameters. After making his first light sculptures, Flavin never worked in any other way. Eventually, he acquired such mastery that he could plan a piece after a brief visit to the space and have assistants install it for him.
Critics called Flavin a Minimalist -- he detested the term -- and grouped him with Sol Le Witt and Donald Judd, who were both personal friends. But Le Witt and Judd put this writer to sleep, while Flavin invigorates. Unlike their work, his work is rich, layered and esthetically exciting, with lines of pure color; chaste, sophisticated compositions; a variety of figure/ground relationships; push/pull; and spatial effects that he creates by installing modules in series. And yet Flavin created these richly textured effects without any traces of the human hand, paint or pigment, bravura technique, progression, references beyond the work itself (except in the titles) or any sense of transcendence. "[My work] is what it is," the artist once said, "and it ain’t anything else."
At the Show
Before Flavin began working with light, he made masses of drawings, more than 100 of which accompany the MCA show. Once, when he showed some of them to a fellow artist, he was advised to become an art historian. Based on the drawings on display here -- there are far, far too many of them -- this was sound advice. Fortunately he moved on, and in 1961 and 1962, Flavin constructed and painted wooden wall-hung boxes, mounted lights on them and called them "Icons," because their form suggested holy images in Catholic churches.
Icon VII (via crucis), a black box with a fluorescent lamp mounted diagonally across its corner, was a first step into light sculpture. In 1963, Flavin fled the frame and mounted colored fluorescent fixtures directly on the wall as in the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi). Then he abandoned the wall entirely in pink out of a corner (to Jasper Johns), a fluorescent fixture that stands in a corner.
Flavin’s breakthrough year was 1964. He began to put lines of colored light on the wall as in red and green alternatives (to Sonja), and experimented with fluorescent tube (i.e., line) lengths, assemblage, and color. He made several "Homages" to Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. These are vertical white light "drawings" (or sculptures) that suggest the shape of a tall building. The most radical "Homage" is monument for V. Tatlin, two diagonal forms that look like an open letter L leaning backward.
Flavin also explored colored auras, which he created by varying the arrangement of fluorescent tubes. monument 4 for those who have been killed in ambush (to P.K. who reminded me about death) is one of the most intense pieces in the retrospective. It is composed of four eight-foot-long red fluorescent tubes mounted in the corner of a room. There is one on either side of the intersection of the walls. A third bulb forms a diagonal between the first two and the fourth is mounted so it points at the viewer. The color, the composition and, of course, the menacing red glow around this piece make it seem aggressive.
Flavin got a dramatically different effect in untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3 (1977), a grid of 8-ft. colored bulbs mounted in a corner with some facing the viewer and some facing away. The entire piece creates a gorgeous multi-colored aura in the corner of the room -- red, yellow, blue, purple and more -- but the grid prevents viewers from entering this seductive world. Flavin draws us in, then pushes us away.
The most absorbing and challenging piece in the show is untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection) (1973). This is an entire wall made of 4 x 4 foot modular units furnished with green fluorescent lights and installed in front of a large window that looks out on the Chicago skyline. Intense and beautiful with its green glow, this piece commands the entire space around it, thus preventing viewers from approaching the window -- juxtaposing the immateriality of its halo with the physical reality of its material support.
The Dan Flavin Experience
Traversing this massive retrospective of Dan Flavin’s career, if there is a single theme to all his work, it is clear: NO TRESPASSING. Repeatedly, Flavin draws viewers in, then drives them off, prevents them from entering a space, or attacks them with light. Some of his pieces are so bright that we cannot possibly live with them. Where does this seemingly conflicted relationship with his audience come from?
An "artist’s artist," Flavin came from a modest background, never graduated from college or art school, and was chronically insecure. To protect himself and avoid explaining how he conceived of his light works, he created narrative distractions. He gave his light sculptures literary titles, dedicating many to people he admired like Brancusi, or to friends like Judd, but there was no connection between the work and its title. He seemed to feel a need to do this -- and at the same time to tell the world at epic length that he, like James Joyce, had been raised in a narrow Roman Catholic household, but had rebelled and left the Church.
He rejected his past but could not leave it alone. He denounced art critics, but heavily edited the catalogues of his shows and insisted upon exhibiting and documenting his juvenilia. He even produced a whining Autobiography, with tales of the cruelty of his mother (she destroyed his childhood drawings) and nuns (who disciplined him in school), which Artforum published in 1965. It is this simultaneous attraction and repulsion to satisfying his audience’s desire to see the artist’s personality put on display that underlies the sometimes unwelcoming mien of this otherwise lovely, affirmative work.
But in the end, Flavin came full circle with regard to these spiritual and social themes. He never lived to see one of his most beautiful and welcoming projects -- to illuminate an Italian church.
"Dan Flavin: A Retrospective," July 2-Oct. 30, 2005, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 220 East Chicago Ave., Chicago, Illinois 60611
VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.