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“Dan Flavin: A Retrospective”

Dan Flavin may have been better at naming things than he was at actually making them. Like Marcel Duchamp before him, the New York–born minimalist had a talent for choosing titles that helped transform everyday objects into art-historical touchstones. But whereas Duchamp’s raw materials—an errant snow shovel, a urinal, a postcard of the Mona Lisa—were diverse enough to seem randomly encountered by the artist, Flavin’s medium was strictly limited: fluorescent light tubes in 2-, 4-, 6-, and 8-foot lengths and in 10 different colors, four of which were white. And whereas Duchamp’s open-ended playing with language transformed his works into pun-happy visual tone poems, the associations Flavin’s titles provide are nearly all art-historical, positioning each piece in relation to a specific cultural context.

Take, for example, the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi). Appearing in the first room of the National Gallery of Art’s 143-piece Flavin retrospective, it’s regarded as the artist’s breakthrough work, the first consisting solely of a light fixture: an 8-foot-long yellow fluorescent tube extending upward from the floor along the white gallery wall at a 45-degree angle. The object itself is almost featureless, hardly worth noting save for the odd overlapping green and violet shadows that its strident yellow emanation produces. Indeed, the piece’s aesthetic interest is almost entirely dependent on context—its unusual placement at floor level and in the rarefied atmosphere of an art museum, not to mention its dedicatory title. Without these, this apparently errant piece of electrical hardware would be more a source of curiosity than a work of art.

Yet the title demands that the work be compared with Brancusi’s early-modernist idiom. Anyone who saw the Brancusi retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York this summer might recall his series of incredibly smooth egg-shaped marble sculptures, often bearing barely-there human faces. True, their shape is dissimilar to Flavin’s uninflected diagonal, but the marble in each of these serial ovoids does glow, modeled nearly imperceptibly by the sculptor’s hands. Alien and mysterious, each hovers between obdurate stone presence and demonstration of the virtuoso’s tempered, minimal touch. Brancusi’s act is one of quiet physical mastery of the medium. Flavin’s, by contrast, is a hushed transformation of the space outlying his object, as well as an attempt to place himself in Brancusi’s lineage through language. In both cases, it’s an act of pure positioning.

As curator Jeffrey Weiss makes clear in his preface to the exhibition catalog, Flavin always addressed his work to tradition and posterity. Eight years after his death at the age of 63, it’s hard not to see Flavin, whose career arc took him from vanguard minimalist practitioner to international art-world star, in exactly the continuum he imagined himself in. Weiss specifically notes the connection Flavin forged between his own work and that of Barnett Newman, which he argues “heightens the significance of the National Gallery as a meaningful setting for Flavin’s art.” But the artist connected the dots not only with his immediate artistic forebears, but also with his distant ancestors, addressing Byzantine icon painters’ gold fields of mystical vision as much as Newman’s brightly striped zip paintings.

The former are evoked in the titles of Flavin’s early hybrid works, in which he hadn’t quite given up on conventional modes of craft and presentation. Icon VIII (to Blind Lemon Jefferson) (1962–1963), for example, is a quasi-octagonal Masonite box painted a semigloss yellow that juts about 10 inches from the wall. The corners of its faceted front are topped off with four white ceramic light fixtures, each featuring a round, flashing red bulb. The work hangs at eye level, resembling nothing so much as a castoff prop from the set of Mystery Science Theater 3000. As a marker for the tragic, premature death of a ’20s blues singer, it’s a bit of a misfire. The tone is all irreverent punning and fun with little counterbalancing pathos: a lemon-shaped wooden box—a cheap, surreal coffin, maybe—in which the great man lies blind to the gaudy play of light above him. The piece points to Flavin’s early struggles to hit the right note in his work—somewhere between anti-art absurdity and austere reverence.

Flavin managed to find that note best in slightly later works, such as pink out of a corner (to Jasper Johns) (1963) and his numerous monuments to Russian constructivist Vladimir Tatlin. Pink is a lone 8-foot pink tube, gently humming as it sits nestled deep in a corner of the gallery. It’s a luminous, fleshy come-on, exuding an aura both phallic and feminine. To the extent that it destroys the dark meeting place of two walls, it’s also an attempt to claim unconventional exhibition space—something Tatlin pursued as well. His was a Utopian vision of transforming human consciousness by transforming the language of art, whether by hanging his “counter-reliefs” in corners or by infusing public architecture with some very real dynamism, as in his proposed Monument to the Third International. This structure, designed in 1920, was to be a spiralling, asymmetrical iron framework supporting huge rotating structures of glass; it would ultimately have been twice as tall as the Empire State Building. Although models survive, the project was never actually built. In fact, Tatlin never bothered to work out the engineering that would have made the thing stand.

The futility of Tatlin’s vision finds sympathetic expression in Flavin’s chosen medium. “Monument” for V. Tatlin (1968), one of eight such works that occupy a room of the exhibition together, is a tight grouping of cool-white tubes. Its composition echoes the crisscrossing vertical iron beams of Tatlin’s structure, which would have resembled a roller coaster wound tightly around a skyscraper. But in Flavin’s “monument,” this scheme is reduced to seven simple verticals arranged in a symmetrical step formation. The piece stands at a mere eight feet—half the height of Tatlin’s wooden model. Both its humbled scale and its ghostly luminescence imply failure and distance. Even the insistent use of quotation marks in the title suggests a disconnect. Indeed, this “monument” is as doomed as Tatlin’s own: Diminished and ephemeral, it cannot endure, either as a physical object or as an example of the transformation of commonplace materials into transcendent experience. Bulbs will go out; people will stop looking.

“Monument” is both a resonant memorial for a spiritual comrade and a tart assertion of the nature of artistry. But if Flavin was most sure-footed when commenting on the artist’s power—or powerlessness—he was at his least certain when he tried to amp it up, especially through color. Mind you, he seemed to understand the effects of his works just fine. In untitled (to the real Dan Hill) (1978), blue, green, yellow, and pink bulbs are bundled together and propped up on end, leaning casually in a corner. The yellow and pink bulbs face the wall, projecting a triangle of warm peach gradations. The blue and green bulbs face the viewer, appearing to float and vibrate against a complementary cloud. Flavin transformed the wall space to create a delicate, painterly figure-ground relation, recalling Newman’s streaks of one color vibrating against a uniform ground of another. The irony is that, in bringing this relationship out of the picture plane and into three-dimensional space, Flavin was moving his art backward rather than forward.

As Flavin’s color harmonies got flashier, as in the floor-to-ceiling box structure of untitled (to Barnett Newman to commemorate his simple problem, red, yellow, and blue) (1970), the activation of the wall through color overtakes any thematic concerns. The gee-whiz factor reaches a climax with untitled (1989), a wall-length aggregation of 248 red, white, and blue bulbs. Alone in a room, it generates an ominous low hum and perceptible warmth. The work is apparently so large that there was no room for an art-historical nudge in the title—it really is just untitled, for once. It’s an entirely unnecessary Hollywood-blockbuster version of a Dan Flavin sculpture, pure indulgence and spectacle. Early on, Flavin clearly had a taste for the succinct, nonheroic gesture; it’s disappointing to see his works begin to adopt the grand-scale object-making they originally countered.

Consider untitled (to Jan and Ron Greenberg) (1972–1973), which presents a room, 8 feet tall, bisected by a uniform curtain of 8-foot bulbs—yellow on one side, green on the other. There is a gap in the curtain the width of one light fixture, offering a view of the space beyond. The effect is something like a late Bonnard painting simultaneously depicting vastly different interior and exterior light conditions, each heightened to an absurd degree—except, of course, in the Flavin, it’s an experience reduced to two simple colors. Stand in front of the green side of this piece long enough and the color magically disappears from view, melting away into pure white. If you peek through the gap, the dingy yellow of the other side becomes invigorated with a new warmth. It’s an effective visual trick, but one with all the subtlety of a fun-house mirror.

Strangely, Flavin never seems to have given these sorts of atmospherics any serious consideration in his studies and drawings. In the final room of the exhibition, containing mostly works on paper, hang tiny preparatory sketches from 1968 for several Tatlin “monuments” executed in scratchy ballpoint pen. The pieces as conceived look like odd cuneiform symbols or bundles of sticks; fixture placement is indicated, but nothing else is described. Likewise, drawings for a primary picture (1964) and red and green alternatives (to Sonja) (1964) are essentially tiny ruled colored-pencil lines on black scraps of paper. The action of light doesn’t seem to be under consideration, and the usefulness of these drawings as studies is hard to fathom. On the basis of this room, one can conclude that only the perceptual effects that so dominate the late works must have been worked out entirely in Flavin’s head.

If only they could have stayed there. Flavin’s art is at its best when it is an act of communion with ideas and when its material is simple enough to let those ideas speak. Otherwise, it’s just so much dazzling signage. Above all, Flavin’s task was to understand, commemorate, and initiate dialogue with the art of his peers and forebears; his talent was to do so while striking a balance between present and past, material and immaterial, hope and despair. In the end, however, no matter how much Flavin knew his works would eventually burn out, he forgot all about the darkness.CP