PRINT April 1977

Flavin ‘According to His Lights’

WHEN A CARTOON CHARACTER gets an idea, a glowing lightbulb appears over his head. As such, the lightbulb is an image of intelligence. It illuminates its surroundings (“sheds light on the matter”) and, like intelligence, is meaningless—invisible—unless it has something to “reflect” on. Dan Flavin has referred to his fluorescent light installations as “icons”: some early pieces were titled Icon I, Icon II, Icon III, etc. To wonder, icons of what? or how? does suggest the analogy between light and intelligence. Yet since Flavin’s lights are constantly on, and therefore do not behave like “flashes of inspiration,” we may think, more precisely, of an analogy with the constant and passive form of wakeful intelligence—consciousness.

“My icons do not raise up the Blessed Saviour in elaborate cathedrals. They are constricted concentrations celebrating barren rooms. They bring a limited light.” Thus reads a journal entry from 1962. A “limited light” is artificial light which, unlike sunlight, delivers only part of the natural spectrum. Artificial light selectively emphasizes certain pieces of information (colors) at the expense of others, which extends still further the analogy with intelligence: human intelligence must choose from among all the information (visual, aural, tactile stimuli) constantly fed to it in order to distinguish, and therefore to react to, specific objects and situations.

The symbolic identification of electric light with intelligence or “subject,” and things it illuminates with “object,” is generally simple. In the case of a gallery space illuminated solely by a Flavin piece, the introduction of a viewer—a second “subject” or intelligence—is a complicating factor which begins to suggest that Flavin’s works could even function as “icons” in a religious, as well as a semiotic, sense. Flavin wrote: “I use the word ‘icon’ as descriptive, not of a strictly religious object, but of one that is based on a hierarchical relationship of electric light over, under, against and with a square-fronted structure full of paint ‘light”’ (italics mine). By itself, a light in a room can suggest an individual presence. But an electric light which lights both a room and an individual in that room becomes more like a religious icon in that the radiant light becomes the very means by which all the visual information (knowledge) about the room and the individual in it is revealed. By making the space and the viewer visible, the light in a sense “creates” them. It is the source of all their apparent color and form. It is a condition which precipitates their evident existence, a numinal presence that can even be a direct metaphor for divinity: “I am the light of the world.”

The essential thing about a Flavin piece is not that it presents a discrete formal arrangement of forms and colors, like a painting or a conventional sculpture, but that it lights a room. Hence the obliviousness to formal issues in a remark by Flavin like: “All my systems, even the oldest, seem applicable again and continuously. It is as though the system synonymizes its past, present and future states without incurring a loss of relevance.” Similarly, it is important that Flavin often improvises pieces for particular spaces, or else feels that the spacing of elements in one of his masterpieces like The nominal three (to William of Ockham), of 1963-64, for instance, can be casually varied according to the length of the wall on which it is to be mounted. Finally, the emphasis on the real light also suggests why critics who seem determined to understand Flavin’s work as either painting or as sculpture seem to get it wrong so often. (Sol Lewitt: “I like everything about Dan’s work except the lights.”)

Some of this difficulty may derive from our habit of studying artworks through photographic reproductions. That Flavin’s pieces, in a sense, “refuse” to be photographed is emblematic, I think, of their refusal to be “read” as painting or sculpture. As an object, a Flavin cannot be divorced from the space around it. A photographer wishing to take a picture of one can either set the F-stop to capture the light coming off the fluorescent bulbs, in which case the surrounding walls will be black, or he can take a reading of the light reflected on the walls, in which case the bulbs will “burn” the film and, if they are colored bulbs, appear white. Either way, a photograph can tell only half the story.

This is not to say that Flavin does not sometimes intend his light structures to have significance as particular arrangements of particular colors. His “memorials” to other artists who have recently died are to some extent “portraits” of these men, made by approximating the formal trademarks of their work. Thus a piece from 1970—Untitled (to Barnett Newman to commemorate his simple problem red, yellow and blue)—an arrangement of red, yellow and blue bulbs which was shown at Castelli shortly after Newman’s death, is a tribute to Newman through an evocation of his painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue, which Flavin particularly admired.

Two pieces in a recent show at Heiner Friedrich—Untitled (in memory of Josef Albers) and Untitled (in memory of “Sandy” Calder)—refer in the same way to respective formal characteristics of the two men’s work. The Calder piece evokes Calder’s red, yellow and blue color schemes and a certain acrobatic playfulness in the way the two-foot red bulb centered on top of the four-foot yellow bulb seems to balance precariously on the extreme left end of the double eight-foot blue bulbs. The Albers piece is a little more complex, seeming to evoke the “Homage to the Square” series with eight-foot-long pink and green bulbs, on the top of which are centered two four-foot blue bulbs and on which in turn are centered a two-foot pink (over the bulb on top of the green) and a two-foot green bulb (over the bulb on top of the pink one). The piece throws a pink/within blue/within green glow on the wall about the bulbs on the left side, and a green/within blue/within pink glow on the right. Thus the two halves manage to imply three sides of three concentric rectangles each, with the different lengths and orientation of the pink and green elements influencing the nature of the blue element—making it seem redder on one side and greener on the other the way the relative placement of the same three colors in an Albers painting can alter our perception of the individual colors involved. That these are works made of actual light, however, makes them particularly effective as memorials. They seem to literalize the power of art to radiate intelligence and joy.

Flavin has recently accepted a commission for a public piece on certain of the train platforms in Grand Central Station. Although at this writing only one of three proposed installations is as yet in place—and that not yet in its final state—a visit to Tracks 39 and 40 gives an idea how a Flavin can “celebrate” space that, unlike a loft or gallery, is neither “barren and white” nor even simply rectangular. Can Flavin improve on his predecessors from the ’30s, of whom he wrote: “One would think that the old Works Progress Administration with its programs of outsized tasks for indigent artists had rendered monumental sculpture and murals an American absurdity nearly 30 years ago. Just about every artist who tried, flubbed at public sentiment and scale.” The scale of the Grand Central piece is certainly public: the work is well over 100 yards long. But the sentiment is public only insofar as the piece is installed in, and seems to be about, a public environment. Mounted on top of a long row of double eight-foot, high-output daylight fluorescent bulbs (which could be standard Grand Central platform lighting, although Flavin’s intention is to have them blue), are a four-foot bulb of an aggressive yellow color beside one of salmon pink, both facing the ceiling, They are the only color in the whole cavernous space except for the blue striping on the commuter trains. The lights cause the rusty pipes directly above them to throw pairs of unwholesome shadows—a sort of bruise-violet beside a rancid yellow—on the moldy concrete ceiling for the length of the platform. And they begin to point up various shades of (unpleasant) colors in the rest of the vast concrete space and on the concrete platform itself. All this creates, in a space that thousands of suburbanites hustle back and forth through every day, a sense of decay and despair. The substitution of blue for white bulbs as the main lighting may leaven the atmosphere, but will more likely make the commuters look unearthly and the tunnel like a warm tube.

Flavin’s work with light, an icon of (divine or human) intelligence, has been producing art of stunning impact for 15 years. Capping the modernist strategy of making new art by subtracting from content groups of signifiers with work whose content—light—is in a sense both the most elemental and universal signifier of all, Flavin has managed at the same time to recall the ancient tradition of icon painting where the body or form of the divine spirit is suggested with a universal and, transcendental symbol, and where a gilt ground can seem to locate a figure in a detached and nonspecific luminosity. That his work sometimes uses specific arrangements of color elements to refer to other art (as in the Memorials) does not mean that his work is ever merely self-referential, or is only about other art, even though other art does help us to accept as an artistic statement the austerity of a gesture like mounting a single eight-foot fluorescent lamp on the wall at a 45-degree angle. It is always more (and less) than that. A description by one of his early supporters, Marcel Duchamp, will serve as benediction: “ . . . a liquid elemental scattering, seeking no direction, a scattered suspension . . . vapor of inertia, but keeping its liquid center through instinct for cohesion (the only manifestation of the individuality [so reduced!!]) of the illuminating gas in its habitual games with conventional surroundings.”

Ross Skoggard