Los Angeles

Dan Flavin

Nicholas Wilder Gallery

Dan Flavin’s first West Coast presentation at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery has given him the opportunity to fulfill his wish to execute an all-white show. His art is the deployment of fluorescent tubing (cool white in this case) in various configurations which he carefully terms “image-objects.” To judge from the successful installation, his art is easily situational or environmental; at its conception he relates a compositional idea to its specific exhibition site. At the same time each piece is clear enough to maintain its individual integrity.

The fluorescent tube is a factual medium and its use as art has its ancestry in Duchamp’s assisted ready-mades and may be related to New Realist and Pop manifestations in the utilization of contemporary processes and materials. A general direction may be found in the attachment of actual objects to a canvas by Johns and Rauschenberg. Flavin’s mira, mira (1960) underlines the found object as the explicit subject of admiration and attention. Specifically the iconography of a light source as subject matter of recent sculptural usage first appears in Johns’s Light Bulbs and Flashlights (1958 through 1961) when he cut down the hanging single source Edison bulb and pedestaled the pinpoint-rayed hand torch. Johns presided at their fossilization (under Sculpmetal and plaster) and their final entombment (in bronze). Flavin presents their resurrected, hallucinatory, many-times-expanded spirit.

Early works by Flavin as icon 1 and Coran’s Broadway Flesh are relatively small sized, single colored works to which a tube or lights are insolubly wedded. They bear a striking compositional resemblance (of square format with attached objects) to the relationships found in Johns’s pioneering Target with Four Faces or Large Target Construction (1955). But as Flavin has recorded, these works “did not hold an appropriate clue for me about this beginning.” For Johns operates between the concept and the act, Flavin between the cleverly simple mode of Duchamp and his Bicycle Wheel and the “pure feeling“ of Malevich’s White on White.

Our familiarity with the medium obscures the fundamental appearance of the tubes in contemporary usage. They are usually placed well above eye level, screened from view, and diffused by shades and baffles. Unless balanced by warms they are peculiarly icy and sterile for all their purity, and are usually grouped to produce an evenness for mass consumption. Once accustomed to the hygienic shadow-less glare, the source is ignored and calls attention to itself with flickers and drones when about to cease. Flavin has counteracted every single one of these normal conditions. He moves single or a limited number of lengths out into the immediate field of vision as a conscious active agent. Creating epigrammatic diagrams of such brevity, he causes a one-to-one viewer-object relationship. Though he denies metaphysical interest in light, there is no doubt as to his creation of visual excitation, objects of contemplation, and succinct symbols. Despite the concreteness of the material, and the geometric nature of its manipulation, it is difficult to avoid conjuring up a list of past representations of artificial and natural lights: from haloes, gold backgrounds, the radiant Christ Child, Pentecostal flames, the searching glare of the spotlight of Caravaggio and Rembrandt, the candles and lamps appearing in tenebrist paintings, down to the sun’s radiance dissolving Impressionism into a science of plasticity. The reference consistently points to the power of light to reveal and expose (and therefore hide by the consequent strength of shadows, to commemorate an ideal of perfection, and to signify holiness, the supernatural, divinity, and the realm of spirituality).

A single tube and its white enamel pan against a wall present a describably complex series of light and dark modulations. The light is thrown directly outward at the viewer and though low in wattage the tube is luminous enough at first sight to appear startling, and continuous viewing refuses to comfortably accommodate the light. Retinal fatigue also causes the brilliance to alternate with a dark spotting effect. The core length is clearly bright, but shades duller at the turning sides. Reflected light on the pan is high behind the tube and shades out to a halftone. The sides of the pan are dark and cast a primary shadow on the wall. The wall is then lit and shades out to the general tone of the room. Seen obliquely the tube is duller than seen straight on. This suggests a new sort of frontality; not in order necessarily to experience the complete configuration, but to view the full effect of the light and color. The increasing and diminishing degree of illumination level adds drama to experiencing the works from several points of view, more acutely when moving past, beneath, or within them.

The structuring of the compositions is ambiguous in the sense of appearing to float in space (in actuality screwed into the walls) and of being simply laid side by side, end to end, and resting for support upon one another. Structured invention and effects of gravity are both observed. A tube is never projected unsupported out into space; Flavin’s work is never free-standing for it depends on the picture plane reference of horizontals and verticals of the wall. The units are not permanently fixed yet are self contained and self-sufficient.

The tubes are made to function in unusual locations, as in the corners of rooms. Only Robert Morris’s 1964 untitled pyramid and a series of relief constructions by Vladimir Tatlin come to mind immediately as influential works operating in these zones.

References to the iconic format are found in two new works in the current show, but only to the extent that the tubes are arrayed in enframing formations. The first, a variant of a primary picture (1964) is a condensed 2’ x 4’ rectangular arrangement, open ended in a corner. It has a particularly hermetic character, an emphatic density, due to its small and thickish appearance. It is most rigid and heavy, the double two-foot verticals are purposefully redundant. The other square is constructed across a corner and the level of intensity is great enough so that the reflected light wipes away the normal halftones and creates an expansive and brilliant void, dissolving the corner, bracketed by the tube sources. This is the most marvelously spectacular illusion. Because of its size, shape, and distance from the floor one could almost suspect that it could be dedicated to a David Smith Cubi.

A pair of long lengths are bracketed vertically in a corner. They are reticent guardians, shyest of the wallflowers, whose aura makes a pretense at expansiveness. Another pair, made precisely to accommodate an odd nook are placed horizontally end to end. The one on the wall is seen first, the second across the space in the corner appears as a surprise. Still another pair occupy a corner above head height. Both are horizontal, the shorter against the wall in the corner, its partner immediately above it across the space. This pair is the most spatially illusory as one changes one’s point of view. An oblique archway, it also invites passage beneath and within it.

Finally the most complex piece employs a repetition of three directions (a horizontal, a shorter vertical, and a diagonal) joined in three linkings. The most spatially inclusive and dimensional, its phasing demands passage by it, and most enjoyably into its low alcoves. The most skeletal, only the radiance weights its unemphasized extensions.

Flavin’s lights share with the best of recent American painting a clarity and mastery of directness that belies the obviousness of its means. Like the proverbial winning cards exposed on the table, this work extends the capabilities of a familiar medium miraculously.

Fidel A. Danieli