New York

Dan Flavin

Kornblee Gallery

Once again Dan Flavin presents his unsentimental bars of fluorescence at the Kornblee Gallery. This year the whole show is green. All of the paired, eight-foot-long rods of light are set at diagonals onto the walls, extending from baseboards to door frames, moldings or corner angles. One is almost put off by the sheer intensity of the emerald glow when entering the room, but once inside, the color fades to an eerie pallor. The unrelenting light bleaches out shadows, dissolving even the silhouette of the glass tubes which contain it. Perhaps the most unintentionally dramatic effect is induced by this insistent green aura within the gallery: After a while, it can become a normality, making daylight or incandescence appear a startlingly unreal pink/magenta in contrast.

Nevertheless, Flavin’s yearly variations in color and placement—part of his a-historical “proposal” to shift emphases only slightly—seem to have become a dry exercise in technicalities by now. Although the initial impact of the green light does alter one’s orientation to reality, the situation of the tilted light rods does not seem to affect actual space very radically (such as the flattening out of the angle, in installations where one tube occupied a corner). Other than the obvious use of the walls and room as an objectified field for the disposition of the tubes, there is not much spatial interest generated. Perhaps the simple frontal assault of linear sequences is all that is intended this time. Flavin, however, seems to have reached a stalemate here. If this present installation does really challenge accepted ways of seeing and perceiving, it is not particularly distinguished in doing so.

I am not convinced that what has been considered Flavin’s “radicality”—the conceptual limit to which he pushes art-making, rather than the mass-produced form he uses to em-body his interpretation of the process—does constitute an altogether significant esthetic innovation. I see Flavin’s wholesale espousal of a commonplace commercial object—although he claims that it is “just another instrument” to be used as a vehicle for his sensibility—as a rather curiously passive acceptance of an available system. The question arises, whether or not this use of technical material truly does coincide with, or support Flavin’s disavowal of fantasy or metaphysical allusion. In terms of visual phenomenon, the colored light set-up is, happily, not devoid of at least a nominal amount of “illusionism” or metaphoric connotation. The barely altered, ready-made light strips certainly do, however, sustain his disbelief in the need for “toil” to create art; but for all the optical rigors we are put to, the esthetic rewards of Flavin’s demonstrations have become, unfortunately, as slight as his creative activities.

It is strange, with all the talk of a new “literalist” sensibility, few have suggested that although the actual formal results of such thinking may be appealing, the mentality represented bears some rather unsettling, even threatening implications. This is not to denigrate the whole movement towards literalness (there is a world of difference, for example, between the subtle craft in one of Larry Bell’s mirror boxes, and Flavin’s light tubes) but simply to point out the weakness in Flavin’s brand of this feeling about reality. In effect, it asks us to go beyond the mere use of industrial items and materials as the artist’s tools, to condition ourselves to the “beauty” or pure objective “reality” of the mechanized. It is a kind of “1984” passivity, a lyricizing of basically uninventive, unprofound forms. Besides, where did Flavin get the idea that fluorescent tubes are real (more so than paint and canvas) just because they have become a common part of our environmental reality? He has himself pointed to a future condition of “no-art,” but at a time like the present, this attitude and its assumptions should be questioned and countered, rather than simply encouraged as a wholly valid new convention or direction.

Emily Wasserman