New York

Dan Flavin

Multiple Galleries

A major new realm, vast and stunningly beautiful, is opening in art. It is the art of light, of radiance, literally of glory. Till very recently, it was practiced largely by prisms, Roman candles, and saints. Now artists have begun to practice it too. Dan Flavin has been a pioneer. His first pieces using lights date from 1963. Earlier this month the New York art world saluted Flavin on a scale which surpasses its celebration of any other American artist since World War II, including Pollock and de Kooning. Five exhibitions of Flavin’s work ran simultaneously, including an important retrospective (previously seen in Ottawa) at the Jewish Museum. The Metropolitan’s “1940–70” and the Museum of Modern Art’s “Spaces” shows each gave Flavin a full room; the Dwan and Castelli Galleries each gave him several. So Flavin, earlier this month, achieved all that the New York art world has to bestow—temporary majesty.

Flavin is revolutionary in that he is the first high- (as opposed to vernacular) art artist to make a source of light his working material. There have been a few exceptions, such as stained glass windows and chandelier tear-dropping/prism-ing, but generally the materials of fine arts till now have been restricted to surfaces like canvas, bronze, and marble, which receive light instead of emitting it. To be a “master of light” meant, till Flavin, light depicted, e.g. De la Tour, Rembrandt, Monet, or of the play of natural light and shadow, as in the deep eaves of Frank Lloyd Wright’s hailed Robie House (1909) or in the deep colonnade of Etienne Boullée’s visionary temple facade.

It is only since Dada, and till recently only in a marginal way, that mirrors, which show light its own image, have been accepted as a “legitimate” material in high art. (For a particularly fine recent example, see Robert Smithson’s “Flash” poster for the Jewish Museum.) And now the time for the legitimation of artificial light—both the appliance and the radiance—has arrived.

Widening one’s conception of art from surface alone to include light as an aspect of art isn’t something done casually. When I first saw Flavins, convinced that what was important was the surface of his art, I studied his lamps as objects. For example, diligent in looking at daylight and cool white (to Sol Lewitt, 1964), a piece using four very bright, closely-set parallel fluorescent tubes, I thought hard about “Flavin as an electric color-band painter,” and counted nineteen parallel bands in the “composition” of the tubes (first bulb, reflection of next bulb on first bulb, mounting, reflection of first bulb on next bulb, next bulb, etc., all brilliantly lit). That night, for my bull-headedly traditional efforts I suffered a terrible headache. Except possibly as needlessly masochist pain trips, brighter Flavins are not about surface—at least not the surfaces of the light source itself.

Instead, they are about radiance itself, and its many moods. This is a great jump from art as immediate surface, but there are stepping-stones. One of these is Flavin’s artful use of reflections. On a wall at the entrance to the Jewish Museum show, Flavin deliberately set up a long fluorescent diagonal in such a way that along with its own reflection in the tile floor, the piece became a large “V” visually inviting the spectator into the show. Throughout the various shows, floor and even ceiling reflections abound—so much so that it becomes clear that installing a Flavin in a carpeted room may literally mean eclipsing one third of the piece. But important as the stepping-stones are (another is the halo), what is most important is the whole journey—each of the fluorescent pieces experienced as a situation, an environment, impromptu architecture, a stage. The white, bright monuments for V. Tatlin 1964–69 at Castelli cast a harsher mood; but the color pieces at Dwan make their spaces lush, lyrical, intimate. Watching a gallery of Flavins come on, light up, is a breathtaking show, a genuine electric circus; the pieces burst into life, seizing the space around them like giant instant dyes. Mr. Russell Woeltz has suggested that a Flavin show calls for cameras, still and movie, to take shots not just of the lamps themselves but of the people and objects they can so strikingly dramatize.

If every light has a mood, the mood of white light is rigidly vacuous. True, incandescent white is a little warmer than fluorescent, but generally puritan sterility is the norm—in public places, in homes, in offices—an almost universal asceticism, strange when such abundant beauty is within easy reach. The notion of Flavins as proxy suns is more than just gaudy metaphor. If “ecology” can refer to our everyday urban experience as much as to distant wilderness, then electric light is as crucial a man-made resource as water and sunlight are natural ones. We all spend a large part of our waking lives in light conditions which Flavin’s mastery of the genre now reveals to be sterile and ugly. Flavin himself is in the best possible position to dramatize this fact. (“For myself, I would not resist ‘public service.’”)

What if Flavin applied his light artistry to the lighting of important public spaces—for example Grand Central Station’s vast Information Hall? Once famed for its starred canopy, the hall is now so lavishly encrudded with electric ads that the ceiling is nearly invisible; the ads desecrate an official public landmark. Given the practical authority, Flavin could recast the hall in terms as lyrical or noble as he chose, even programming many or changing moods in which to bring back the stars.

If Flavin the Sun-King of Grand Central sounds appealing, imagine Flavin king of our avenues, bedrooms, classrooms, and offices—no temporary art-world luminary, but his basic insight immortalized by constant use. This would be permanent—not merely temporary—majesty, perhaps even enshrined in the language. Till now Flavin has made capital-F Flavins with lamps bought direct from commercial suppliers; he has made no secret of this. In the future, perhaps people by the thousands, as well as public authorities, might install and enjoy small-f “flavins” bought from the same source. Flavin’s lamps are found objects of a rare kind in art—manufactured, generally available, and, given the richness of light and mood they yield, not expensive. Flavin is in a unique position to use his high-art status to further the ecology of all our eyes, thus helping to start a genuinely democratic art of the rainbow.

Jean-Louis Bourgeois