Los Angeles

Dan Flavin

ACE Gallery

Perhaps Dan Flavin is he, but a) he doesn’t call his work sculpture and b) I don’t know that Flavin will ever be anywhere near understood. Not that he hasn’t tried to explain himself; somebody gave me a catalog of the Canadian retrospective Flavin was awarded two years ago, and it’s chock-full of revelations, not the least of which is a whiny, lyrical, confessional autobiography through which Flavin injects, ex post facto, a first novelist’s drama into what appears as a cuddly, crisis-free, middle class upbringing:

"I continued to draw, to doodle somewhat privately in class, in the margins of my textbooks. Now there were battered profiles of bloodied boxers with broken noses and Dido’s pyre on a wall in Carthage, its passionate smoke piercing ‘pious’ Aeneas’ faithless heart outbound in the harbour below.

“Young Father Fogarty, my second year Latin professor, was unimpressed with such demonstrations of talent, especially as they evolved in his class against the daily lesson plan. He often censured, even ridiculed, me. Nevertheless, I acquired a certain personal power with him. When he chastened me, I noticed that he blushed redder than I did.”

In short, Flavin’s fluorescent light pieces, insofar as they’re literary, arise from the manner of early life common to most of us, and their . . . what shall I say . . . weirdness must be entirely adult. That’s a compliment; made-up intellectual art is ultimately better art (if not entertainment) than personal, sweaty, visceral ethnic-funk stuff. Mozart is better than Roy Acuff or Leadbelly. Flavin, according to the catalog, also produced considerable art incredibly typical of a young artist in the time when there were no hippies but lots of beatniks: poems embellished with watercolor late at night, collages with affectionate/enigmatic inscriptions, and the odd figurative notebook drawing. Most of it, if one can judge (if not, why illustrate catalogs?), is hardly precocious; thus, the arrangements of light fixtures aren’t merely the latest refinement of a superlative natural decorative talent. That’s another compliment. Flavin faced the terrible risk that art depends more on coming up with something—God knows how you do it—than on honing down the perfomance of native ability. There is, in this compendium of reproductions, a seeming link between the early Flavin and the maker of two similar light works in Ace Gallery—small, monochrome paintings with bulbs attached—which might make the traversement from object art to peculiarly elusive “proposals” more or less reasonable. For me, however, it’s still a mysterious, fascinating business, and I don’t want to be around when that inevitable graduate student writes the monograph on “Flavin: Object Into Light.”

It’s tempting to say the two pieces are nearly identical. They are physical matches: two vertical eight-foot fluorescent fixtures six feet on either side of a corner; these are crossed by two horizontal equivalents, one on the floor, and the other about two and a half feet higher. All bulbs face inward, to the wall. In the first (facing the wall, at whose ends the things are located) the left-hand vertical bulb glows pink, the right-hand yellow, while the crossbars are blue. In the second, the crossbars are yellow, while the left-hand vertical is pink, the right-hand blue. In other words, the second piece switches the colors of the crossbars and right-hand vertical of the first, and, by examining specific effects maybe we can see why. 1) The vertical members shine their light to the wall perpendicular to the one to which they’re attached i.e., left-hand pink bulb shines pink on right-hand wall of corner; 2) the three-dimensional quality of the corner is obviated, i.e., due to the light and, in small part, to the obscuring of the floor-wall seam by the crossbars, the two walls come together as simultaneous color planes; 3) the above effect is more intense with the blue crossbars than the yellow; 4) the corner-flattening gradually lessens toward the ceiling, as the light returns to “normal” light grays; 5) the horizontal color “spills” onto the white floor; 6) there is a ninety-degree sector “stain” cast on the white ceiling, most intense (yellow) in the first piece, and, most intriguingly, the illumination of the pieces ends, not in dark, but in white. Flavin does quite a bit with very little, and he sticks to his non-technological austerity. It all works out niftily, but Flavin, I suspect, regards himself as anything but a post-Albers superformalist. What the art has to do, however, with that upstate Dear Theo stuff is for sharper minds than mine to figure out.

Peter Plagens